On The Practice of Practicing

Back in 2013 I set myself a goal of writing 1000 words weekly. There were actually several goals that I had in mind, but an additional goal was to see if doing something weekly would result in a habit. This has not been the case.

My thinking was, and this was certainly aided by common beliefs, that anything one does as a habit will come more easily than something that requires discipline. However, my experience doesn’t align with that. The practice of writing regularly (removing the requirement to do it weekly) remains just that: something I practice.

In 2013, because I set the goal and executed it, I produced 52 postings of 1000 words or more for a total of 87 thousand works.

In 2014, with no discipline in place and no publicly stated goal, I only produced 14 thousand words roughly monthly.

In 2015, here late in the month of April, I’m only writing my fourth posting and this word: frabjous is the 4286th word that I’ve written here this year.

What to take away from this?

Well, the most obvious is that a good, publicly stated goal is easier to accomplish than a private one. I do think holding myself accountable and saying it out loud (relatively speaking, in this space) resulted in more discipline than I would have had otherwise.

I think it’s bunk to say “If you do a thing N times, it’ll become a habit”. This is no more true for brushing your teeth than it is for exercising or writing regularly. I have a habit of drinking a chai tea I make at home on Monday and Thursday mornings. That’s a habit. I shave on twice a week unless there’s a special event. That’s a habit.
I suspect I have more bad habits than good habits. I have things that I want to do more that I wish were habits, but are not. Flossing, for example. I should floss daily. Many dental professionals have told me this and I refuse to make it a daily habit. I have, in the past, made the effort to floss daily, often a month or so before a dental exam in hopes of avoiding the finger wagging when they poke at my gums. But as soon as that’s past, I fall right back in to my irregular flossings.

It seems to me that very often things that we call habits are things that we should do or wish we did more regularly, but often we don’t.

Like writing or practicing a musical instrument, habits seem like things we wish we did more, if we would only put in the work. We wish we would make it a practice that takes priority over the other bright and shiny objects that fill our lives and serve to suck up our time.

I imagine the goal is to figure out how to balance between the things we want to do, the fun things, the things that give us that burst of pleasure in the moment and those things we should do, often because those things that we should do are not about gratification now, rather they are about deferred gratification.

If I floss, if I work out, if I practice an instrument, if I prep the garden, if I write regularly, if I do any of this or a huge list of other things I could and probably should do, I often get little immediate gratification from those actions. But, I’m doing it to keep my teeth longer, I’ll live longer, I’ll eventually be able play a song, I’ll eat food that I’ve grown, I’ll not cringe at my writing. Not today, necessarily, but eventually.

I think our monkey brains which are often and largely faced with operating in the short term and are not particularly well evolved to do things for later, lacking immediate gratification, deferring the gratification till another day. Maybe it’s a consequence of evolution and where our hunter/gatherer brains have evolved to focus on not starving today rather than planning for not starving in the winter, maybe it’s the thin veil of modernity that sits atop our animal brains. I don’t know, but I know I struggle with it.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to try and fight the fight. I’ll continue the Practice of Practicing when I can and when the long terms benefits portion of my brain can overpower the monkey brain or the lizard brain that sits below and demands what it wants NOW, screw the consequences, screw the future. It’s a good fight, but I imagine it’s not one you win. It’s a holding action. Sometimes my brain will be more disciplined and other times I’m going to sit on the couch and watch Daredevil. That’s life!

Note
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Media Consumption

Media Consumption

I’ve already predicted the end of newspapers as we know them. I think media is fracturing in to a myriad of niche sources which often cater to the lowest identifiable common denominator in an attempt to grow an audience. What does this mean to me, to others of my generation and to people in general? I’ve been thinking about this lately.

Before the media landscape began to fracture, call it the early 80s, though cable television goes back to the 40s and 50s in the US, you could count the major sources for news on one hand. There were the major networks on television and newspapers and perhaps some magazines. The first was free, the second was low cost and the third was not very expensive. They represent what most people had access to for news of the day. They were the font at which America sated it’s thirst for knowledge about the world and what was going on.

I imagine there was conversation about which channel was “best” or had the more believable anchors. Certainly there were conversations about which papers had the best news coverage, but for most of the United States, it was a limited set of options.

As a result, there was a common set of knowledge that one could count on. If someone said something on Carson or if Walter Cronkite covered a story, a large number of people could be counted on having heard it. Where folks hadn’t heard it, they could catch up around lunch or the water cooler the next day.

Let’s take an example of an “event” from the early 80s, the finale episode of M*A*S*H which had a record-breaking 125 million viewers (60.2 Rating and 77 Share). This means that on average 60 percent of all TVs were on and 77 percent of households watching TV were tuned into that program during the time slot. To this day, there’s not much that touches that aside from an occasionally really good SuperBowl (Go Seahawks!)

Certainly folks are watching television. The current average per person per day is five hours of television. Let’s hit pause on that notion for a moment. Let’s say an average of 10 hours goes to work between prep for work, travel to work and work. Add in an average of eight hours of sleep and five hours of television. Using my advanced maths, that’s 23 hours out of 24 hours available, or only a sole, lonely hour on a given work day for not-sleeping, not-working and not-television watching. Wow.

Anyway, folks are watching, but they can now choose from far more than the original ABC/CBS/NBC. Viewership is fractured across hundreds of stations, many of which are created to serve a particular niche from comedy to science fiction to sports to reality television and, because there is so much to choose from, it means increasingly small numbers per given show.

Back in the early 80s, if you referenced something from that episode of M*A*S*H, you had roughly a 2 in 3 chance of someone knowing what you referred to. Contrast that with television today and if you reference a “sheepsquatch” (yes, this is a thing), the only way you’re going to know about it is if you happened to have seen a particular episode of a particular show which happens to be very loosely termed “reality television”. According to the data, a few hundred thousand people watched this show. So, unless you are part of that group, you have no idea what the context is should someone use “sheepsquatch” in a sentence. Some would feel left out of that conversation, many more would be happy to be ignorant. But, that’s not the point. The point is that smaller and smaller groups share a common cultural reference point.

I find this continues in to how I consume news. My news sources are largely limited to consuming RSS feeds in my favorite news reading software (Feedly) on my desktop or my tablet. With this tool I control what I see, when I see it and whether or not I choose to consume it in detail. I have effectively self-selected my news, my sources and what I’m exposed to. I’ve done this largely because I can and because it allows me to increase the odds of seeing things I’m interested in.

While I like the control this gives me, I suspect it leaves me underexposed in many areas. World affairs and international politics are two areas I am under-educated about, in part because I don’t choose to spend my time on those areas.

In “the old days” where folks would sit on the couch and were forced to watch the nightly newscast in serial order (with commercials!), they were exposed to what was chosen for them, but they also heard about things they would likely not have selected. So, upsides and downsides.

Today, if I choose to record it and if I choose to watch it and if I choose to watch that particular story, I might learn about it, else it goes by and I remain ignorant. And don’t get me started on commercials. I haven’t watched a commercial on purpose since the advent of the DVR and the 30-second skip. In that regard I am not a good consumer because whether it’s cable or one of the national broadcasters, I am NOT sitting through a commercial if I don’t have to.

As a result of all of this, I find two notable things:

  1. I worry about the effect of my self-selected news sources on my ability to understand what’s going on in the world. I wish I had a better way to get exposed to high quality sources of information, even and especially ones that differ in opinion from my own.
  2. I am increasingly unaware of a large number of people in pop culture. This is not a huge loss, I know, but it does serve to magnify the sense that I’m getting old as I hear names of people I don’t know and don’t know why they are (according to someone) important or why I should care. It’s either not my music or it’s not my kind of show (most all reality television) or it’s simply not something I choose to care about.

I fear that these two things, in combination, are what tends to make one start to feel as if the world is passing them by and they are (or I am) increasingly decoupled from the popular zeitgeist.

I’d love to hear from anyone with some thoughts on how they educate themselves, how they consume news and whether they are concerned about doing it in a way which is balanced and includes sources that may disagree with their views. It seems like the goals should be to try and stay informed and not just surround ourselves with self-selected sources which agree with us because that’s all we choose to listen to with what we perceive to be our limited amount of free time.

How Do You Make a Career?

According to the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average number of jobs held by an adult of my age (more or less) between 18 and 46 is 11. A bit less for women, a bit more for men. As a result, I decided to write down my own job history since 18 to get a feel for how I compared to the average.

To my surprise, because my gut wanted it to be less, I’m pretty much right on the national average at this point in my career. I am left wondering how the number shifts post 46 (or 48) but I couldn’t find good data.

For the sake of the conversation, here is my work history:

Jobs:

  • K-Mart (College) : 2 yrs : College job
  • Temp Agency Tech Worker (pre-LAI) : Six months : post-college job
  • Logic Automation/Logic Modeling/Synopsys : 10 years : Longest held job
  • Eagle Design Automation : 3 Years : Startup! Responsible for my largest salary bump and favorite years of work
  • Synopsys : 2 Years : Eagle got acquired by Synopsys
  • Mentor Graphics CAE : 1 Year : Time for a change
  • Synopsys Manager : 2 Years : Got offered my first opportunity to manage
  • Synopsys CAE : 2 Years : Time for a change
  • Ambric : 2 Years : Startup!
  • Rentrak : 3 months : Not a good match, but I needed a job during the 2008-2009 recession
  • Flashlight : 2 Years : New career field (cable), but the work didn’t last
  • VMWare/Pivotal : 2 Years : Current gig

The years are off a bit because they don’t quite add up, but it’s not worth going in and shaving months off. For the purposes of this effort, it’s close enough.

It seems like after that many jobs, I ought to be able to extract some “truths” or at least things that are and were true for me as I moved through my career.

Choose Passion over Money, but Money Doesn’t Hurt

First off, I was fortunate enough to choose a career (software engineering) that I was passionate about. During my high school years, I was obsessed with software to the exclusion of a healthy social life. But, I could understand software and girls were simply a mystery beyond my understanding. Mostly still are. As a result, I got in to a career where I was truly excited to get up in the morning and work. I was invested, both emotionally and intellectually. You can’t beat that for a winning combination when starting your career. As a side benefit, working in the private sector meant my salary was good, which was important to me as, by that time, I was working to support a family. So, if you have to choose, go with your passion. But, if you can choose to cover both passion and a salary that allows you to provide, then that’s probably the right call.

Do Regular Checkins with Yourself

This is a big one for me. I believe strongly in checking in with yourself every two or three years to assess how you feel about what you’re doing. This is important to evaluate whether your priorities have changes, whether your needs have changed and whether you are still happy doing what you are doing.

I found that I typically spent 2-3 years getting on top of doing a given job before I feel like I’ve become good at it. After that, I start to look for additional challenges, either by growing within my job or by starting to look for a new job or new challenge. My history tells me this starts with a self-evaluation followed by a determination of whether I’m happy doing what I’m doing. If I’m not as happy or not as challenged as I want to be, there will be a search for opportunities or growth within my company because, typically, I like the people I work with so it’s an issue of wanting to be challenged professionally.

As a side note: Boredom is never a good thing and a state of professional boredom is something to be determined as quickly as possible and addressed because everyone suffers and it’s no one’s job but yours to identify and address this issue.

Realize That The Answers May Be Elsewhere

Two times in my career I left a large company, in my case Synopsys both times, to go join a startup. This was due to two factors being true:

  1. Professional Opportunity
  2. Irritation at the restrictions of being part of a large company

The first is natural and happens in cycles in all careers. The second is a personal thing. Quite simply I found myself feeling like such a small part of a large behemoth that I felt like my contributions or ability to influence were so diluted that, in the end, I was just a cog. I didn’t matter. When those two things lined up – Opportunity and a desire to play a more direct role in the success of my company – that’s when startups start looking good.

Don’t Fear the Startup

Depending on the source, startups are “successful” something on the order or 1 time in 10 or 1 in 20. Successful might be defined as “the stock I was offered became worth the lost opportunity cost I paid for leaving my last job”. In my case I’ve been fortunate that of the (actually) three startups I joined, two of them were successful.

My current job at Pivotal is a startup in the sense that there is a stock opportunity and it’s clear that we need to deliver on the investment made in us by our parent companies, but in some very important ways it’s less a startup because we have competitive salaries and benefits. Additionally, at well over 1500 employees, the size would bely any attempt to label it a classic startup.

But, startups are a risk. Often they involve taking pay cuts in trade for equity (stock) and often they don’t pay off. It is a gamble and making a choice to join a startup, assuming the choice is between the stability of a larger company versus the unknown of the startup, can be fraught with stress.

If I look at it another way, though, three startups out of 12 jobs is only 25% of the total jobs I’ve taken. So, that’s probably not all that risky, all told. I know folks who simply go from startup to startup, either because of the possibility of a large upside or simply because they want to be a more influential part of an organization. Obviously the amount of impact you can have on a company as 1 of 10 is far, far larger than if you’re 1 of 1500 – at least for most folks.

Growth is Good

I stole this from the motto of one of the companies I worked for, but the sentiment is equally sound. In this I simply mean that making a move, even to a different company, in pursuit of personal or professional growth is a good thing.

I used to have a great deal of fear that I would look back at my career and wonder what I missed out on due to missed opportunities. That was early in my career, but it did help inform how I look at my choices and how I evaluate risk. As a result, I was probably more open to new opportunities than I might have otherwise been simply because I didn’t want to look back and regret not having taken a chance.

Chance, for me at least, always has to be balanced against my perceived role in my family. My job, I have always felt, was to provide for my family. Possibly because I came from a pretty traditional kind of family, but I saw my role as the one who needed to work and needed to make a good salary to provide for my family. That was, especially early in my career, how I measured my own personal success.

A friend once pointed out that after five years or so, the biggest opportunities to grow with your existing company start leveling off and the biggest jumps will come by moving to a different company. That may largely be true, but at least within a geographical area or even within an industry, there is the very real risk of being perceived as a job hopper.

For me this has meant that I’ve looked for opportunities within my company but if those didn’t present the opportunities I wanted, I would start looking outside the company.

Networking Is Critical

With the exception of one of my 12 jobs, networking has played a critical role in my career. Not burning bridges has always been important to me and it’s largely served me well.

After Ambric folded due to running out of money during the recession of 2008, I created a spreadsheet to track the resumes I sent out, the response (if any) and the result. The goal was to be sure I didn’t duplicate submissions to a given company, to see what worked and what didn’t and to generally allow me to be systematic in my approach to finding a new job.

In the time I was looking, I sent out over 100 resumes to opportunities in the area. I received an automated acknowledgement of my submission less than 20% of the time. I was told I wasn’t right for the job less than 10% of the time. Five of those more than a hundred resulted in a phone screen and of that more than 100 resume submissions, exactly ONE of them resulted in an interview.

Networking has worked repeatedly where blind submissions did not.  Never underestimate the value of your network.

Embrace Change

This is a tough one for me because, personally, I feel that I am change averse. At least that’s what I say and that’s what I think, but history would say that over the last 30 years I’ve had to embrace an … average amount of change. And, with only a couple of exceptions, it’s largely been me who has brought about the change, so clearly I need to own the results of my choices.

Change also, at least in my experience, leads to growth. And if we’re not growing, we’re dying.

Where does this leave me? It leaves me believing, as I always have, that there’s a balance in this that needs to be struck. No change is stagnant and I don’t ever want to look back and feel that my life was stagnant. Too much change is a stressor for me and for the people in my life (mostly due to having to suffer through me being stressed). So, with this, as in all things, balance is my goal. Finding the balance that allows me to look back on this portion of my career and conclude that while it never really felt like it was part of a grand plan, on the whole, I’m pretty happy with my career and the choices that I’ve made that have resulted in that career.

Spring Reflections

It’s so easy to get out of the practice of things, even and perhaps especially the things that we enjoy doing. Then, as we look back, or at least I look back over these last nearly four months since I stopped making it a priority to write regularly, I try to figure out what I’ve done and the answer is not as much of the things I enjoy doing or want to be doing as I should be.

As for reasons, we all have our reasons: We get busy, we lose focus, we’re tired, we’re not inspired. Whatever they are, they’re both real and they are excuses.

Mine involve trying to dive in on work things to try and help that effort be effective and in that I was largely successful. At least in my part. We got out a big release, we’re working on patching that big release to address any leftover bugs that seems especially worrisome. We’ve started work on trying to figure out what our next set of work should be.

On the personal front, and this certainly affects my wife more than me but there is a certain amount of overflow, we are trying to help my in-laws as they struggle with all the things that come with getting older and requiring additional care and all the decisions that surround that effort.

I try to remember to stop when I can and figure out if I’m actually driving my life or my life is driving me and looking back over the first part of this year, the latter is certainly the case. I’ve been at the mercy of my life and my response to that has been to want to come home and just veg. My brain is tired, my brain is full and the idea of trying to muster the creative juices to even make a dinner seem like a struggle.

Spring has finally sprung around here, so the turn towards better weather will help, as does the change to Daylight Savings Time. More daylight means more opportunity to be outside and do other things.

I got to play my first week of volleyball for the season. I play outside on a sand court with some friends I’ve been playing with for more than 10 years that’s a few minutes from work. The good news for me – because I try not to take it for granted because some day I really won’t be able to keep playing, is that I can still move and jump, bump/set/spike in a way that doesn’t embarrass me, so that’s yet another win in the column for failing to accept the notion that I’m coming up on my 49th birthday.

Getting outside during that time is one of my favorite parts of any day, so the improving weather will hopefully mean more opportunities to get out at lunch and play. At a bare minimum, it makes it easier to get out for a two mile walk around work, which I’m trying to make my bare minimum requirement for exercise for a day. I’d like to either walk or play volleyball five of seven days and right now I’m averaging about half that, so there is room for improvement.

I’ve been playing too many video games, just another form of consuming instead of creating for me, roughly equivalent to watching television. I’ve been reading some but mostly fiction for enjoyment, which puts it in the bucket with the other forms of consumption.

I have successfully dropped out of Facebook. The account is still there, but I’m not checking it and not participating in it. Occasionally I feel as though I’m missing out on something or my wife will tell me something I didn’t know about that my kids are up to because I didn’t see it on Facebook.

Speaking of kids, mine are now both officially older than 21 (22 and soon to be 25) which officially, at least in my mind, makes them all grown up. Which, then, because all things have to come back to me, means I am really old to have two grown kids.

My daughter has joined a roller derby club, which when I tell friends of family, seems to be met with some combination of shock and/or horror. This, by the way, is in addition to doing a great job at work. I, on the other hand, am pretty tickled. I think it’s fantastic. It’s SO unexpected and wonderfully perfect for my daughter and I think it’s a spectacular plan. She worked at a skate rink during high school so she’s a pretty great skater. I think this will be a great confidence builder for her. Plus, she suffers a bit too much from inheriting her father’s tendency towards caution and I think this might help feel more comfortable kicking a bit of ass. They wear pads and helmets, so I’m no more concerned about her injuring herself than any any other active hobby and – it’s roller derby! How cool is that?! If that makes me a bad parent, I’ll take that. I think it is great!

My son is doing well back at school and is working through all the questions about what he wants to do and who he wants to be that are entirely the right questions for him to be asking at this point in his life and I’m proud of him for that. He’s working on himself and his life and where he wants to be and, speaking as a parent, that makes me proud.

In some ways it feels like my kids, at least from my outside view because I’m trying to not be in the middle of their lives as actively as I was when they were my primary responsibility, are living their lives in a more engaged and active way than I am if I let myself get tired or lazy.

All of this is a simple way to say it’s time to start setting myself some more engaged goals that lend themselves to more making and less consuming, more work/life balance, more focus on making sure I’m living my life in a healthy and engaged way that is meaningful to me. I don’t think I did a good job of that over the last almost four months. But, the good news, there’s always the opportunity to start fresh and do better.

 

 

[box type=”shadow”] Note: Images courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/glaciernps/ and licensed via Creative Commons
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Breaking Up With Facebook

We had a good run, but I’m done. It’s not me, it’s you. I’ve given this a lot of thought and I think it’s time to that we go our separate ways.

When I first heard of you back in 2006 or so, you were this whizzy new application that was focused primarily on connecting people on a given school campus. Then you started connecting campuses. Then, you opened yourself up and let just any old person sign up for an account.

I still wasn’t sure if you and I were a good match. I didn’t see much value, but folks I knew were signing up and it seemed like it might be a lark. So, late in 2008 I joined, promptly followed by lots of other folks I knew.

Originally, more than anything, you were where my kids went after MySpace became “not cool”, so after I convinced them to “Friend” me (btw, one of your more egregious sins was verbifying “Friend” – Poke was bad, too).

Back then you were a private company and hadn’t quite worked out your revenue model. I think we both knew that growth and a need to turn a profit would change you and it did.

In 2012 you went public. At that point you really needed to figure out how to return value to your investors and things started to change for me and for you.

Meanwhile, I managed to reconnect to a few folks which was nice. I also had opportunities to reconnect with folks, largely from high school, who I had not been in touch with largely because we really didn’t have any sort of relationship back then. And, it turns out that I had, for the most part, maintained relationships with the folks that I cared about without your help. So, in the end, you became a venue to keep track of folks that I was already keeping track of in other ways. You aggregated the communication, in a fashion, so maybe that was okay.

Meanwhile, it seemed that your fancy turned to currying favor with your advertisers and collecting the ad revenue that fueled your growth. It was in this time period that I finally started to realize what the plan was. You’d managed to gather 1.1 billion set of eyeballs under the guise of connecting them to folks who they’ve chosen to pay attention to and you then started using that captive audience to serve up advertising.

There was a period in 2013 where roughly half of my page, wherever I happened to view you, was taken up by “Things You Might Like”, but I didn’t.

I wasn’t there to view ANY advertisement and your advertisements kept my from viewing what I was actually there for, which was the folks I’d chosen to connect with.

Also during 2013 I started to notice that I would post things and no matter what settings we would fiddle with, my wife or my kids would not see the post. So, the folks I was most interested in seeing something, those with the very same last name, would not reliably see what I posted. “Clearly an error!”, I thought.

But, No. This was by design. As I poked around I found that you had been for some time applying algorithms that would choose to expose my post only to a subsection of the folks I’d connected with. Based on how much they interacted with my post (“Liked” it or commented on it), YOU, not me, would make a decision to then expose it to more folks on my timeline. Suddenly you became a filter, not a connection. And you making decisions that I had no control over.

From a control perspective, it’s easy to imagine a better system where I, as a user, would have control, maybe even down to the individual friend level, over how much of their stuff I want to see. My wife? My kids? My close friends? Yeah, I want to see anything they post. The person who I randomly connected with way back when who posts stuff I don’t care about that you seem to constantly put in my feed though I never interact with them? I can either unFriend or mute. That’s it.

But, that’s not the real issue, now is it? The real issue is that you’ve changed. Because you have a fiduciary responsibility to your stakeholders to return a profit, which means you need to favor the needs of the advertisers that pay the bills and provide the profit over the needs of the 1.1 billion users that make you interesting to advertisers in the first place. It became not about the users but about the profits and how to increase them, even at the cost of you continuing to provide your core value to your users.

We’re all grownups here. You gotta do what you gotta do. And I gotta do what I gotta do. And what I gotta do is realize that my main value to you is as a pair of consuming eye-balls and you want to control what it is that I see. I gotta decide if that’s a relationship that I’m okay with. And, you know what? I’m not. If I look at the positives (connecting with family and friends – with you in charge of how much of each I see) versus the negative (you in charge of how much of each I see, advertising that I don’t care about, videos playing automatically that I don’t want to see, security and privacy issues, etc), then I just don’t see this working out.

In old maritime days, if a ship was going to sink, often it was observed that the rats would start to abandon that ship, sometimes even before the people on the ship realized there was a problem. Tangentially, there was a recent report that said that young people are fleeing from Facebook. The largest group is the 13-17 crowd and growth amongst that group is down 25% since 2011. Now, it is not my intention to call teenagers “rats”, but as this was also the group that constituted much of the original growth of Facebook, prior to all the grownups jumping on, it is interesting that they are not flocking the way they used to. This seems to be due, in large part, to a segmentation or fracturing in social media, but the trend should be and probably is troubling to Facebook.

I don’t know whether the decrease represents a judgement on the part of the young that Facebook is no longer “cool” – very probably because all of their parents are on it – or whether they are responding to the increasing amount of crap and advertising they have to deal with and the lack of control over what they see on Facebook. Maybe it’s some of both. Maybe it’s the natural maturation curve that eventually (for the most part) did away with MySpace before it.

It might have sounded a bit facetious at the start when I said “It’s you, not me”, but it’s true, Facebook. You’ve changed. Your priorities are different and I don’t like where MY needs show up in the priority list. At that point I either accept you for who you are now or I walk away.

I think I choose to walk away. Buh-Bye.

Everyone else and anyone else who would like to say hello: Odds are you probably know how to track me down. My first name at (@) my last name dot org or my firstnamelastname at (@) gmail.com continue to work for that very late 90s and early 2000s tool called email. I can also be found on Google Plus (G+) or just give me a call.

Facebook: Good luck to you. It was a decent run. Seven years is pretty good in terms of technology and probably a lifetime in terms of social media. Maybe you’ll find the balance between meeting the needs of your users and meeting the needs of your shareholders. If you don’t I suspect you’ll still be around in a decade to help we elders try and connect with each other but the bulk of folks will probably have moved on to something else. Personally, I look forward to seeing what that is!

At the End of Things

This is it: The last post of my Year of Writing. According to my current statistics, I’ve written over 85,000 words for this project. I bundled in some stuff I’ve written in the past on this blog that I felt was still relevant to this project and with that content I’m over 100,000 words!

According to the Internets (Okay, a post at Writer’s Digest on the subject), that 100k words puts me in the range of a good novel or memoir, so I’m calling it: I wrote a frickin’ book!

The reality is, no one besides me has edited this so that’s 100k of my words. Unless I put it before some editor’s red pen, I’ve no clue if that 100k becomes 50k of edited words or 80k. Nonetheless, I suspect it’s at this point that an author might call it Done and ship it off to the next stage in the process, were that the goal.

Of course, that was never my goal. This was about two things, one of which I was pretty clear on and the other was sort of a quieter reason which I haven’t really talked much about.

So, the first goal: Practice. You don’t get good at something without working at it. So, let’s say 100k words written over 100-150 hours of work over the course of the year. That’s no where near the 10,000 hours to reach Malcolm Gladwell’s criteria but it’s 100-150 hours of focus on the goal that I didn’t have before setting out towards this goal.

Having completed this, I do believe I could write something else in this range of word count. I’ve no clue what it would be about. This last year I’ve wandered all over the place searching for content, mining my youth, current events and stories of and with my family. There’s certainly a plethora of other family related stuff but this was the stuff that I felt comfortable sharing in a public forum. There’s obviously family stuff that I chose not to share either because it was private or embarrassing and that’s okay.

The second goal: I wanted to write something to and for my kids. Someday I’m not going to be this guy who I am in my 48th year of life. I’ll be different in 10 years and perhaps I’ll remember less or recall things differently. What’s important to me now may not be what’s important to me in 20 years. Additionally, I wanted an excuse to try and capture some stories for my kids that might help them understand how the kid in the story became the old man they face in the future. I have a somewhat clear vision of how I came to be the person I am but I don’t think I’ve likely tried hard to help them understand how I got to be who I am. They didn’t really meet me until late in my 20s (my son was born when I was 23, my daughter when I was 27), so by the time they began to be able to notice, I was already an old guy in my 30s. That guy in the 20s was lost to them as nothing more than stories and, of course, they had no interest then (or perhaps now) in that guy or his stories. But, someday they might care. If not them, maybe their own kids might be curious about who grampa was when he wasn’t an old man.

I think it’s easy to forget that our parents weren’t always the people we recall from when we were growing up. Before we came along they were part of a couple, probably a young couple enjoying being a couple. Before that they were single men and women who have stories they may or may not want to share. Before that they were kids in school, much like my kids were and the grandkids will be.

There are common experiences we all share. Parallels to be seen. I see similarities between how my kids might problem solve or think about things. I see similarities in the things that challenge them that challenged me. Sometimes I want to apologize, sometimes I want to explain, sometimes I just feel pride though I may not always point any of those things out.

I wanted them to have a snapshot – in this case a yearlong snapshot – of who I am at this age, at this time in my life, in this year when my daughter turned 21 and graduated from college, in this year when my son decided to go back to college and is in his first really serious relationship. These things are all huge events in their lives so they have no reason to be paying any attention to who their old man is or who he was. But, like me, I imagine a day will come when they are curious and with this they will have something to look back on and maybe, like hearing an old recording of someone, it’ll spark their own memories of this time of the me that was in 2013.

I don’t have any audio recording of my mother. She didn’t really like getting recorded on video or audio and now the only recordings of her might be a few old VCR tapes which, now that I think about it, I need to be sure get ripped to digital in hopes of saving them.

So, the second goal was about trying to leave something for my kids for when I’m old, or when I’m no longer around. Something that tries to capture for them a bit of who I am … who I was during this year.

My thanks to everyone who took the time to read any of this and especially those who reached out with a kind word of encouragement or just let me know they had read it. That was really nice to see. I heard from folks I hadn’t heard from in years or, in at least one case, decades! That was a welcome and very pleasant surprising side-effect of this exercise.

Now, what to do next year?

Christmas – An Anecdote and Hack Poetry

As this gets posted on Sunday, December 22nd, 2013, I am hopefully somewhere between Portland and somewhere to the south where it’s sunny and around 80. It’s the first year we’ve taken a vacation around Christmas away from all of our kids. It’s a bit strange, but I’ll give it a go. We’re fortunate enough to have one of our kids staying at our house, so the dogs and kids are all good. May you all have a very Merry Christmas!

My Christmases as a kid were pretty uniformly good. I’d get a few things I’d asked for and I’d get a few surprises. There were always presents under the tree, even in lean years, and Santa always made an appearance with tags written by an entirely different hand. We didn’t need more proof than that that Christmas and Santa were real.

As I got older, around 12 or so, it became more of a game. Where would the parents hide the presents? Who wrote out the tags from Santa? If Santa’s presents were hidden outside the house, when and how did they make their way back in to the house Christmas Eve?

As we got older, my parents took the step of having all of us sleep in the same room where they could keep an eye on us. There would be no surprise trips downstairs to the bathroom. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure how that worked since both bedrooms (my parents and the one we slept in Christmas eve) were on the top floor of a small house with no bathroom upstairs. Maybe we just held it all night…

I recall we’d have a radio and I would stay up late listening to old radio plays like “The Shadow” (“What shadows lurk in the hearts of men? The Shadow Knows! **evil laugh**). But, eventually, probably around 11pm or midnight, we’d all finally fall asleep. And somehow, like magic, come morning (no earlier than 6pm or risk that parental wrath) there would be presents from Santa under the tree!

Turns out, I learned when I was older, that my Dad was the worst of all of us. He was more unable to get to sleep on Christmas eve than we were! All this time we had thought we were keeping them up late keeping an eye on us and having to force them out of bed and my Dad was in there making it hard for my Mom to sleep!

I opened by saying my Christmases were good. I should correct by saying: With the exception of one.

One year, I decided to out clever the parents. That year, I had a suspicion that our Christmas presents were being stored in a room downstairs that was my Dad’s “den”. Basically a converted room in our basement. This was his space and off limits to we kids. I even recall there might have been a time when it had a lock on the door. But not this day. I might have been home from school before the parents but for whatever reason I was down in the basement and the door could be opened. I could look in the room and see what was coming for Christmas!

Being that age and thinking myself more clever than I really was, of course I took the opportunity. I went in and looked at ALL the Christmas presents. And, of my gosh I felt so smart! I knew what was coming and I had beat the system!

I made every effort to not leave any sign and I exited the room, sure that I had gotten away with my crime.

As I recall, it was no more than a day or two later when my Dad called me in and sat me down and told me he knew that I’d looked at the Christmas presents. This was horrible! Not only was I caught, there was no lying to get out of it. Worse, he was very reasonable as he pointed out that while he was very disappointed in my action, now they had no choice but to take all the presents back and start over. Suddenly, I was no longer going to get the great presents I had found for myself, but my brother and sister were also not going to get what they were going to get! I was heartbroken. I was devastated. I had single handedly ruined Christmas. For everyone.

I don’t recall exactly, but this was probably a week or 10 days before Christmas. In fact, as I think about it, it might have been as a result of my breaking and entering that the room then acquired a padlock on the door.

Eventually, time did what it does and Christmas was upon us. I was probably grounded or something on top of everything else, but nothing was going to take away the knowledge that not only was I not getting those presents, but my siblings had been robbed of their stuff, too. It was not a typically happy Christmas Eve.

Come morning I shuffled downstairs at least trying to build some small excitement for the surprises that must now be under the tree. What new things had Mom and Dad come up with to make up for my spoiling things?

As the presents began to come out and be unwrapped, it quickly became clear that it was far, far worse than I had thought. In fact, in a twist my little 11-year old brain was incapable of coming up with, my parents had NOT, in fact, exchanged any of the presents. In fact, I got exactly what I was going to get before.

Now, the only Christmas that was spoiled was mine as I knew exactly what I was getting from each and every box and present. The surprise was spoiled entirely. At that point I was simply removing wrapping paper from things I already knew I was going to get.

There are time when I look back at the various lessons my parents taught me, both intentionally and unintentionally and I look back at this one as one of the more powerful.

They let me suffer the consequences of my actions. I spoiled my own Christmas. I effectively (Oh! how effectively!) punished myself and by letting that be the consequence, my parents made their point far more effectively, and without a single word more being spoken about it, than anything else they could have done. And I had done it all to myself.


And, now for something completely different.

Note: This was written after a long day of dealing (unsuccessfully) with a huge storm that hit just before Christmas in 2008. It’s a bit of a cheat, but I’m giving it a holiday exception.

‘Twas The Week Before Christmas

Twas the week before Christmas, in old Portland Town,
And the cars and the busses were sliding around.

The stockings were sitting on a chair by the tree,
Had they feet in them ready, they’d probably flee.

The kids were still nestled for warmth in their beds,
‘Cause the power was out, no juice from o’er head.

My wife in her socks and me in my mukluk,
Were trying to phone PGE with no luck.

When out in the yard there arose a large crash,
I fell out of bed and proceeded to dash

Away to the slider I stumbled half aware,
Grumpily, crankily, ready for bear.

There may have been a moon somewhere out on the snow,
But since everything was covered, you’d really never know.

When what to myopic eyes did appear,
I’ve really no clue, where are my glasses, right here!

There was no driver of sleds or of plow,
Though we certainly could use one, right here and right now!

Heavier than dandruff, white as can be,
the snow it did fall, oh deary me.

“Now, Crap! And Oh, poop!  Now someone must clear it”,
I wonder if Christina will do it if I claim to not see it?

Like dunes of sand in places far warmer and south,
“The snow was everywhere!”,  I cursed with my mouth.

There up on the house-top the snow it did sit,
waiting to fall if I even touched it.

There was four inches of snow and a half inch of ice,
And more snow piled on top, this was great, really nice…

As I pulled in my head and wished I could go back to bed,
Snow did fall down the chimney instead.

So there was snow in the house and snow on the stoop,
Snow on the dogs and snow on their poop.

The things sitting under our fake Christmas tree,
did not include a shovel for little old me.

Nor boots for my feet, nor a weather proof pant.
“Who needs that stuff here!”, I miserably rant.

Now what to do in this world gone so white,
With no power, no shovel, no boots and no light?

So I shambled outside, ill prepared for the day,
ready to grumble, complain and to say:

“This weather ain’t normal, it’s nuts and it’s crazy,
I just want to stay home, be warm and be lazy!”

“But this I do wish before the snow melts out of sight,
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”

-Darrin Mossor, 12/2008

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

I’ve always envied people with a singular focus and the drive that comes with that. I have, on the other hand, suffered from a multitude of interests, or at least curiosities, and insufficient time to pursue them all. So, the title overstates my ability because I’m by no means a Jack of All Trades, but I know a little bit about a pretty decent range of things and it’s certainly true I’m a Master of None!

Once upon a time, before I became self-aware enough to have my own opinion, my parents thought I’d make a good lawyer. I’ve no idea why but since I didn’t have a better plan I went along with it and was completely comfortable in my ability to do that if I wanted to. And, having met a number of lawyers (measured at least in the high single digits), I do believe I could have been successful in that profession if I’d cared enough to pursue it. There’s no magic there, just a good amount of work – as in any profession.

But since that wasn’t my goal, once I had my own, I dropped that one like a hot potato. In fact, my best friend and I were in a mock court in high school playing the role of the lawyers representing a company in a job discrimination claim brought by a short lady who believed that the company didn’t make enough concessions for her to be successful. We lost. At the end, the judge asked the courtroom, filled with other fake lawyers from other schools who there had an interest in the law and my buddy and I, who each had other plans by that time in our lives, were the only ones to not raise our hands which was met with a fair bit of laughter since we’d just lost our case.

No, my heart was always in computers and programming and software. And I still love that despite my move in the last 10 or more years in to management as my focus.

I’ve settled in to what is typically called “Middle Management” or first level management. I like working with groups of developers and I report in to a Director or Senior Manager or sometimes VP of Engineering or Software. There was a time when I was still actively trying to figure out how high that ladder I would climb, but the longer I do this, the more I come to feel that where I am actually suits me pretty well. I enjoyed being a Developer but felt like my individual ability to affect the larger organization was very limited. As I got exposed to other opportunities and positions, everything from Customer Application Engineering to Technical Marketing to a variety of leadership roles, I came to realize that I like working with teams to solve larger problems.

A Developer has a limited but very direct impact in terms of what they can accomplish. They do it with their own hands, but what they can do is limited by how much a single person can do. A manager steps back and works remotely through and with his team so he (or she, don’t hold it against me, I’m writing from my perspective) isn’t actively involved in the day-to-day coding as much or possibly at all, but his ability to get things done is now magnified by the size of the group he works with. So, greater ability to get things done is traded for reduced ability to point at the result knowing what you did to get it done. You are an influencer instead of a doer. The other thing that comes with taking that step to management is that you start to influence across groups which now means you can help coordinate not only what you can affect with the immediate group you work with, but you can impact the success of the larger organization.

I also like the analogy of first level management being the grease that keeps the gears turning in a larger organization. I’m always looking for ways to help my team work more effectively as individuals and as a team. One of the always open questions is “What can I help you with? What roadblocks can I help remove?” In that same manner, the opportunity exists for me to help remove roadblocks between and with other parts of the organization. Sometimes that is as simple as doing a favor for someone in another group and knowing that if I need something I can then go to that person or organization when I need something. Hopefully the goal of that is to help the larger organizations work more smoothly.

Additionally, my role includes helping my boss be effective and helping to buffer both my group and my boss to help things work more smoothly. Typically this means I work hard to not surprise my boss when issues come up – or when they do come up, I try to have a possible answer to the problem where and when I can.

There was certainly a time when I was a Developer when I had no interest in the things the managers did, partly because I saw no value to me, partly because I wasn’t entirely sure what they did. And that’s some of it, I think, a good manager may work behind the scenes, quietly working to keep things moving smoothly. Good managers often don’t have lots of sound and fury around them because they’re trying to keep things operating smoothly and calmly.

Now I’m in the place in my career where I look above me in the hierarchy and am not sure that I want to do that job. Now we’re talking managing managers. Even less work with the day-to-day accomplishments, more strategy and less tactical, more influence but less direct impact as they now work through at least two layers of indirection. Where once I looked at management and thought “Why would I want to do that?”, now I feel much the same about the next layer above me. Time will tell, there’s certainly a new set of skills to be learned there and it’s clearly a very important role.

I started out talking about being a Jack of All Trades, Master of None and that’s certainly been true of me in terms of other areas in my life, most particularly my hobbies and skills outside my profession.

I can do basic plumbing: Fix a toilet, replace a garbage disposal, maybe replace a dish washer, but I would bring in a professional if I’m messing with pipes. Similarly, my electrical skills are limited to rewiring, replacing a switch or plug-in, doing some basic wiring. I have a healthy respect for anything involving 220V since I saw my Dad get hold of some of that and watched him shoot across the room as his legs straightened involuntarily when working on the washer or dryer. I know just a bit about working on a car. I never wanted to know enough to do my own brakes because I wouldn’t even consider risking my family on my skill at replacing brakes!

I’ve dabbled in computer animation, art, ukulele, writing, sculpting, painting, drawing, photography, building computers (hardware and software), woodworking, but in none of those would I consider myself any more than a tyro. I enjoy the early learning phase of a new thing but each of those has its own learning curve, its own 10,000 hours to excellence and I just don’t have the hours in my life to invest in those – at least not so long as I have a full time job and career.

I can imagine that if I ever do retire I will be a serial tinkerer and that would probably be just fine for me. But, the risk would always be that the next shiny object would crop up and I’d move on to the next thing to grab my interest. I can imagine worse ways to spend time, but not if I have to find something that I do well enough to get paid for it!

For that I need to stick with that thing which offers me the best overlap between my interests and my skills and what the market will pay for and that is certainly where I find myself and for that I’m very fortunate.

I had a recent conversation with a family member trying to figure out what they wanted to study at college and it was a decidedly odd conversation from my perspective because the thrust seemed to be “What should I do that makes me the most money?” rather than “This is what I’m really interested in or what I’m really good at – how can I grow those skills?”

In that case and with my own kids I’ve been consistent in my message: Find the things that you are passionate about and do those and then figure out how to make whatever amount of money you think you need to be happy. Passion first, money second. The other way around lies madness, in my opinion. I can’t imagine choosing a job for the money and hating the job. I realize it’s important to make your bills, but your bills should follow from what you make, not the other way around.

I realize my career has existed in the Venn diagram that is the three overlapping areas of my interest, my personal strengths and what the market was willing to pay well for, but I certainly didn’t know that starting out. I can imagine that living in the overlap of only two of those things could be just fine – you could do far worse than having your strengths and interests intersect. But only having one – especially just chasing after money – would be the thing least likely to make me, at least, happy. But, working towards that trifecta seems like a good thing to shoot for!

 

[box type=”shadow”] Note: I forgot Bruce Campbell did Jack of All Trades and Bruce rocks thus my using him for the Jack of All Trades pic.[/box]

Digital Copies and the Threat to Old Media

Let’s start out with “Once upon a time”, let’s say back in the 1970s, so a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In those long ago days, let’s talk about what constituted popular cultural media. In those days the media that I cared about took roughly three forms: Movies and Television, Music and Books. Let’s talk about how those things have changed in just a few short decades and think about what that means in the coming decades.

When I was a kid, if I wanted to read a book, I had one of three options. First was the library. That was my source of reading material and I was voracious. I would ride my bicycle to my local library, which was less than a mile away. I’d ride my bike and take back the 10 or so books I’d checked out the week before and grab as many as 10 more to read in the next week or two. It never occurred to me to wonder how the library got those books (taxes my parents and others paid), but the books were free to me. Later, I discovered a local used bookstore and I began to collect my own books and eventually had around 400 books, almost entirely Science Fiction and Fantasy. Later, once I started working, I could afford to buy new books when I wanted them. One book, one purchase. If I gave the book to someone, they could read it and I could not. The physical book existed effectively as a token to control how many copies existed and who could read it. If you had the book, you controlled the content. There was no feasible way to copy the content or distribute it, so publishers owned the only way for a book to proliferate out in to the wild.

Similarly, music was delivered, at least for me, from the radio. During that same dark period I watched the transition from Albums to 8-Track to cassette tapes to, eventually, CDs. All but the latter had no easy way to replicate the contents. With cassettes, there began to be some reasonably priced players that had 2 cassette players so you could record from one to the other, but the process wasn’t high fidelity so the copies were inferior in quality and that lack of quality coupled with the difficulty of copying from one to another largely limited the ability to copy the content. Again, the distributors, in this case the music labels, controlled duplication and access to the music.

Movies and Television were similar though with the advent of VCRs, suddenly we could tape content and watch it outside the time it was broadcast rather than only when it was on television. Copying was similarly difficult as you either needed two VCRs or a VCR with two cassettes to similarly go from tape to tape. You might score a bootleg copy of a movie, but the quality wasn’t great, but it was watchable.

Computers coupled with the Internet, of course, as with so many other things, changed everything. The advent of these technological advances destabilized so many things but one of the things they did very effectively was break the hold on the channels for those three types of media. Digital copies of Movies and Television, Books and Music all became possible because of the Personal Computer. Arguably, the Internet played a critical part as it opened a distribution channel that bypassed all the old ways of delivering and controlling content.

Once this shift began, those affected began to scramble to try and deal with these destabilizing changes. Old Media (Book Publishers, Music Labels, Studios) obviously had a vested interest because if they suddenly didn’t control the channels by which media was delivered, they had little or no value add. It suddenly meant that a content producer could reach a content consumer with very little standing in the way. Old Media, justifiably, was (and is) terrified of this idea and fights for its very life.

Let’s take just one of these Old Media stalwarts: Publishing. Obviously if there is a physical book to be printed, there’s no beating the economy of scale that Publishers working with Printers can bring to bear on the problem, right? Well, mostly, yes. Even now, there are print on demand services that can print a book at a cost that is not 10x the cost of a publisher/printer, but rather is in the 3-8x range depending on a large number of factors. And those costs will likely continue to fall as technology advances. But, if we set aside the need for a physical copy and embrace an eBook, then the need for a Printer just disappeared! Making a digital copy of an eBook is basically a free operation. Publishers will certainly argue that they provide other services like Editing, Proofreading, Distribution, an eCommerce site and Publicity. This is all true, but even those services can be found outside the Publishing world via alternatives. It certainly is the case that you get what you pay for, but they are available. The difference is, Publishers typically front the costs of those services and take them out of the money that might eventually filter down to the author. Increasingly, however, authors have begun to take on a larger role in the Publicity side by taking an increasing role in Social Media. The Young Adult author John Green is very active on social media via The NerdFighter community which he created with his brother Hank. This community serves several purposes and does many thing unrelated to his work as an author, but there is no small advantage gained by a built-in community that knows of your work. Others in Science Fiction and Fantasy like John Scalzi and Patrick Rothfuss have very strong online presences which increase audience awareness of what they are doing.

Speaking of John Scalzi, an accomplished author arguably at the top of the pile for Science Fiction, released some interesting data after his book Redshirts had been out for a while. At the time of the article (On his excellent Blog Whatever), he broke down the sales of his book. At that time he’d sold 21% via Audiobook, 32% as a Hardcover and a whopping 45% as an eBook. At the time of the article there wasn’t a soft cover, so no data there.

This was insightful to me on several fronts. First, a very successful (for genre) book may only sell 80k copies. Lower than I would have guessed. And eBooks took up almost half of the sales.

Scalzi observes that while eBooks are thought to be the future, physical books still play an import part in the mix and that makes sense. But I suspect that 32% number will only shrink over time.

He also argues that, for him, it’s still valuable for him to work with an established publisher as it gets his book in front of more eyes than he could do on his own. I might argue that an experiment with an eBook might show that for folks already at the top of the pyramid as he is, this is almost certainly less true than someone trying to break in to the field, but still a valid point.

Further, he does note that his gross from each of the three formats is roughly the same, which is interesting. I get inherently stuck on the idea that the share going to the creator should be the same for a physical book as for an eBook when you’ve just entirely cut out the portion attributable to creating the physical object. Sure, you still have to pay for the editor and proofreading and typesetting and whatever publicity the publisher chooses to spend on the author, but there’s no getting around the fact that the cost per unit for an eBook is dramatically lower than the cost per unit for a physical book.

But, the long and short of this for me is that Old Media, at least in the publishing world, is trying to adapt to changes in technology. Maybe it could faster, but it’s happening.

One of the things I haven’t touched on and exists, so far as I’m concerned, solely to perpetuate the lockdown that Old Media once held, is DRM or Digital Rights Management. The intent of DRM is to maintain the model of a single copy going out to one person and there not being an easy way for that person to then pass it along to another person. In this, at least, DRM is actually less effective than a printed book because I can give a printed book away but I cannot give away a DRM-protected eBook I’ve purchased. I also cannot resell it or trade it in to my local used book store or even give it away to Goodwill. In fact, should the store where I purchased that book go away, I may well lose access to the book that I paid for! Current technology attempts to enforce the model of a single eBook going to an individual, but as a result of the limitations of the technology, that individual possesses fewer rights to that eBook than they had to the equivalent physical book. This isn’t a tenable solution and it’s part of the reason why DRM is failing and it’s part of the reason why folks try to get around these kinds of protection.

As it turns out, Scalzi is an author who happens to support the removal of DRM from his books and some publishers (Tor, for example) have come down on the side of DRM-free eBooks.

Now, this does mean that someone who is internet savvy can probably go to a pirate torrent site and download a copy of the eBook the day it becomes available. On the face of it, that sounds like a horrible problem for everyone because that author gets nothing if someone downloads it for free, right?

Interestingly, there are authors who even disagree with that premise and put their personal livelihood on the line to test that theory.

Cory Doctorow is another genre author and he routinely puts up copies of the eBook versions of his book on his own website Craphound so if someone wants to download his latest book, they can do it at no cost as soon as it is released!

I admit, this seems like an extreme approach, but his argument seems to be that giving away an eBook version spreads awareness of his work and where people find value, they will find a way to pay for it, either by buying the hardback or by paying for the eBook via Kindle or the Apple iBooks store.

It seems pretty clear that there is no such thing as an unbreakable DRM, so the days of tying one copy of something down and making it impossible to duplicate are probably behind us. As soon as a new DRM solution comes out, it seems that a way around it exists within days. It’s a losing battle in the end.

I actually don’t have a problem with a system that tries to enforce the author of content getting paid for their work, be it a book or music or television or a movie. Turns out I have less sympathy for the large, faceless companies that make up Old Media – partly because they are increasingly unable to justify their share of the money made. For years they have cried about how pirating was going to kill them but the data simply doesn’t support it on any of those three fronts. Yes, some folks will pirate and take a free copy of something if they can avoid paying for it. That will always be true. But, I do believe that most folks who can, will pay a reasonable price for content, especially if they believe that a fair share of that money goes to the creator of that content.

When the Amazon Kindle store first became available, I was amazed to see that an eBook for a given book might cost more than a physical book. That was, to quote Vizzini, “Inconceivable!” Now, it seems the cost of an eBook is typically lower than the hardback. Curiously, the cost of an eBook is often still at least, if not more, than the cost of the paperback. Curious because, again, you have eliminated the cost of the equivalent of “printing”. One copy costs the same as a million copies. Yes, I understand there are additional steps for creating an eBook and providing it, but those costs must be dropping dramatically from just a few years ago. Any reasonable piece of publishing software nowadays supports creating a ePub format for eBooks.

It’s fascinating to sit astride this kind of cultural shift, to watch as entire billion dollar industries are rocked by technology freeing up the manufacture and distribution of media.

As it stands today, anyone can write and distribute and sell an eBook. The quality may not be up there, yet, with that of a similar book which utilized the resources of the publishers, but, as I said, the market for those is growing to meet the needs of these authors.

YouTube has opened up a nearly free channel for content providers to make whatever they want to and put it up and see if there is an audience for it. There is even a revenue model built in so they see a portion of the money that comes from the eyeballs on the site. There is no way that Networks are not aware of this and, in fact, several things have launched from YouTube or similar sites to be picked up by Networks, so it has become a viable way to be discovered.

Music, of course, has been going through a very similar transformation. Pirate sites exists, but so do many ways for artists to get their music out in front of audiences. Social media steps in to help spread word, serving much the same service as the publicity that record labels would pay for in the past. Sites like BandCampexist as both online music stores and as platforms for musicians to be found and heard, all without any interference (or, arguably, help) from the music labels. I heard an interview recently with a band and they argued that, for them, the album was not even about making money. It was about getting word out and building and audience for their concerts. This is a major shift from how things used to be where the concerts were used to sell the CD or album.

Coming back to DRM, specifically as it relates to music, I read just recently that a new study out of the University of Toronto showed that when labels dropped DRM, overall sales increased 10-30%. This isn’t the first time that the music labels have cried wolf with respect to DRM and pirating music, but it does seem to show that some 30 years in to this transition, they are certainly slow to adapt to the new landscape and slow to move from their list of objections.

I have no clue where things will settle but I do believe that creators will find models that allow them to create and be compensated reasonably for their work. I doubt that it will be via technological lockdowns or attempts to make it impossible to copy or distribute outside “acceptable” channels, but time will tell.

The same shift that’s happened across those media landscapes may well be coming in physical form in the coming decades in the form of 3D Printing and Scanning.

3D Printing in the home is becoming an increasing reality. Not in my home yet, but that’s because if I have the $500-$2500 to spend, it’s probably not going to be on that. Yet. Ask me next year. The quality of the prints are still in the early stages though the details they are capable of are becoming better all the time. The materials that can be used to print are limited today to low(-ish) cost nylons, but there are some other options coming. Before too long, I suspect that these printers will support a much wider variety of materials, colors, consistency, strength and resolution. Couple that with increasingly low cost 3D scanners and you can see a fairly short path to an in-home replicator capable of either duplicating something you have or printing up a new copy of something you want!

Interestingly, these new technologies are also under attack by agencies that want to implement DRM solutions. Apparently they didn’t get the memo from Old Media that DRM isn’t effective. And, as with any potentially destabilizing technology, there certainly are risks. With digital duplication of media, the risk is your teenager can find and keep a cache of porn on a USB stick that is 100x the size of anything my teenaged self could have imagined, let alone hid under his mattress. With 3D printing, there is the risk that someone can print a gun that doesn’t show up on radar. Today that risk isn’t large because it turns out a gun printed out of fairly soft nylon isn’t all that effective, but that will change as material choices increase. But, you don’t deal with a risk like that by outlawing the technology. That simply doesn’t work, as has been shown over and over again.

The 20th century was full of some of the most amazing shifts in technology and culture in our shared history. At the start of the century, in 1903, the Wright brothers launched their first flights. By the end of the century, the average person could travel the world for fun at a reasonable cost. If you look at how someone lived in 1900 versus how they lived in 2000, the list of differences and technologies that were introduced and adopted is mind-boggling.

If the first decade or so of the 21st century is any indication, we may have similarly dizzying advances ahead of us that will challenge us and amaze us. Now, if we can just manage to not screw up our planet so badly that it is unwilling to support us, it might be a great deal of fun to stick around and see as much of that change as I can! I don’t fear those changes, I embrace them, I grab them and jam them in to my brain as fast as I can and ask for more! More, Please!

What’s Black and White and Dead All Over?

We meet here near the end of 2013 to mourn the passing of yet another technology. This one has been around for centuries and perhaps it will find a way to become something else and not die out altogether, but only time will tell. This year I ended my subscription for the newspaper. No more Sunday ads, no more missed deliveries and having to call to get a paper dropped by later. No more questions whether we tip the delivery person. Newspapers and I have parted ways.

Thinking back on other technological changes, I didn’t miss rotary phones that much – touch tone was cool. Telephones gave up that coiled cord that never reached far enough, but if you did have a long one, it inevitably became a coiled mess that was annoying to use. Then, on to cell phones, never looking back. Once it became clear that the only people to call on the “land line” were solicitors and calls on behalf of political campaigns, the land line also went the way of the dinosaur.

On the music front we sometimes talk about the “warm sound” of vinyl – speaking for myself, I don’t miss the crackle and pops. I didn’t miss 8-tracks because a cassette tape was smaller, nor did I truly mourn the loss of the cassette in its time as we all moved happily on to CDs. CDs? When did you last buy one of those since you could just as easily buy an electronic download? I have a tote full of CDs somewhere, but one I ripped the music that I owned, there was no reason to mess with those again.

Of course, it was the same for video. Stacks of VHS tapes (Sony Beta, I never really knew you) made way for DVDs and thence in to digital form. Blockbuster (finally) went out of business recently. There was a business I frequented quite a bit when looking for a movie for me or the kids in the 90s. Haven’t been in one, to my recollection, in the 21st century. With Netflix and other digital delivery mechanisms, there’s been no need. In fact, I own a VHS player and a DVD player but they’re packed away somewhere only to be pulled out in case there’s something that needs to be ripped to digital.

On the entertainment front, the “Big Three” channels that I grew up with (okay, maybe 4 or 5 if you count local PBS and another odd channel or so) still exist though their audiences have fallen dramatically. The final episode of M*A*S*H was watched by 106 million people, the most ever for a TV series, a record that still holds today. Current television has fractured dramatically by comparison. The last episode of “Breaking Bad”, arguably one of the best television series recently, was only watched by 10 million people and was deemed a wild success. There are now many, many channels though only if you have cable. Even that form of delivery is being challenged by new content being delivered via Netflix and the content is good. YouTube is becoming a source of new content for the Internet savvy. Maybe the old guard televisions broadcasters will make the change and adjust and thrive in some form in the 21st century, but it seems clear the days of there only being a number of channels to watch measured in the single digits is behind us.

People want what they want when they want it. “Binge Watching” has become a real thing. There was no mechanism to record something on television when I was young, so VCRs were incredible because too often something might appear on television and would never be seen again. With a VCR it could be watched again or shared, albeit only by hand from person to person. DVRs did away with the VCR, though not with many of my generations tendency to talk about “taping a program” though there’s no longer any tape involved.

All of this brings me back to thinking about newspapers. Doing a bit of research, did you know that the notion of a newspaper dates back almost 2000 years? They appeared in an early form in China as early as the second and third centuries AD, though these really existed more as a way for the government to communicate public announcements. By the late 1500s the first references to privately published newssheets begin to appear.

In Europe, they don’t really start to make an appearance until the 17th century. Unsurprisingly, their rise is associated with the spread of the printing press.

I don’t know what the peak number of newspapers was, but Wikipedia says that in 2007 there were about 6500 daily newspapers around the world, publishing almost 400 million copies a day. But, as a result of the global recession back in 2008-2010 or so plus the growth of alternatives, typically via the Internet, that number is significantly lower today and I suspect it will continue to trend downwards.

I used to deliver newspapers when I was 14. It was not my favorite job by a stretch. I was delivering the morning paper which meant I had to be up early to get the papers. On cold mornings opening the bundles of papers by separating the nylon tie securing them was painful! Part of my route could be done on bike but part was walking and those damn papers were heavy! Don’t even get me started on Sunday papers. But, it was a job and I was able to make some money for the things I wanted to do.

Personally, my relationship with the paper growing up was more centered around the areas that I was most interested in: Comics were the start and then various other parts of the paper depending on how much time or focus I had.

Over the years, it seemed like newspapers became more partisan and no longer were perceived as being even handed in their coverage. This may simply be my perception, however. Editorial page, of course, were where you could really find out what the owners of the paper thought, not to mention various cranks and kooks. Not to take away from the well-meaning folks who would write in to the paper, but the kooks and cranks were more memorable.

I recall my mom used to make a point of scanning the obituaries. I never understood that and still don’t. When I make a cursory scan, it seems a mix of folks who passed too early and celebrations of life for people who did many things in their life and are survived by lots of loving family. At some some level this strikes me as not entirely representative of the cross section of folks who are no longer with us.

My own local paper has recently announced a plan to reduce its own circulation to less than daily. I know this is all part of their plan to try and retrench and they are launching a digital version but I suspect that’s going to be tough given they want to keep charging subscription rates.

It seems to me the main value of a local paper is to provide local insight, local stories and to provide a reasonable sampling from news at the national level and abroad. That’s the value add. But, it doesn’t pay the bills. What pays the bills, of course, is advertising and advertising is driven by numbers of eyeballs. As the number of eyeballs drops, whether because older generations transition from paper to other media or because the younger generations never pick up the habit, the rate that advertisers are willing to pay drops accordingly. That’s the free market at work. So, for the newspapers, it’s adapt or die.

There’s still a market for physical books – though I’ve largely transitioned to eBooks, there’s still a market for folks who want to lay out the newspaper and read it at the end of the day or to start their day. But, that market, like so many other markets build on consuming content, will likely continue to fracture in to smaller and more self-selecting groups. And those groups will likely share a common view, or background or interest. Niche sources are already a thing as you can see at Gaming sites, blogs about a particular television shows and customized news sources.

I know how I gather a sense of what’s going on has changed fairly dramatically over the last decade. Before it was the news, newspapers and some smattering of information from the internet. Now it’s swung pretty dramatically the other way. I read news on Google News and I read a variety of sources that I’ve chosen by hand and are delivered to me on the computer when and how I choose to consume them. How is a newspaper to compete with that? Even if newspapers transition to digital information sources successfully, the “paper” part of the newspaper will become an increasingly small (and increasingly more expensive as they give up reduction in cost due to scale of printing) part of the mix. So, I’m going to call it: Newspaper’s time of death – late 2013. It may take a while for the body to cool, but I suspect like 8-Tracks and Betamax, physical newspapers will become something my kids will have to explain at least to their grandkids, if not their own kids. Take a moment, raise a toast or pour one out for the newspaper, but its time has come.