As I was saying . . .

April 9th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about some of the issues that arise when a for-profit company offers a free service. A week later, as if to prove my point, it was announced that Amazon has purchased Goodreads. There has been quite a bit of outcry about this, ranging from indifference to outrage. I’m somewhere in the middle. I think that there is a value in an independent social book review site that is incompatible with a retail-owned version of the same. But the change will be gradual, and there will be plenty of time for something else to come about (and perhaps something even better). In short, I won’t be deleting my account, but I will be keeping my eyes on the horizon.

But what do I mean about the values of Goodreads being incompatible with ownership by amazon? Well, the reviews on Amazon suck, and they suck for a simple reason: there is money to be made, and so reviews are posted that reflect not the opinions of actual consumers but rather the purchased opinions of whoever stands to make money when you choose this book over that book (not Amazon, who doesn’t care which book you buy so long as you buy a book, preferably both books). Although Goodreads no doubt has this same dynamic present, it is much less pervasive, as the site was focused on the readers, not selling the books.

On another topic, what I find really interesting about this is that the value of Goodreads was largely created by the users. Users wrote the reviews, rated the books, categorized the books, and Goodreads’ part in all this was largely that of facilitator. And yet, when they sell, the money goes to the facilitator, not the people responsible for most of the value (Amazon could have written similar software for far less than what they no doubt paid for GR, what they were paying for was the stuff you and I put in). Now, this isn’t to say that users weren’t compensated for any of this, when you receive a free service, that can be viewed as a form of compensation.

So what to do if you care more about the service than the compensation? Well, you’ll just have to pay for it.

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The Problem(s) With Free

March 27th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

A couple of weeks ago, you might have heard from your geekier friends that Google has decided to “power down” their Google Reader service, which, even after they hobbled it, was still a great service. This prompted me to write a lengthy post on the topic . . . just in time to find someone who said it better. I do still have some things that I wanted to add, however, so no concise blog post for you today.

When looking at web services offered by for-profit companies, here is a simple rule: If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. Companies like Facebook do not make money off their users, they make money off of advertisers, which means that those advertisers are the actual customers, not you. What Facebook is selling to those advertisers is your attention and your data (whether that be direct information like name and hobbies or indirect information like anonymized browsing and social networking trends).

Of course there is a moral component to all of this, nobody wants to be a product, after all, and it is easy to get worked up over having your information traded between third parties, but I’m going to ignore that. What this relationship means is that for companies like Google or Facebook, their loyalty is to their advertisers, not to you. And when it comes down to it, if you are not that good of a product (Google Reader was apparently difficult to monetize), if that product doesn’t sell, they will find a new one. And so Google Reader gets dropped in favor of Google+, whose users are apparently much shinier products. (Of course, there is doubtless more to the decision than this, Google appears to be attempting to build a large, integrated platform with G+ and Reader simply didn’t fit in, I do not begrudge them their business decisions).

On the other hand, when you are paying directly for a service, you are the customer (or at least a customer, there is nothing to keep that service from selling your information). The company has a vested interest in keeping you around, as you provide revenue. That doesn’t make all paid services better than their free equivalents, but a lot of them are.

Of course, this starts to get complicated when you are talking about minors or college students, who are often defined by their inability or unwillingness to pay for things that they could otherwise get for free, so regardless of icky ethical practices or instability, free services will continue to dominate the market, but I imagine that in the coming years we will see an increase sophisticated premium services, and equally sophisticated methods of paying for them.

Finally, much of this post was inspired by NewsBlur, a social RSS reader based on a subscription model (although they do offer a free, limited, account). When I got it working (it took a while due to them being slammed from the Reader announcement), it felt like home: a visually pleasing RSS reader with a solid social network built in. In some ways, I kind of wish that I had jumped the Reader ship earlier, but I was unaware of the alternatives. And although it may sound like they are paying me to say this, I am in fact paying them, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Stuff that I came across after I had finished writing this post (but that I don’t feel like editing into the post):

  • Tobias Buckell mentioned a post by Jeremiah Tolbert that talks about why having a website is important. The article goes over some of the stuff that you just read, and other things as well. Also, that rule that I stated above about being the product? Apparently I was remembering it, not creating it (thanks for bursting my bubble, internet). I guess that the idea has just become so deeply embedded in my worldview that I have a hard time remembering that at one point I didn’t know it (“The step after ubiquity is invisibility” and all that)
  • Forbes: Google Reader Shutdown a Sobering Reminder That ‘Our’ Technology Isn’t Ours – “We are all participants in a user driven Internet, but we are still just the users, nothing more. No matter how much work we put in to optimize our online presences, our tools and our experiences, we are still at the mercy of big companies controlling the platforms we operate on. When they don’t like what’s happening, even if we do, they can make whatever call they want. And Wednesday night, Google made theirs.”
  • NPR’s All Tech Considered: ‘Keep Google Reader Running’ Petition Hits 100K; Fans Audition Replacements – Of course, 100k isn’t that many people to Google, especially considering that Reader doesn’t really fit in with G+ (and probably competes with it).

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Behold . . . BioPunk

December 25th, 2008  |  Published in Uncategorized

Just read an interesting article about people doing genetics work in their homes.  Imagine tattoos that, instead of injecting ink, inject genes into skin so that it changes texture or color or becomes fluorescent.  Imagine custom bony outcroppings on elbows and knuckles.  Imagine super-ramped metabolism.  The future, if not here, is certainly on its way.  Sometimes I feel that as a science fiction writer, the struggle is to keep up with the pace of progress.

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Now I Need to Read His Books

May 18th, 2008  |  Published in News, Publishing, SciFi, Society, writing

CNN has an interesting interview with Iain M. Banks, author of the Culture series of books.  I have personally wondered about a post-scarcity world for some time (I am a socialist, after all), and someone who associates himself with Ken MacLeod sounds like a good place to start.  In any case, go read it, its short and good, I will get back to writing.

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The Changing Face of Short Fiction

May 9th, 2008  |  Published in Fiction, Publishing, Stories, writing

So how long, really, is a short story? Common definitions define the top end of the length spectrum at anywhere between 7,500 to 20,000 words. Those numbers are for the most part, arbitrary. I mean if you define a short story as having a maximum of 10,000 words, then what is it about that 10,001th word that puts it over the edge? Silly, right? A much better definition is the functional definition famously espoused by Edgar Allen Poe in “The Philosophy of Composition”, which defines a short story as a story that is able to be read in one sitting. This may seem vague, as how much can be read in one sitting will vary from person to person, and indeed for one person from one situation to the next (reading at home vs. on a train, for example). On the other hand, it is much more reasonable than arbitrary word counts.

So what happens when we bring technology into the mix? Reading on a computer is a much different experience than reading a physical book, and the comparison is not necessarily negative. I won’t go into the details of how the two mediums differ, but I will say that electronic text lends itself to shorter reading times. On the computer, for example, there are a million other things going on which conspire to prevent the reader from sinking large amounts of time into something like reading, and this trend will only continue as we get more multi-purpose mobile devices that also act as e-book readers. Second, dedicated readers will also have a tendency towards shorter works, albeit to a lesser degree and for different reasons. The reason I say this is that they are more convenient than paper books (or at least this is where they are heading, currently the point is debatable), and so they lend themselves to the reading in the short periods of time between other things.

As a result, the average time a person spends reading without interruption (a sitting) will shorten. This means that stories broken into smaller and smaller chunks (flash fiction) will become the normal medium of fiction. This is not to say that long-form fiction will go away, because it won’t, just that more of it will be distributed serially. Personally, I think that this is a good thing. As a writer, it forces me to look at scenes as individual stories that contribute as a whole.

I would like to give one example of how this could work (beyond my own project, Uprising, of course). I have just finished reading Word War Z, by Max Brooks, which was fantastic, and for those of you who are not familiar with it, it consists of nothing but fictional interviews with survivors of a global zombie war. Part of the appeal of the book was that most of the interviews were short, and so it was easy to pick up and put down. On the other hand it was written in such a way that it was nearly impossible to put down (partially as a result of knowing that I could at just about any time, I’m sure).

If they were available, I would gladly read other stories that were written in this format, but there aren’t. Instead, its something that we’re going to have to do for ourselves. Which is a topic for another day (a day that will probably be sometime next week, in case you were wondering)

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More New Media

May 6th, 2008  |  Published in Fiction, News, Publishing, Reviews

I should also mention that Cory Doctorow released his new novel, Little Brother, recently.  I had the good fortune to read an early draft, and it was simply fantastic.  I won’t go into too much detail, but basically the plot revolves around a hacker kid who is treated poorly (read: realistically) by Homeland Security after a terrorist attack on San Francisco.  Everything is based on current tech (like a nearer-future Doktor Sleepless), lending it a feel of future history.  If that isn’t enough, its available under a Creative Commons license, which means that you can download it in its entirety (the site also has instructions on how to do a bunch of the stuff in the book).  So go on and give it a read, you won’t regret it.

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Cognitive Enhancement

May 4th, 2008  |  Published in commentary

Yesterday, I wrote a brief post about an exercise that might increase certain types of intelligence.  When I looked at the related links that WordPress generated, I found a post from last year about the effect of exercise on the brain.  To sum it up, it helps.  This makes perfect sense, as human beings are essentially just very complex systems, and so anything that affects one part will inevitably affect the system as a whole.  As our bodies evolved to suit a lifestyle vastly different from ours, it is no surprise that we need to take extra steps to ensure that they function properly.  If we have any hope of ever becoming posthuman, we must first realize the full potential of being “merely” human.

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Exercise Your Brain

May 3rd, 2008  |  Published in Misc, News, Society

Although I am a huge proponent of reading as a way of improving brain functioning, I am also a geek, so I think that you might as well leverage whatever technology is out there. Last week, NewScientist had an article about a simple exercise that could make you smarter. Sounds pretty cool (and it can’t hurt), right? Well someone went ahead and implemented it in Flash. Who knows, maybe at sometime in the future our schools will have an entire class devoted to thinking skills (like this, or chess, or go). I know, expecting our schools to teach people how to think better may sound crazy, but its crazy enough that it just might work! So go ahead, play, and get smarter! Today, remember what happened two iterations ago, tomorrow, the world!!! (the extra exclamation points are to ensure that you know that I am indeed serious)

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Moore’s Law to Continue Until Further Notice

May 1st, 2008  |  Published in Misc, News, SciFi, Society

EETimes has reported that Hewlett Packard Senior Fellow R. Stanley Williams has invented a memristor (which is sort of like a transistor, but . . . not, more info in the article).  As a result, it appears that Moore’s Law will continue unabated into the foreseeable future.  Excellent news for those of us who want to have computers installed in our heads.

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Catching Up With the Present

April 30th, 2008  |  Published in Fiction, Publishing, SciFi, technology, writing

I posted a new segment over at Uprising yesterday, and one of the things that I mention is the concept of a homeDrive, which basically the natural progression of flash drives and wireless networking.  Right now you can have an entire Linux distribution on a flash drive.  Although this is cool, the idea would probably make more sense if you just had a home directory and your applications on a wireless flash drive that any computer could use it.  A device like this would probably be first adopted by the security conscious, as it would be easy to encrypt the entire thing.  In short, ultimate, secure portability.  Of course, this morning I find out that we’re almost there.  I realize that, as I’m writing a near-future story, I will run the risk of this sort of thing, I guess that I was just planning on being oblivious to it.

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