Making the Move to Mobile Web Design

After taking eight of the previous twelve months off from the haphazard blogging I do here on Ditchwalk, I knew when I picked up the mouse again that I needed to redesign the site to reflect a broader but also more personal focus. Less platform and profession, more craft and art. Less business and commerce, more being and seeing.

What I did not fully comprehend until I took up that task in February was that a sea change had taken place in computing over the previous two years, and that I would need to factor that change into the redesign of Ditchwalk. (I had noticed aspects of the change, but because I can be fairly slow on the uptake I didn’t perceive those dissonant experiences as part of a fundamental metamorphosis in computing.)

In retrospect, the loudest and most prominent signal came from Microsoft with it’s release of Windows 8. Unlike previous versions, Windows 8 came with a default desktop environment that emulated the screen of a mobile device, including touch-sensitive tabs perfect for use on tablet displays — then an exploding technology. As someone who has never owned a smartphone or tablet I reacted with a practiced and oblivious roll of the eyes because Microsoft is always trying to drive computing in directions that favor its various monopolies, often with disastrous results. What I did not realize was that the decision to try to kill off the desktop PC was not a sign of active corporate idiocy, it was a sign of reactive corporate idiocy.

During the two years following the release of Windows 8 Microsoft first denied it had made a mistake, then belatedly began trying to undo the damage it had done to its own brand by once again attempting to force everyone that used its products to adopt another self-serving interface metaphor. Watching this ritual inanity play out further convinced me that Microsoft’s initial decision was just another blind lurch by a company that cannot perceive its own meaning in the marketplace, but that was a mistake on my part.  Read more ]


Note Cards

Over the past few years, while initiating two personal non-fiction projects each running hundreds of pages in length, I found myself struggling to structure coherent wholes from the dizzying sums of the respective parts. I knew generally what I wanted to say in each case, and I had no shortage of content to work with, but in contemplating the structural expression of my ideas I became overwhelmed both by the complexity of the issues and the amount of information on hand.

Having learned to write in the pre-computer age, when every word had to be hand-chiseled into a block of marble, and having been liberated by the amazing technological advances in word processing that continue to this day, and generally being the kind of person who believes that software is a better medium for grappling with ideas than stone, I invariably tried to use computer programs to wrap my mind around each project. Unfortunately, each tool I tested proved more trouble than it was worth because visibility of the whole became obscured by the inherent limitations of the computer screen — by which I mean an old-fashioned desk-top monitor.

It’s a given today that the only thing worth holding in your hand is the latest-and-greatest smartphone, but I’m going to suggest you may want to expand your arsenal of helpful physical objects when you’re writing something that can’t be adequately communicated with your thumbs. And yes, as you undoubtedly surmised from the title of this post, I’m talking about note cards. What you may not yet realize, however, is that I really am talking about real paper note cards just like your grandparents used when they were structuring their long-form projects.Read more ]


It’s Not About the Money

Last week author Tony Horowitz wrote an op-ed in the New York Times detailing his tragicomic experience writing an e-book:

Last fall a new online publication called The Global Mail asked me to write about the Keystone XL pipeline, which may carry oil to the United States from the tar sands of Canada. The Global Mail promoted itself as a purveyor of independent long-form journalism, lavishly funded by a philanthropic entrepreneur in Australia. I was offered an initial fee of $15,000, plus $5,000 for expenses, to write at whatever length I felt the subject merited.

At the time I was researching a traditional print book, my seventh. But it was getting harder for me to feel optimistic about dead-tree publishing. Here was a chance to plant my flag in the online future and reach a younger and digitally savvy audience. The Global Mail would also be bankrolling the sort of long investigative journey I’d often taken as a reporter, before budgets and print space shrank.

Alas, things did not go well. If you’re eying the e-book boom Horowitz’s piece is a must-read because it comes from someone in the trenches, not someone selling you a shovel that you will eventually only use to dig your own grave. Based on the totality of his experience I don’t begrudge Horowitz his eventual retreat, but if you’re new to the writing game I think it’s important to understand what has and has not changed during the past few years of publishing upheaval.

Making money as a writer — to say nothing of making writing a career, even for a few years — has always been brutally hard. If you’re passionate and lucky and plucky and willing to do whatever it takes, and you meet the right people at the right time, and you have the chops, and you’re less trouble than you’re worth, you can, maybe, get a gig. If you do a decent job and meet your deadline you might get another gig, or even an actual job with regular hours and benefits and somebody else paying two thirds of your social security taxes. But it’s hard. Always.

While the e-book craze is in large part being driven by people who hope to profit from doing so, and it’s always nice to make a buck, the real value of e-books, and by extension, self-publishing, is the fact that you no longer have to ask someone for permission to write what you want to write. You may not make any money following your bliss, but when was that ever guaranteed? The best you could usually hope for was to write for hire, to get someone to pay you for services rendered, then use that income to cover the cost of personal projects. Even if you were a literary lion your high-dollar advance came with expectations and limits.

If you want to make money as a writer you’re looking at a hard life, but it was always thus. What’s changed — what the e-book revolution and self-publishing are really about — is that everyone now has access. So while you’re right to think about how much money you can squeeze out of the marketplace with your talent and guile, take a moment to ballpark the opportunity cost of the self-publishing and internet distribution options currently available. What would it take to replicate those opportunities if you had to pay for them yourself? A billion dollars? Ten billion? A trillion?

The e-book market will sort itself out in time, at which point it will become just another market you can sell your services to if you aspire to be a working writer. What you no longer have to do is wait for someone to say yes if you’re willing to bet on yourself, and I see that change as priceless.

– Mark Barrett

Amazon Catches Fire

While the world’s landfills can always use more toxic waste, Amazon’s introduction of the Fire phone strikes me as particularly problematic for people in airplanes, airports, hospitals, restaurants, foxholes, firing squads, artillery batteries and crowded theaters.

It wouldn’t surprise me if someone gets tossed off a plane for saying the wrong word at the wrong time. I would also like to believe that Amazon simply didn’t game out the possible implications beforehand, but given the amount of free publicity such an incident would generate I think it’s more likely that they did. Fire indeed.

– Mark Barrett


The Ditchwalk Turing Test Coma Algorithm

On the heels of news that the Turing test has been successfully gamed passed, I would like to suggest a qualitative leap in such efforts. In order to defeat the Turing test with certainty I propose the creation of a computer program that replicates communication with a live human being in a coma.

In doing so I predict the following:

1) It will be impossible for anyone to distinguish the Ditchwalk Turing Test Coma Algorithm from a real human being in a coma.

2) Because the Ditchwalk Turing Test Coma Algorithm will not use scripts it will pass the most stringent interpretation of the Turing test.

3) Not only will the Ditchwalk Turing Test Coma Algorithm prove unbeatable using any technology currently available or any technology invented in the future, it will also prove unbeatable if we attempt to divine the real coma patient using telepathy, ESP, seances or other supernatural forms of communication.

Harry Houdini would be proud.

– Mark Barrett


Turing Test Fail

No, the Turing test has not been passed by anyone.

Yes, the tech press are idiots and will happily report anything that produces page views even when they know it’s a lie. In order to feign integrity they will quickly follow up with a post that pretends to analyze that lie, which is in fact just another attempt to drive page views.

If you can’t pass the Turing test honestly, what do you do? Yes, that’s right, you game the entire concept of the Turing test, dumbing it down to the lowest level you think you can get away with, which, as just noted, is pathetically low in the world of technology.

Announce it and they will report, even if it’s blatantly wrong.

This is the world you live in. Ninety percent of the stuff you read started out as a press release from a dubious source with an obvious agenda, not as an objective fact.

Update: better commentary here, here and particularly here. And still a fail.

– Mark Barrett


No Means No

It’s been a long haul, but we’ve finally gotten to a place in the world — or at least in the U.S. — or at least in the aspirational version of the U.S. that is depicted by mainstream media — where we acknowledge that physical intimacy always requires consent from both parties. This is important because in the not-so-recent past it was considered bad form for one of the parties to say yes, meaning a whole lot of confusion got built into what should have been a fairly easy vetting process. On some occasions no meant no, but on other occasions it meant not yet, or try harder, or I want to say yes but I was told I’ll go to hell so don’t actually pay attention to the words coming out of my mouth. Unfortunately, not only did this often lead to hurt feelings, it also made it difficult to prove guilt when a crime was perpetrated.

It is only a good thing that no now always mean no. This is not to say, however, that confusion can’t still take place, as happened Monday night on Louie when Louis C.K.’s quasi-eponymous onscreen persona unilaterally decided he was going to kiss a recurring character named Pamela no matter how she felt about the matter. (You can see the moment, and the confusion it caused in at least one viewer, here.)

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Hachette vs. Amazon

I have refrained from commenting on the ongoing dispute between Hachette and Amazon mostly because it’s boring. Watching two for-profit companies compete with each other for the right to exploit authors as much as legally possible is not my idea of entertainment. If anything, such efforts have become routine in both market segments as evidenced by the Justice Department’s conviction of Apple and a gang of publishing houses on price-fixing charges last year. Because Amazon’s market position is so dominant it doesn’t need to conspire with anyone to fix prices, but that’s the only way to describe what Amazon is trying to do with Hachette, and what it tried to do several years ago with MacMillan. (Detailed explainer here. Latest update here.)

To be clear, Amazon has that legal right. It can refuse to sell products at prices it doesn’t agree with. It also has no obligation to be nice simply because of its market dominance, which verges on monopoly. On the other hand, Amazon’s strident position is obviously predicated on the fact that Hachette can’t sell as many books via other pipelines, and Amazon knows this, so it’s playing hardball when it might otherwise have to take competition into account.

What continues to amaze me is that the main publishing houses (and record companies, and film companies) have not yet banded together to create an independent — and perhaps even not-for-profit — company that could handle online and offline distribution of everything from novels to movies to music. Even if the enterprise only broke even it would would necessarily create competition for Amazon that would improve the negotiating position of those content producers. (I don’t for a minute see this is artist-friendly given the history of predatory practices in those industries, but am simply agog that they are not doing this in their own best interests. There is nothing new to be learned about ordering and distributing products using the web, and I am confident there are plenty of ex-Amazon workers who happy to join such an organization. All the content producers have to do is drop money and they’re in business.)

My main reason for believing the time might now be right is that the once impenetrable branding of Amazon seems to finally be splintering. What used to universally be considered a customer-friendly site is now, more and more, being seen as a bully, opening the door for other players in that space — particularly if the cost of goods is no more than what you would pay from Amazon.com. Given that publishers and other content distributors can set prices on their own site at or lower than those on Amazon, yet pay none of the percentages, fees, kickbacks or other middle-man costs, I’m not sure how Amazon could compete over the long haul, and at the very least I think its negotiating position would be weakened.

If that also allowed independent authors to use the same pipeline for a reasonable percentage or fee — as is already the case on CreateSpace (an Amazon subsidiary) and Smashwords — that in turn would be of real benefit to writers who didn’t want to sign what are often exploitative contracts with publishers. Win-win.

– Mark Barrett