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Ideas & Analysis

Discussions of various issues including suggested solutions to problems and pure speculation

I Wish I Could Pay for Software

Actually, I do pay for software, but not as often as I used to–and the reason is peculiar. This has been especially true since I started using Android on my Samsung Note 4 phone, and more recently, a Galaxy Tab S3.

Now, I still pay for commercial Windows software, like the brand new Affinity Publisher, which might be enough of a competitor to InDesign for me to dump InDesign and be rid of Adobe’s regular copy-protection tantrums. Android apps are a whole ‘nother universe, and in recent years, many of the apps I’ve tried are free–with ads. Used to be, you could choose between having ads displayed, or paying for the app. I’m seeing more and more apps that simply display ads, without any option for me paying to remove the ads. I found this puzzling. Why turn down user money?

I’m sure I’m not be the first to suggest this, but I have a theory: There’s cash flow in ads. But before I unpack that, some history. Back in the ’90s, software was evolving furiously, often to keep pace with Windows. So we eagerly forked over money every couple of years, sometimes considerable money, for new major releases of Office, WordPerfect, Lotus, and the other bit-behemoths of that era. I’m pretty sure upgrades were a huge part of those firms’ revenues.

Today, not so much. I used Office 2000 from 1999 until 2012. That’s when I bought Office 2007 so I could work on a collaborative book project for which Office 2007 was the minimum requirement. Why did I use Office 2000 for 13 years? It did what I needed it to do, and I was good at it. A friend of mine still uses Office 97, for the same reasons: It does whatever he needs to do (which is nothing exotic) and he knows it inside and out. So Microsoft got his money 22 years ago, and nothing since.

That’s not unethical. Carol and I still use things we got as wedding gifts 43 years ago. The Realistic stereo I bought in 1976 is still our main stereo. On the other hand, firms that used to rely on two- or three-year upgrade cycles are finding that people are using software they’ve had for eight or ten years or more. The big companies’ solution was Software as a Service; i.e., the subscription model. You pay for the software every year, and if you stop paying, they disable it the next time the software phones home to check if you’re a deadbeat or not.

To be charitable: Screw that. My primary objection to SAAS is that the skills I’ve developed on Office (or other packages like InDesign) belong to me. Disable the software I’ve paid for, and you’re basically stealing my skillset. So I’ll have nothing to do with SAAS, and may well use Office 2007 for the rest of my life.

As I expected, pay-once packages like Affinity Publisher are popping up to compete with SAAS products like InDesign. I already have the Atlantis word processor, which actually has features that Word 2007 does not. If I need a more ramcharged spreadsheet, they’re out there. But…why? I like what I have, and currently, what I have is plenty good.

So. Back to Android. Most Android apps are now ad-supported. A few years ago, I bought a few games and some oddments for five-ish bucks each. I’m sure a lot of other Android users did the same thing. But once the vendors get your five bucks, that’s all they ever get. I have some sympathy: They provide updates, which are worth something. I’ve bought InDesign four different times, and Atlantis twice. But even with a user base as large as Android, five bucks doesn’t go very far. Worse, it makes for very unreliable cash flow. The ad business model helps here. What happens is that the vendors of ad-supported software get an ongoing dribble of money from advertisers. The dribble from any single instance of a product is small. Put together fifty or a hundred thousand of those dribbles, though, and you’re talking real money. Better still, pauses in that multitude of dribbles average out into a reasonably predictable cash flow stream.

I dislike ads, especially animated ads, double-especially force-you-to-watch ads, and triple-especially ads with audio. I’ve been suspicious of ads ever since Forbes served up malware through ads on its Web site–after demanding that readers disable their ad blockers. This is still a problem on Android to a great extent, though the mechanisms are complex and far from obvious.

There’s not much to be done about ads on Android apps. The money from selling ads is too good, compared to getting five bucks once and nothing ever again. I avoid malware primarily by installing all updates to the OS and downloading only well-known brand-name apps, and only through the Play store. That’s all anybody can do.

It’s an odd thing to think, but I think it often: Sigh. I miss the days when software actually cost money.

How Shark Nerds Learned to Run the Projector

8mm Movie Projector.jpg(CLASSICAL REFERENCE IN TITLE, as Glenn Reynolds says.)

Carol’s sister Kathy and her husband Bob came out to visit this past week. Their mission (among others) was to get out of Chicagoland’s frigid temps and snow. So what did we have here during their visit? Frigid (if not Chicago-frigid) temps…and snow. Not exactly where we live, but my friend Debbie said snow stuck to the ground in Fountain Hills, a Phoenix suburb a few miles east of us. And yes, the temps dipped below freezing in our neighborhood on more than one occasion. Plus, we scored an inch and a half of rain in a couple of days. The photo below shows the view from Bell and Hayden looking north, toward Skull Mesa and Continental Mountain. In all the years we’ve lived here (going on twenty, in two stretches) I’ve never seen that range go white from top to bottom. A little snow on the tops, now and then, sure, but not snow covered.

Snow Covered Mountains-500 Wide.jpg

Timing, timing. Kathy says they’ll be back when it’s in the 100s. I can’t make many promises on behalf of Phoenix weather, but I’ll confidently promise that there will not be frost in the yard here in June.

So we stayed inside a lot. One of our other missions was to evaluate Carol’s family’s home movies. There’s a place here in Scottsdale that will convert 8mm movies to digital movie files. What we wanted to figure out is what reels are worth converting (the process is not cheap) and what can be left in the box. Carol and I have had her father’s movie projector in various closets for a lot of years. We took it out and set it on the coffee table, after dropping a spare white sheet over our big-screen TV. Bob and I stared at it. And it soon dawned on us: Shark nerds we were not.

The device is a Bell & Howell Filmo Regent 122, Model L. I can’t nail down a vintage tighter than “1940s” from online searches. That’s about right: Carol’s dad had a movie camera in the late 1940s, and it stands to reason he’d buy a projector at the same time. Bob’s family had had one long ago as well, but (as with Carol’s) the dads ran the projectors, and the kids watched the movies. As for me, we got into the 8mm movie scene late, and started with the 1965-vintage Super 8. We still have that projector, but it’s self-feeding and requires almost no fussing-with. (That is, when it worked, which it doesn’t.) Reviewing Super 8 movies from my childhood will require a functional projector. I’m working on that.

No matter. What we had were 8mm movies. And we were determined to watch them.

We had a rough idea how they worked. Bob recalled that you had to form two film loops above and below the lens. There were loads of little levers, which we dutifully stared at, rubbing our chins. Then Carol spoke the obvious: “Go find a tutorial on YouTube.” Shazam! Not one but several…actually, they were legion. And once we figured out from the tutorials what all the levers did, getting the film threaded was no more than a severe nuisance. At my house back in the ’60s, we just fed the end of the film leader into a slot, and the projector did the rest. This took a lot more careful work. Some of the films were well over sixty years old, and fragile.

With practice, we got better and faster at it. And we had a lot of practice. It took two nights to go through them all, what with manual threading and manual rewind. Carol’s dad had spliced a lot of the little reels together into several larger, 25 minute reels, but the bulk of the reels were the 50′, five minute size just as they came out of the camera.

Most of the footage was of Carol and Kathy from birth to 15 or 16, at weddings, family vacations, dance recitals, and just running around in the yard. One of the first things we noticed is that once she was three or four, any time Carol was on camera, she was dancing. Carol, of course, is a spectacular dancer, as I’ve learned at various events down through the almost fifty years that we’ve been together. She started early, and went at it with manic enthusiasm and supernatural grace.

There were people in the movies whom Carol and Kathy had rarely seen, especially their grandparents, who (like mine) mostly died when we were small children. Overall, the films were well worth preserving as digital files, with only a few exceptions.

It was also yet another rubbing-of-the-nose in how far we’ve come since our childhoods. My Canon G16 camera takes brilliant, hi-res video. Heck, my phone takes perfectly fine video, if not as good as the G16’s. I have a Nikon film SLR, and my father’s medium-format Graflex. I doubt I will use either again. I suspect most young people have never experienced taking a roll of used film to Walgreen’s (or somewhere else like that) for processing, and then waiting a week for the pictures to come back. Bad shots cost the same 30c each as the good ones, so learning by trial and error was costly.

All gone, gone and mostly forgotten, except by those of us who thought we were shark nerds…but were wrong.

Slow-Mo Espresso

I first heard about the Espresso Book Machine in 2001, back when it was called PerfectBook 080. That machine is now old enough to vote, yet…where are they? I was talking about that question in the mid-oughts, and described what I called just-in-time bookstores (which were in fact gumball machines for printed books) in 2006. A recent piece in the New York Post suggests that the machines are indeed out there, and are in fact being installed in bookstores for on-demand printing of books.

Well, it’s 2019 and ebooks have raced past the print-on-demand (POD) tortoise at about .25 C. You don’t hear a great deal about POD books anymore. I used to sell quite a few in the early-mid oughts, when I mounted several titles on Lulu and Amazon’s now-shuttered CreateSpace. As ebooks have become cheap and easy, POD books are a much harder sell. I wish Shakespeare & Co. (see the NYP link above) all the best, but whereas the concept sounds great on paper it may well be impossible to implement as more than an isolated and little-used oddity.

Why so? The bulk of it is simple copyright: Beyond public domain titles, the stores would have to have some sort of contractual agreement with publishers to print books, along with a usable print image. (These are generally but not always PDF files.) Publishers are reluctant for a number of reasons:

1. They don’t really know how to negotiate such a contract. How much should the publisher get? How much should the store get? How much would the authors get? Under what circumstances can the contract be terminated? With book publishing in the parlous state that it is, figuring this out would not be easy. Why? Once precedents of this sort are set, they become expectations and are hard to break. Publishers have no history here, and would basically have to guess. Bad guesses could be fatal over the long run.

2. Publishers want to protect conventional bookstores and chains. Publishers and big store chains have a fragile but necessary symbiotic relationship. Small booksellers with Espresso machines would nibble away at that relationship by making big-box bookstores even less necessary than they are today. If Barnes & Noble were to shut down, there would be publisher blood in the streets of Manhattan. Espresso machines in espresso shops would just hurry that apocalypse along.

3. This is probably the big one: If a book’s source file(s) escape a bookstore’s control, they’ll be all over the Internet, and anybody with a laser printer or access to a POD machine can create bootleg copies. This actually happened to me: The publisher print image file for my book Assembly Language Step By Step escaped its publisher’s control and was everywhere, just six weeks after the book was published in 2009. Bookstores are notoriously fluky operations, with lots of turnover and quirky people. One part-timer with a thumb drive in his pocket would be all it took. I’ve studied file piracy in detail over the past twenty years. This is a real fear.

4. Espresso machines are not cheap. They cost about $80,000 and up depending on speed and sophistication. Most firms rent them, with periodic maintenance included in the rental. I have no good numbers for that, but Espresso uses xerographic printers and I was a Xerox repair tech forty-odd years ago. Those machines are messy and touchy. Something gets a little out of line and the machine ceases to work. So it may not be an option for tiny storefront shops, especially if publishers aren’t on board.

5. Here’s the insight I bring to the issue: Near-term, espresso bookstores are likely to be opportunities for small, very small, and indie publishers. It would cost a bookstore very little to host a print image that might be ordered twice a year. PDF files for mostly textual works like SF novels are very compact. (Heavily illustrated books, of course, require larger files, but not that much larger.) Small/indie press would be far more likely to cut deals with the bookstores than Macmillan or Wiley. They have a lot less to lose, and a whole lot more to gain.

So where does all this leave us? Alas, I’m nowhere near as bullish on POD as I was even six or seven years ago. I attribute this to the promotion of smartphones to mini-tablets. I myself have a “phablet” (a Samsung Note 4) and I love it. I also do exponents more reading on it than I ever thought I would back when I bought it toward the end of 2015. (And this is true evenn though I have other readers with much larger screens.) Basically, almost everybody who partakes of modern life today has an ebook reader in their pocket, and some of them are actually called “ebook readers.” People have become used to reading genre fiction on small screens. It’s a tougher call for technical nonfiction containing figures, photos, or code. I have read technical books on my Lenovo Yoga convertible, and it’s…so-so.

Back in their heyday, the pulps were considered disposable books. You read them once, maybe kept them for a little while (the bathroom was possibly their final redoubt) and then threw them away. Fiction ebooks work like that: People read a novel once…and then, having done its job, it vanishes into the archives. It may never emerge from the archives again, but with terabyte drives in increasingly small devices, who cares? You’d have to read a lot of SFF to fill one of those.

POD will continue to make a certain amount of sense for science, tech, and history books, or any other genre that depends on fixed page-layout specifics. Reflowable tech books are just hideous. The big question is whether that sort of nonfiction is enough of a market to float a maintenance-hungry beast like an Espresso Book Machine in the basement of a bookstore. Given how long that question’s been hanging in the air, my guess is that the decision’s already been made.

Pivoting to the Gumball Machine

Well, it’s the end of the month again, and I’m out of free articles from all the major newspapers. This happens toward the end of just about every month: I see an article in one of the papers linked by an aggregator, I go there through the link, and am told that I have used all my free articles and can now either subscribe to the paper or go away. I go away. This does not bode well for the newspaper in question, nor for newspapers generally.

The problem is dirt-simple: I do not want the whole damned Washington Post.

I might want five or six articles per month. I do not want the comics, the ads, the local news and gossip (unless something really important is going on there locally) nor the constant obsessive eyes-rolled-back-in-the-head drumbeating against Trump. I hate politics. I want ideas and analysis of interesting things, people, and phenomena, from a neutral point of view. And I am willing to pay for them.

Individually.

People who have been following me for a long time may remember an idea piece I did in this space way back in 2005, with a followup in 2014. I called it a “digital content gumball machine” because that’s what it was: A storefront with an easy payment system that downloads a digital file to your hard drive. In 2005, these really hadn’t been perfected, but Amazon came along and did it, followed by other firms like Audible. As with my 1994 prediction of Wikipedia, the details turned out a little different, but for music and ebooks, my vision was fulfilled. When I hear a piece of music I like, I go to Amazon, search for it, click a couple of things, and clunk-clatter! An MP3 appears in my Downloads folder. Ditto for ebooks. Yes, discovery is still a challenge, but it’s a separate challenge that I’ll take up another time.

Having pivoted to video without success, Big Media seems on track pivoting to dust, as Robby Soave said on Twitter and Megan McArdle quoted in a WaPo article I can’t even link to now that January’s freebies are gone. (If you subscribe or have freebies left, read it.)

One of the reasons that the print news media giants (as well as print magazines like The Atlantic) are pivoting to dust is that unlike music, ebooks, and audiobooks, they don’t have gumball machines. You can’t buy a gumball. You need to buy the entire jar. So my suggestion to them is the following: Create a consortium to finance the construction of a periodical media gumball machine.

It would work someting like this: The gumball machine is a payment processor back end to which publishers can connect under contract. Publishers add small scripts to each one of their articles, which display the title and first 500 characters of the article in a window with a message like “Continue reading this article for 50c.” Another button might offer a downloadable copy for $1. When the consumer clicks a button, he or she is charged the appropriate amount and the window poofs, revealing the full article or download link.

Consumers would create an account not with any individual publication but with the gumball machine itself, providing a charge card or coin wallet or some other means of payment. Readers could then seamlessly flit from The Washington Post to The Chicago Tribune to The Atlantic, picking up an article gumball here and an editorial gumball there. The back end would keep the the accounting straight, and would wire money to all publishers using the system on a weekly or monthly basis, keeping some pre-agreed margin for its own expenses. Publishers would leave some freebies on their sites to keep people from forgetting about them, or perhaps have articles age-out to free status after some set period of time.

Publishers would have razor-sharp data on what writers and what topics are their biggest draws. They could adjust prices to find price points that maximize their income. They wouldn’t have to abandon ads altogether, but would no longer be at the mercy of advertisers. They could stop pivoting from one damfool technofad to another, and just do what readers expect them to do: provide interesting reading at competitive prices…and do it by the piece.

After all, get enough people to pay you fifty cents for an article, and sooner or later you’re talking real money.

That’s the whole gumball machine concept for periodical publications. I know enough of the required tech to be quite sure it’s doable. In truth, it’s not even rocket science. So would it work?

Alas, no. There’s way too much ego on the table. Consider the pompous-ass motto WaPo puts on its masthead: “Democracy dies in darkness.” Uhhh, no. Democracy dies in tribalism…with you idiots leading the charge off that particular cliff. Newspapers have talked themselves into believing that they are the sole protectors of our freedom, and that we all gaze upon them with sighs of thankful reverence. They may have fulfilled that role to some extent decades ago, when investigative reporting was actually done, and done to standards held by all genuine journalists. Now, the big papers have abandoned careful investigative reporting for clickbait and partisan advocacy, which in fact is the opposite of journalism.

Anyway. I’ve thrown the idea out there and would be curious to get your reactions. As always, no partisan arguing in the comments. That’s what Twitter is for, heh.

Taming Twitter

I knew Twitter was mostly useless before I ever got an account there. I got the account because the service seemed insanely popular, which I simply could not understand. My account is now four years old, and having mostly lurked in that time I think I finally understand what Twitter is for, and why it’s a problem.

This past week saw another instance of what many call a Twitter lynch mob: Hordes of tribalists, intoxicated with their own outrage, descended upon a group of Catholic high school boys who were waiting for a bus in DC when various kinds of hell broke loose around them. I won’t go over the details here; you can google as much as you like. The incident itself isn’t my point, and I will delete any arguments in the comments over whether they “deserved” the ill-treatment they got. (They did not. If you disagree, disagree in your own space, not mine.)

The point I’m actually making here is that this incident (and countless others like it) would not have happened without Twitter. I’ve been on LiveJournal since 2005, and on Facebook since 2009. I’ve never seen an online lynch mob on either service. I’ve seen plenty of arguments, some of them quite heated, a few of them absolutely insane. None of them “went viral” the way that Twitter lynch mobs go viral.

Part of the underlying problem is a lack of discipline among many journalists. Most of the money has gone out of mainstream news journalism over the past twenty years, and with it went the sort of disciplined, methodical reporting I took for granted before 2005 or so. When you have to get clicks to keep your job and pay your bills, “methodical reporting” means all the other starving journalists will get those clicks before you do.

But bad journalism is mostly an enabling factor. The real mechanism is Twitter’s ability to act as an amplifier of emotion. Until very recently, tweets were limited to 140 characters. That’s room enough to post a link to an Odd Lot (which is most of what I do) and not much else beyond quips, brief questions, quotations, short descriptions of photos and videos, and so on. This means that rational discussion doesn’t take place very often on Twitter. There just isn’t room. Sure, some people make their case using a number of independently posted tweets intended to be read in sequence. Megan McArdle of the Washington Post is very good at this. Alas, the process of creating such a thread sounds mighty tedious to me.

What’s left? Emotion. And what’s the emotion of the day, year, and decade hereabouts? Outrage. And while Twitter can amplify things like humor, cuteness, and gratitude (and occasionally real beauty) what it does best is outrage.

From a height, Twitter is an outrage amplifier. It starts with somebody posting something calculated to outrage a certain demographic. (Innocent posts sometimes trigger Twitter mobs, but they are uncommon.) Then begins a sort of emotional feedback loop: The outraged immediately retweet the reactions they’ve seen, so that their followers (who would not otherwise have seen the outrage tweet) get to see it. They retweet it to their followers, and so on, until millions of gasping outrage addicts are piling on without knowing anything at all about the original issue that caused the outrage.

The word “amplifier” may not be quite the right metaphor here. Most of us in the nerdiverse have seen videos of a common science demo consisting of a room full of set mousetraps, each with two ping-pong balls carefully placed on the bar. Toss a single ping-pong ball into the room, and it sets off whatever mousetrap it lands on. That moustrap launches two more balls, which set off two more mousetraps, and a few seconds later there is this chaotic cloud of ping-pong balls flying around the room, until the last mousetrap has been spring. This metaphor is a nuclear fission chain reaction, and I think it describes a Twitter mob very well.

So what do we do about Twitter mobs? We could encourage the victims to lawyer up and start suing the news organizations that tossed the original ping-pong ball, and perhaps Twitter itself. That process is evidently underway with the Covington Kids. But preventing Twitter mobs is simple, if difficult: All it would require is a single change to the Twitter software:

Eliminate retweets.

That’s all it would take. Really. The retweet function is like a neutron emitted by an unstable nucleus. (There are a lot of unstable nuclei in the Twitter system.) Chain reactions are easy to kick off, and difficult to suppress. But without the ability to instantly retweet some expression of outrage, the issue never goes critical. Sure, you can manually copy and paste somebody else’s tweet and tweet it to your own followers. But the sort of people who participate in Twitter mobs are impatient, and lazy. If copy/paste/tweet is work, well, their ADHD sends them on to something else.

Basically, eliminating retweets would turn Twitter from U-235 to U-238. U-238 is non-fissionable. Without retweets, Twitter would be non-fissionable too. Problem solved.

Of course, Twitter won’t voluntarily disable retweets. Without retweets, Twitter becomes just another microblogging social network. People would abandon it in droves. However, if a class action against Twitter mounted by victims of Twitter mobs ever got any traction, part of the settlement might include requiring Twitter to disable retweets. If I were the victim of a Twitter mob, that’s what I’d demand. Money wouldn’t hurt. But to fix the problem, retweets would have to go. If that in fact became the end of Twitter, I for one wouldn’t cry too hard.

Twitter is not a common carrier. It attempts to police its own content, though that policing is sparse and rather selectively applied. If it isn’t a common carrier, it can be held responsible for the actions of its members. If its members set out to deliberately destroy private citizens by retweeting slander and doxxing, Twitter should face the consequences. If it were forced to confront the possible consequences, who knows? Twitter might eliminate the Retweet button all by themselves.

Don’t wait up for it. But don’t count it out, either.

Lazy LED Bulbs

Some months after moving into this house at the end of 2015, we went on a sweep and replaced nearly all of the incandescent bulbs with 2700K LED units. The drop in power usage was obvious from our monthly bills. However, I’ve had a whole lot of bulb failures within those three years. Some bulbs, in fact, didn’t even last out their first year. So much for 25,000 hours of service.

I’ve done teardowns on four or five dead bulbs, and found both dead power supplies and dead LED wafers. One of the power supplies was intermittent: Tap on it with the plastic handle of a screwdriver, and it will suddenly light its wafer again. Tap on it some more, and eventually the light will go out. The solder joints looked fine under my digital microscope. I even reflowed a few of them, but the unit’s behavior did not change.

However, the oddest failure mode we’ve experienced is this: bulbs that take longer and longer to illuminate after you flip the switch.

We have four ceiling can fixtures in our kitchen. During our LED sweep, we replaced the 75W incandescent floods with 75WEQ LED floods. A few months ago, I noticed that one of the bulbs took five or ten minutes to come on after flipping the wall switch. Once lit, the tardy bulb shone at identical light levels as the immediate bulbs did. Before it lit, it remained completely dark. (I.e., it spent no time at partial brightness.)

Well, as the months rolled on, the tardy bulb grew tardier and tardier. When it was up to about half an hour delay, a second bulb in the group of four started coming on late. A month or two after that, a third bulb in the group began delayed illumination. By that time, the first bulb would take almost two hours to light up. However, in every single case, all four bulbs eventually came up to full illumination from full dark.

I admit that once the second bulb started acting up, I put off replacing them to see what would happen. Yesterday I got tired of it, and replaced all four (even the one that still lit up immediately) with identical EcoSmart 75WEQ floods from Home Depot. The new floods produce five more lumens than the old ones but only draw 11.5 watts. (The originals drew 15 watts.)

I’m trying to figure out what sort of electrical failure would cause this. When time allows, I’m going to remove the plastic envelope from the original malefactor and take a close look. All of the bulbs I’ve cut open have used switching power supplies built into their bases. There is another kind of LED power supply: a capacitive voltage drop/rectifier system. (Wiki article here. More discussion here.) If the bulb uses a capacitive dropper, the capacitor is probably electrolytic. Electrolytics dry out over time (though it generally takes more than three years) and I’m wondering if poor-quality capacitors are at the heart of the problem. (Bad caps have caused trouble before. And again.) It’s not a time-constant thing, and in truth I don’t know what it might be, but doing a little probing will be fun.

And if any of my EE regulars know or have other (less wild-ass) guesses, I’d sure love to hear them.

Rant: The War That Nobody Dares Explain

HarryDuntemannArmy1917-adjusted-500 wide.jpg

Armistice Day. I call it that in this entry because 100 years ago today, The Great War (now called World War I) ended. We’ve broadened the holiday to all those who have served in war on our behalf, but until 1954, the day was named after the armistice that ended WWI.

My grandfather Harry Duntemann served in The Great War. (See the photo above, from 1917, location unknown. He was 25.) I never got to talk to him about it because he died when I was four, or I would have asked him what caused the War. I’m not entirely sure he could have told me. Degreed historians have been unable to tell me. I’ve read a pile of books about it, but as close as I’ve come to an answer is simply that Europe’s leaders were about ready for a war, and when the assassination of a second-shelf political figure provided them with an excuse, they went for it. Four years and sixteen million deaths later, the armistice was signed, Europe was rearranged, Germany thoroughly humiliated, and all the pieces put in place for an even greater war a generation later.

Bad idea, top to bottom.

Here’s my theory, which I offer as speculation based on a view from a height: WWI was a pissy argument among Europe’s ruling elite, made deadly by industrialization and technologies that hadn’t been dreamed of during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Certain members of this insufferable boys’ club took offense at other members’ reaction to crackpot Princip’s terrorist attack, leading to others taking offense at their offense, leading to a wholesale loss of face among the elites, who threw the inevitable tantrum and leveled half of Europe in the process. They’re still digging up live ordnance in places a century later. Lots of it. Sometimes it explodes. In terms of casualties, WWI has never really ended.

The common element here? Inbred ruling classes who cannot conceive of being wrong about anything. In 1914, they were elite by virtue of aristocratic birth, or sometimes having risen through the local equivalent of civil service. That era was the transition from “the King can do no wrong” to “the government can do no wrong,” which was perhaps a step in the right direction, but…

…we still have ruling classes, and they are dangerous. Graduate from an Ivy and you’re set for life. Along with the diploma you’re given the impression that you’re just…better…than people who go to state schools, or who eschew college altogether. This leads to a pathological inability to doubt your own view of the universe, and in most cases, your own expertise. Given too much power, such people can, have, and will continue to destroy entire nations.

Self-doubt is an essential personality trait. I consider it the single most reliable indicator of people who are high in both rational and emotional intelligence. A modest amount of self-doubt among Europe’s elites could have stopped WWI. Stopping WWI, furthermore, might well have stopped WWII.

I don’t honestly know what one can do about ruling classes. Not supporting political parties would be a good first step, because political parties are mechanisms that make the elites rich and keep them in power. But you know how likely that is. Redistribuing power (not wealth) would be another good step. Again, this would mean broadening access to the Ivies (ideally by some sort of entrance lottery) and limiting the powers of government far beyond the degree to which government would allow itself to be limited. (I have a good political novel on the subject in my notes that I won’t write, because political novels are depressing.)

And even that might not work. Once again, we run up against the primal emotion of tribalism, from which most of our current troubles emerge. That’s a separate topic, but not an unrelated one.

My advice? 1. Shun the ruling classes. You’ll never be one of them (no matter how much you think you deserve to be) and fostering ordinary people’s desire to be among the elites is how the elites keep ordinary people under their control. 2. Limit government power at every opportunity. The less power our elites have, the less damage they can do. 3. Read history. Granted, I read a lot of history about WWI and still doubt whatever understanding I thought I gleaned from those books…

…but let me tell you, I understand the Jacobin mindset completely.

/rant

The Stuff Conundrum

Steel Shelves 500 Wide.jpg

Over the years I’ve developed a couple of strong heuristics relating to Stuff:

  1. Know what you have.
  2. Know where it is.
  3. Store it in an orderly fashion, to facilitate heuristics 1 and 2.

One of the ways I developed these heuristics was by moving every three or four years as I chased jobs around the country. Time and again, everything we owned went into boxes, much of which then sat around in the basement of our new place, sometimes for years, before we opened up the boxes and looked at it. In the meantime, we often forgot what we had (or couldn’t find it) which led us to buy duplicate Stuff.

Our most recent move was better than many, because we had a lot more time to plan the packing. Our first few moves were corporate moves, which meant that my employers hired a moving company, which came to our house and loaded our Stuff into boxes in one furious day. That was worst-case, because there was no attempt at organized packing. Whatever was in the living room went into boxes. Whatever was in the bedroom went into boxes. Etc. Every box was a mishmash of books, knicknacks, throw pillows, coasters, and whatever other oddments were lying around the morning the movers came.

Later on, when we paid for our own moves, we packed our Stuff by ourselves. There were boxes of books, clearly labeled. (Lots of them.) There were boxes of kitchen gadgets, and nothing but kitchen gadgets. There were boxes of CDs and DVDs (ok, we mixed those) that did not contain books or kitchen gadgets. This made unloading it all into cabinets and bookshelves and pantries a whole lot easier.

My workshop was a whole separate problem. Ordinary life has relatively few packable categories: Clothes, shoes, kitchen stuff, books, wall art, dog supplies, knicknacks, garden supplies, etc. Out in my workshop, I had shelves full of Odd Lots in a hundred different categories, and in few cases enough of any one category to fill a box. Variable capacitors, panel meters, milk jugs full of tube sockets, tubes, transistors, test gear, and cubic yards of indescribable (except by techie nerds of my generation) kipple. So mixing categories in boxes was unavoidable, with the commonest single box label reading ODD JUNK.

Downsizing from 4500 square feet with a huge workshop to 3000 square feet with one small single-car garage as a workshop complicated matters further. I got rid of a lot of stuff in Colorado, including all but the very best of my vintage radios. I planned my shop in detail to waste as little space as possible, drew it all out on Visio, and emptied as many of the boxes onto shelves and bins and new Elfa as I could.

The rest went into the tack shed. Life got busy, and all those boxes of ODD JUNK remained unmolested until their weight began to collapse the shed’s cheap plywood built-in shelves. Just last week, I piled it all onto the patio, bought heavy-duty steel shelves at Home Depot, tore out the crappy plywood shelves, assembled the new steel shelves, and then began piling the goods back onto the shelves in the shed. Roy Harvey wanted to see a picture of the pile, which I took but didn’t consider notable enough to post. See below:

Pile of Odd Junk - 5090 Wide.jpg

There was a similar pile (though of much lighter boxes) atop our big patio table. I didn’t take a picture of that. By now, egad, I know what piles of boxes look like.

Once the new shelves in the shed were ready, I spent days opening up boxes of ODD JUNK, making piles by category, and either throwing out or re-boxing the piles. In the process, I remembered a lot of Stuff that I had long forgotten, some of it packed up when we began preparations to move to Colorado in the fall of 2002. I found many things I’d been looking for, especially tools and telescope parts. I’m still tessellating in the shop, but overall, it was a useful endeavor.

Better still, the shed (which used to be packed to the rafters) is now only about half-full. It helped that we’re taking about half of the paint cans (full of paint going back to 2006) down to the hazardous waste drop-off. It also helps that the shelves I bought had more, well, shelves. I spaced the shelves to accomodate the most common moving boxes, including the many Waldenbooks book boxes I got for free when we moved to Colorado in 2003. (See the photo at the top of this entry.) So I’m getting a lot more bang per cubic foot out there.

Best of all, I reviewed what was in the boxes, and scribbled lists on the sides of the boxes with magic marker. I may have to hunt a little for the boxes in the future, but once I find the boxes, I’ll know instantly and in detail what’s inside them.

Retired people often downsize, and many of them in my circles have told that they don’t miss all the Stuff they got rid of when they did. Me, I can handle a little of that. I got rid of my snowmobile suit, after all. But if you can’t lay hands on a 6AG7 when you need one, what is life?

Revisiting The All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything

24 years and some months ago, I published an article in PC Techniques, on the END. page, which was where I put humor, crazy ideas, and non-of-the-above. The article was “The All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything!” and as I recall it generated a lot of mail. The idea was this: We should create a way to capture knowledge, even highly eccentric knowledge, in a browsable online encyclopedia. Remember that I had this idea in 1993, when the Web was not so much in its infancy as still in utero, and broadband outside of an office or university was practically unheard of. That’s why I imagined the Encyclopedia as a central index with pointers to encyclopedia articles hosted on machines owned by the authors of the articles, with caching for popular items. You browse the index, you click on an article link, and then retrieve the article text back to your machine as a file via FTP, where it would be rendered in a window in a standard layout. (The now-defuct DMOZ Web directory worked a little like this.) HTTP would work even better, but in 1993 I’d barely heard of it.

I chewed on the idea for several years, and then went on to other things. In 2001, Wikipedia happened, and I felt vindicated, and even though the vision had an utterly different shape, it was still an all-volunteer virtual encyclopedia.

Of absolutely everything, well, not so much.

As good as it is, Wikipedia is still trying to be a paper encyclopedia. You won’t find articles on pickled quail eggs in a paper encyclopedia, because paper costs money, and takes up space. These days, with terabyte disk drives going for fifty bucks new, there’s no reason for an online encyclopedia not to cover everything. Yet Wikipedia still cleaves to its “notability” fetish like superglue; in fact, in reading the discussion pages, I get the impression that they will give up almost anything else but that. My heuristic on the topic is simple and emphatic:

Everything is notable to somebody, and nobody can judge what will be notable to whom.

In other words, if I look for something on Wikipedia and it’s not there, that’s a flaw in Wikipedia. It’s a fixable flaw, too, but I don’t expect them to fix it.

Several people have suggested that my Virtual Encyclopedia concept is in fact the Web + Google. Fair point, but I had envisioned something maybe a little less…chaotic. Others have suggested that I had at least predicted the MediaWiki software, and if Wikipedia won’t cover everything, that’s their choice and not a shortcoming of the machinery behind it.

Bingo.

Some years back I had the notion that somebody should build a special-purpose wiki to hold all the articles that Wikipedia tosses out for lack of notability. I thought about some sort of browser script that would first search Wikipedia for a topic, and if Wikipedia didn’t have it, would then look it up in WikiDebrisdia. I never wrote this up, which is a shame, because something similar to that appeared last year, when Theodore Beale (AKA Vox Day) launched Infogalactic.

It’s a brilliant and audacious hack, fersure: When a user searches Infogalactic (which, like Wikipedia, is MediaWiki-based) for a topic, Infogalactic first searches its own articles, and if the topic isn’t found, then searches Wikipedia. If the topic is available on Wikipedia, Infogalatic brings the article back and serves it to the user, and retains it in a cache for future searches. This is legal and fully in keeping with Wikipedia’s rules, which explicitly allow re-use of its material, though I’m guessing they weren’t imagining it would be used in fleshing out the holes in a competing encyclopedia.

There’s considerably more to Infogalactic than this, but it’s still very new and under active development, and its other features will have to wait for a future entry. (Note that Infogalactic is not concerned with Wikipedia’s deleted articles; that was my concept.) One of the things I find distinctive about it is that it has no notability fetish. Infogalactic states that it is less concerned with a topic’s notability than it is about whether the article is true. That’s pretty much how I feel about the issue: Notability is a holdover from the Age of Paper. It has no value anymore. What matters is whether an article is true in all its assertions, not how important some anonymous busybody thinks it might be.

I’m wondering if the future of the All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything is in fact a network of wikis. There are a number of substantial vertical-market wikis, like WikiVoyage (a travel guide) and WikiSpecies, which is a collection of half a million articles on living things. I haven’t studied the MediaWiki software in depth, so I don’t know how difficult this would be, but…how about a module that sends queries to one or more other wikis, Infogalactic-style? I doubt that Wikipedia has articles on all half a million species of living creature in WikiSpecies, but if a user wanted to know about some obscure gnat that wasn’t notable enough for Wikipedia, Wikipedia could send for the article from WikiSpecies. Infogalactic already does this, but only to Wikipedia. How about a constantly updated list of wikis? You broadcast a query and post a list of all the search hits from all the wikis on the list that received the query.

This is the obvious way to go, and it’s how I envisioned the system working even back in 1993. Once again, as I’ve said throughout my career in technical publishing, the action is at the edges. It’s all about how things talk to one another, and how data moves around among them. There’s a distributed Twitter clone called Mastodon with a protocol for communication between servers. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

Bottom line: I admit that “absolutely everything” is a lot. It may be more than any one single encyclopedia can contain. So let a thousand wiki encyclopedias bloom! Let Wikipedia be as much or as little of an encyclopedia as it wants to be. The rest of us can fill in the gaps.


Note well: Theodore Beale has controversial opinions, and those are off-topic and irrelevant to this entry. I mentioned one of his projects, but the man and his beliefs are a separate issue. Don’t bring them up. I will delete your comments if you do.

Blogging Vs. Social Media

Wow. I think I broke another record for not posting on Contra. My last entry was July 7, which brings us to five weeks now. People aren’t asking me if I’m dead (like they used to) because most of them see me on Facebook and Twitter. So yeah: I’m not dead. I’ve just been elsewhere.

And that’s an interesting issue, especially now, at 66, when I have a far more limited supply of personal energy than I did ten or even five years ago. This being summer doesn’t help: My office is the warmest room in the house, and I simply don’t function as well with an ambient temp in the 80s. Mornings are my best times largely because they’re the coolest. Mornings are also when I work on my commercial writing projects, like Dreamhealer and FreePascal From Square One. Fiction is hard. Dreamhealer in particular has been rough, and there are times when I regret having started it at all. But 55,000 words is too much to just toss in the trunk. It will be finished. I only wish I had finished it a year ago, which was my original if excessively ambitious plan.

The key question is this: To what extent is Contra a bad use of my time?

Or, more to the point, my (limited) energy?

I don’t look at my logs much anymore, because I know what they’ll show: Script kiddies endlessly trying to brute-force their way into my instance of WordPress, plus fifteen or twenty visitors a day, and a few odd bits that I’ve never entirely understood. I suspect posting less often than I once did cuts the numbers down, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than a few hundred visitors a day, even when I was posting almost daily, unless I posted something that went viral, like my Sad Puppies summary or my analysis of EasyBits Go.

So why have I stopped posting here on Contra? This: I get more attention when I post on Facebook or Twitter. And attention is what it takes to sell indie books. Posting a promo tweet about one of my books almost always generates a sale or two. Posting something about one of my books on Contra rarely does. I’m guessing that Contra is a saturated market: My diehard fans have probably already bought everything I’m offering. It would help if I could crank out three novels a year, but if that were possible it would have happened a long time ago.

Blogs have lost a lot of the magic they had fifteen years ago. The magic went straight to Facebook, in large part because Facebook has machinery to help people find you if you want to be found. (Or even if you don’t want to be found.) If you’re a writer, especially an indie writer like me, being found is the hardest single part of the game. The blogs that continue to thrive fall into two categories: Political blogs, which satisfy our insatiable need for tribal reassurance, and single-topic blogs with fairly narrow and reasonably popular topics. The sort of general-interest blog that was my 20-year vision for Contra still exists, but is written largely by people who are already well-known for other reasons.

Another issue is that politics has infected virtually every topic you could name, including many that interest me, like nutrition, climate, genetics, education, and health insurance. It’s almost impossible to write about those topics without attracting comment harpies, or more general tribal hatred than I care to deal with. I was astonished at the anger I evoked by cautioning people to calm down after the 2016 election, lest their rampaging hatred ruin their health or literally kill them. This remains an issue: Once you’ve given yourself permission to hate, hatred is delicious, and few people can overcome that deepest of all primal hungers.

My overall goal is to write articles that won’t piss off potential readers of my fiction, and the range of appropriate topics for that kind of writing grows narrower over time as the filth that is politics seeps into damned near everything.

All that said, I’ll try and post here a little more often. I’m considering redesigning Contra (or paying someone to redesign it) so that it becomes a more general directory to everything I have online. I’ll post shorter blog entries more often, and long-form essays not as blog entries but as standalone articles listed in a sidebar. I may have to cross-post short entries on Facebook for those who don’t read Contra. Given its limitations, Twitter will remain a sort of Odd Lots repository, along with links to longer works. (I will collect my Twitter Odd Lots and post them on Contra from time to time.)

I’ve done tolerably well as an indie author since I posted the ebook edition of The Cunning Blood in July 2015. I intend to write indie fiction for the rest of my life, and solving the problem of discovery is a huge part of the challenge. I dislike Facebook and Twitter, for the sake of their ideological bias and privacy failures, but actual experiments have shown that they work. The experiments will continue. If I learn something useful, you’ll find it here–and other places too. A usable author platform requires more than one leg to be stable.