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

Freedom of Speech and Fallacious Arguments

In the (Non) News today, a guy said a massively dumb thing which demonstrated his prejudice and small mindedness, it spread virally and now he is unhappy that there are consequences that follow from his actions.

Was that general enough? I’m not going to call out the individual or what they said because there’s no reason to draw more attention to it, but let’s say, hypothetically that a faux celebrity from a television show about a family that runs a business, let’s say it’s a fowl business and the entire family has played a role in the business and apparently participate on this show. (Never watched it, have no interest) Further, let’s say that one of the individuals expresses an opinion to someone in the media that, according to polls, disagrees with a majority of the folks in the United States. But, to make things worse, he expresses his opinion in a manner which is unacceptable to a more than a majority of the population.

Here’s the rub: There seems to be a vocal minority who believe that this person needs support because their freedom speech is being violated. This irritates me and now I’m exercising my freedom of speech to disagree.

This is and never was a freedom of speech issue. This individual was given the opportunity to express his opinion, as egregiously stupid and narrow minded as it might be. No one stopped him. In fact, media doing what media does, it facilitated this individual’s ability to be heard much further and wider than he probably intended or, arguably, has earned. His freedom of speech was magnified by the media’s willingness to provide a forum for one more faux celebrity to be heard saying something dumb.

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequence. This joker got to say what he wanted. The company which makes the show his family benefits from has a concomitant right to protect their show and if they believe the right way to do that is to fire this guy from the show or simply “suspend” him in hopes that this blows over, they are well within their rights to do so.

We, as consumers, have the right to not watch the show that includes this bozo and that, more than anything, is what the production company and channel that broadcasts this show is worried about. They are concerned that audience members will stop watching. So, to protect their investment, they are exercising their right to place consequences upon this dope as a result of him saying stupid and offensive things.

I noticed on Facebook this morning, there appears to be a bit of foofaraw around defending this yokel. Statements like: “I support [insert name of faux celebrity here] and his right to express his faith and his beliefs”.

Again, this is an attempt to paint an issue as a freedom of speech or, worse, freedom of religion issue when it very, very clearly is not. What’s being asked for is a freedom from consequences and that’s not captured anywhere in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

No one is impinging on his ability express his faith or his beliefs but anyone, including those who employ him, are well within their rights to protect their investment when he goes off the rails and says stupid things. Sadly (not really) for him, there is no protection from stupidity.

There’s also, in this statement, more going on than the simple words. Inherent in this call for support is this message: “Support this goober because he expresses views that I agree with” and for that I have zero tolerance.

So, No, I won’t support an individual hoping to not suffer the consequences of his actions. I won’t support views that are discriminatory and result in impinging actual rights of actual human beings.

The result of this is exactly what should happen: A person said a stupid thing and their ability to say that stupid thing – the venue they were given to be heard in the first place – was taken from them. This person can say what they want, but we don’t have to provide them an opportunity to keep saying it. And we, as a people, can choose to walk away from people like this, not offer them a venue, not offer them an ear. We can turn our backs on this kind of nonsense and make clear that this person and this message are things we do not want to hear. I hope we do so.

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.