Email Subscription Conundrum Update

Faced recently with the choice between yet more proofreading and advancing my feeble knowledge, I spent the better part of a whole day digging into the Feedburner issues mentioned in the previous post. The good news is that I learned a lot. The bad news is that none of what I learned has solved the problem, or is likely to do so.

As was to be expected, Feedburner is now toying with me by sending emails to at least some of the addresses in its subscription list. I can confirm that because I registered a couple of test-addresses, and a few days later a message got through on one account notifying me of a recent post. Unfortunately, that same message did not arrive at two other accounts, so I now have to figure out if the issue is with Feedburner itself (impossible to determine) or with the site hosting those addresses (possible but not likely given their disinterest).

As for fixing potential issues with Feedburner, in fits and starts I managed to work through all of the steps that I later found helpfully enumerated here. If you’re having Feedburner issues yourself, that’s where I’d start. (None of that troubleshooting did anything for me.)

On the subject of whether I’m using Feedburner for my RSS feed, by chance I stumbled across confirmation (now lost) that the only thing Feedburner does with regard to feeds is give you visibility to stats associated with their use. And as far as I can tell, it even does a miserable job of that. Then again I am terminally naive about how to exploit the data habits of people who come to Ditchwalk, so I’m probably missing something. In any case, Feedburner seems to be non-essential for feeds unless you’re an analytics junkie.

The ENews Extended plugin, which was closely associated with StudioPress/Genesis themes for several years, now seems to be deprecated, moribund and — while still working — non-viable if you want to use a solution derived from Cpanel or your own ISP/mail package. I asked a couple of people if they’d ever even seen that plugin configured to use something like Mailman, and they said they had not.  Read more ]


The Email Subscription Conundrum

For at least six years I’ve been using Feedburner to send a single email to registered subscribers after each new post is published. A few weeks ago Feedburner stopped working for reasons I cannot ascertain. I’ve tried everything possible to get it to work, but even though all systems appear go the emails are not being sent.

I know this is not a new complaint, and that Google (which owns Feedburner) has allowed the site/service to languish. It is, technologically, adrift, and has been for a long time. I used it because it works, it no longer works, so it’s time to do something else.

One complicating factor is that Feedbuner handles both emails subscriptions and RSS feeds, and I think I’ve been using Feedburner for both. I say ‘I think’ because no matter how much I learn about RSS feeds I’m never quite sure what they are. They seem to be a kind of parallel channel to my published site — like a radio version, or maybe a telex or telegraph. If you don’t want to click on my site you can point your browser or feed-reader to the Ditchwalk feed and get my content that way.

What’s never clear to me is what Feedburner is actually doing to make that feed happen, because I think it’s actually doing nothing. Rather, it takes my feed — which WordPress creates — and then redirects it, or repurposes it, or maybe even reporpoises it, or something. Which means not only that Feedburner isn’t doing anything for me in terms of email subscriptions, it’s doing nothing for me in terms of RSS. Or at least nothing I need to care about if the rest of Feedburner’s functionality is on the fritz.  Read more ]


Worth The Paper It’s Printed On

A few weeks back I was looking at several recently published non-fiction titles, and while holding each in turn I kept having the odd feeling that something was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I flipped through one of the books and found a multi-page section which had black text against a light-gray background. The contrast between the light-gray page and what should have been jet-black type was so slight as to make the text almost unreadable, even under bright light.

Without thinking I fingered the paper on that page and suddenly the connection was made. What I was holding felt wrong because the paper was feather-light, like bound newsprint. Checking each of the books in turn I realized that without the covers and dust jackets — which felt as if they were half the weight of each book — I’m not sure any of the titles would have weighed more than a comic.

While I understand that price pressures in the publishing industry are crushing, each of these books was selling for upwards of $25 at retail, yet felt insubstantial at best. In comparison, a copy of my self-published short story collection, while shorter by page count, not only felt more substantial, each page felt weightier and had more contrast.

I recognize that much of what is lauded as professional publishing amounts to little more than industry droppings from a hits-driven marketing machine. I also realize that nobody expects most books to last twenty years, let alone a hundred. I cannot help thinking, however, that devaluing the physical properties of your own product might diminish interest in that product over time.

Then again, given the margins and production efficiencies inherent in electronic books, maybe that the industry’s goal.

— Mark Barrett

Trigger Warning: Trigger Warnings

I don’t get trigger warnings, particularly as discussed in the context of higher education. I mean, I get them, but I don’t get them.

If the point is to let people know that they might have to read something potentially disturbing, why isn’t a blanket acknowledgement simply proffered? I.e., if you come to our school you may be asked to confront some scary ideas?

If the point is to prevent people who have been traumatized from being reminded of their trauma, why is that not properly the responsibility of the mental health professionals on campus? I wouldn’t want someone who had been raped to be compelled by a bureaucracy to read a work describing graphic rape, but where’s the line? If reading something simply makes you feel bad have you been violated? Do we all get to pick and choose which ideas do and do not get access to our pretty little heads?

It seems to me that the very idea of a trigger warning is a trigger warning. The more easily you are triggered, the more likely any warning will trigger you even if the specific warning doesn’t apply to whatever it was that traumatized you. And that’s assuming that you were traumatized to a medical-grade degree, and not just upset or frightened in the normal course of human events.

What about people who have been traumatized but not sought help? Are trigger warnings providing a service, or are they enabling people to avoid healing or confronting reality? It’s certainly understandable that someone would not want to revisit a trauma, but if that trauma has been dealt with to whatever degree possible, wouldn’t that either diminish the need for trigger warnings or make it possible for that particular individual to do other work — perhaps in part based on an actual note from their campus doctor?

In reading this post you may have intuited some snark or sarcasm, but I assure you that in writing it and revising it several times there is nothing but sincere confusion in these words. I’m even given to wonder if the smartphone — with its endless ability to control and throttle streams of communication — has not given rise to the assumption that all manner of information can be controlled, including information previously deemed important to a well-rounded education. (Which includes the ability to deal with bad news and disturbing ideas and confrontational subjects in an adult manner.)

Then again, it seems equally clear these days that most institutions of higher learning are positioning themselves more as educational resorts than anything else, so it shouldn’t be surprising that their guests are particularly interested in personal comfort. And yet, in an age when actual campus rape seems to be emerging as an unacknowledged and perhaps even longstanding epidemic, the idea that those same guests are determined to avoid reading difficult or disturbing texts seems particularly incongruous.

Like I said, I don’t get trigger warnings. The more I try to figure out how they would actually work and who they would actually help, the more I end up thinking they’re primarily designed to facilitate happy thoughts and prevent unhappy thoughts. Which is fine if you can afford to pay the world to treat you that way, but has nothing to do with being educated or living in the real world.

— Mark Barrett


Publishing is for Professionals

So today is the day that Harper Lee’s new ‘novel’ goes on sale. Far be it from me to question the motives of the titans of cultural responsibility at HarperCollins, but if the early returns are any indication this is not a glorious day in the history of literature:

“Watchman”s portrayal of the older Finch as a man who has attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting and opposes racial desegregation has already grabbed headlines because of the stark contrast to the noble lawyer in “Mockingbird” who defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.

The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Sacks described “Watchman” as “a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion.”

Several reviewers found fault with the new book on artistic grounds.

David L. Ulin of the Los Angeles Times called it “an apprentice effort (that) falls apart in the second half” and Julia Teller at the Chicago Tribune said it was “almost unbearably clunky” in parts.

It’s quite clear that until very recently Harper Lee never intended this ‘novel’ to be published, and that until the death of her sister, who was her primary caretaker, that wish was respected. Now, amazingly, at exactly the moment when Lee is alone and also quite aged and infirm, it turns out that the kindly cultural stewards at HarperCollins have been able to convince Lee otherwise. It’s a miracle — and in particular a miracle that has absolutely nothing to do with money.

But there’s a problem, of course, and the problem is how to see this new ‘novel’ in the context of Lee’s less-infamous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Or rather it’s a problem for some, but not for anyone who has ever written, because what’s being sold as a new novel from Harper Lee is almost certainly an early exploratory draft that held great meaning for Lee not because of what it was, but because of what it led to.

When you’re a writer, and particularly when you work in long form, you learn that your initial work is not always on the mark. Sometimes you get help from others, sometimes you see a better way yourself, but in any case you try something, it doesn’t work, so you try something else. There is nothing new in this. It is the way authors have always written, even as many authors themselves prefer to cling to the self-aggrandizing (and coincidentally salable) lie that great works emerge wholly formed, without typos.

In the graphic-novel genre Lee’s new ‘novel’ would simply be considered an alternate history and discussed in that context, but Mockingbird is sainted literature. Sainted literature that may now be indelibly stained by the noble and benevolent actions of a giant corporation acting only in the best interest of its author and readers. Because many of the critics who bless literature with sainthood are themselves culturally unable to comprehend Lee’s new ‘novel’ as a work product, as opposed to a statement of some kind, the myth will be perpetuated that this new work is in fact a separate work, which it almost certainly is not.

Whatever becomes of Lee and her legacy, the lesson for other writers is clear. If you’ve got an early exploratory draft, and you don’t want someone coming along later and misrepresenting that draft as a separate work, then you need to burn or delete that draft. At which point the academics will accuse you of having stolen or appropriated the final product, because they will find no evidence of how you got there on your own.

— Mark Barrett

VR, Drones and Autonomous Vehicles

As you are probably aware due to the unending stream of utopian press reports emanating from Silicon Valley, three new technologies bankrolled by three of the biggest names in tech are poised to change your life for the better. Just as the computer and internet have been nothing but a positive in the lives of all people everywhere, so too will virtual reality, drones and self-driving vehicles liberate human beings from the tedium of, respectively, sensing the real world, delivering packages, and driving.

Still, in the wee hours of the night, and admittedly afflicted by the kind of doubt that will forever keep human beings from reaching the computational certitude of computers, I find myself thinking that VR, drones and autonomous vehicles sound nice in the vacuum of public relations and venture-capital funding, but may experience or even provoke real-world problems upon deployment. In fact, I can’t keep my storytelling reflex from filling in all the utopian backdrops and can’t-miss financial windfalls with scenarios in which these technologies fail or are repurposed to darker intents.  Read more ]

Authors, Artists and the Internet

Because it’s easy to become overwhelmed by tech minutia, particularly if you hail from the arts, I thought it might be useful to step back from the discussion of SEO in the previous post and consider the internet in broader context. If you’re not into technology most tech-speak probably sounds like gibberish, but you probably also have faith that it all makes sense to someone somewhere. If the internet is a mystery to you as an artist or author, you trust that the smart, wonderful, benevolent people who created the internet in order to help you reach both your intended audience and your creative potential really do understand what it’s all about.

The internet is an amazing creation, and has come to dominate our lives in an amazingly short amount of time. Backed by hundreds of billions of dollars in investment, infrastructure and advertising, the internet is clearly the place to be, at least according to the internet. Beyond making a lot of people rich, however, the internet as a method of communication has democratized conversations that were previously controlled by self-interested if not bigoted gatekeepers, meaning voices that were perpetually overlooked or muted can now be heard on issues of critical importance. In every way the internet imitates life, and at times even imitates art.

The problem with that feel-good appraisal is that it ignores another fundamental truth about the internet, which is that is completely insane. And in saying that I do not mean the internet is exasperating or wildly avante-garde, nor am I being hyperbolic or pejorative. Rather, I mean that as a cold, clinical appraisal. If you are an author or artist the maze of technologies driving the internet may make it hard to perceive the systemic dysfunction emanating from your screen (though the phrase virtual reality is itself a shrill clue), but you are in fact better positioned than most to understand it. All you need to do is recast your conception of the internet in familiar terms.

If you’re a writer, think of the internet as having been authored by Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut. If you’re an artist, think of the internet as a work by Salvador Dali or René Magritte. Which is to say that the internet is not simply the sum of its technologies and techniques, but a construct, space, and experience informed and distorted by human perception and imagination.  Read more ]


Authors, Artists and SEO

Over the past month or so I’ve been catching up on a lot of old to-do items, including a year’s worth of site maintenance that I kept putting off until I switched ISP’s, which, oddly enough, I kept putting off until a couple of months ago. Anyway, while researching something or other I ran across a truly useful article on the subject of search engine optimization (SEO), which had the refreshing candor to acknowledge that SEO advocates speak gibberish:

As you sit down with your new SEO consultant it starts out well, but soon he says “We’ll need to implement a good 301 redirect plan so that you don’t lose organic rankings and traffic.” Then he says something about title tags, which you’ve heard of although you’re not quite sure exactly what they are or what they do, or why it’s important to update them as your consultant is recommending, although it all sounds good. Then he starts using other jargon like “indexing,” “link equity,” and “canonicalization,” and with every word you feel your grasp on reality slipping and the need to take a nap.

The entire piece contains an excellent glossary of terms that come up again and again in SEO articles. Unfortunately, the very fact that SEO is such an enigma confuses the question of how sole-proprietors — including particularly independent artists and authors — might best make use of SEO without themselves becoming confused or lapsing into gibberish.

So here’s the truth about SEO if you’re an artist. For the most part SEO is not something you need to be concerned about. Whatever time you might put into SEO, or whatever time you might convert into money in order to pay someone else to worry about SEO, can usually be more profitably spent creating whatever it is that you create.  Read more ]


Google is the New Microsoft

Two days ago I went to log into Gmail and found that the login screen I had been using for, what — an entire decade? — was suddenly behaving differently. Now, as a longtime web user I’ve been taught that any time something seems phishy I should make sure that what I’m seeing is actually what it purports to be. That is in fact the lesson all large web companies preach — be vigilant!

The problem, of course, is that the level of criminal sophistication perpetrating such deceptions keeps growing, to the point that almost anything seems possible. How do I know that someone hasn’t figured out a way to show me the appropriate URL, then redirect my traffic or keystrokes to a hostile server? I mean, I’m a reasonably sophisticated web user, but that only means I’m that much more aware of what I don’t know.

As it turns out, the change to my Gmail login ritual was not only initiated by Google, it was rolled out on the sly without, ironically, so much as an email that a change was coming. Meaning I had to get on the internet to find out that other users around the country and around the world were being confronted by that same autocratic change before I knew it was safe to log into my Gmail account.

Somewhere in the high-tech bowels of Google a group of very highly paid people got together and decided that they would roll out a new login scheme which requires twice as many clicks as the old scheme, that they would do so without giving notice to anyone who used that scheme, and that they would give no reason for doing so. That is exactly how the world ended up with Windows 8, and a whole host of other Microsoft initiatives to win market share and own technology spaces in complete disregard for its customers.

I suspect that the Gmail change has something to do with Google’s recognition that the world is going mobile, but the real story here is the contempt with which Google views its users. That is in fact the signature moment in any tech company’s life cycle — the one where current users are considered to be, at best, nothing more that a population to be exploited, and at worst, a hindrance to corporate goals that have completely diverged from the products and services being offered and utilized.

In terms of righteous indignation this barely qualifies as a 2, so I’m not suggesting anyone leave Gmail, but simply that you take a step back and get your mind around the contempt that any company would have to have in order to suddenly change the portal to your email account. Because those are the same people who have said they are not reading your hosted emails, or personally identifying your web traffic, or doing anything else you wouldn’t want them to do because they promised they wouldn’t be evil.

Update: It occurred to me last night that the new Gmail requirement that users click on two separate screens in order to log in, instead of only one as before, may have been initiated as a means of encouraging people to stay logged in all the time. While presenting as an initial annoyance, once users gave in and complied it would strengthen Google’s brand association with email products and the user’s reliance on same, preventing people from migrating to other platforms for chat and video, etc. The downside, obviously, is that it would actually make Gmail accounts significantly less secure if an always-logged-in device fell into the wrong hands.

— Mark Barrett


The Best Monitor / Display for Text

A few weeks ago, just before my keyboard died, my monitor momentarily flickered ever so subtly between displaying white as full white and white as soft pink. It happened so quickly, and the change was so faint, that at first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Fortunately, a day or two later the same thing happened, allowing me to determine that the monitor itself was hinky.

While I have no qualms about opening up a keyboard to see if I can rectify a problem, or just about any other gadget you could name, I draw the line at messing around inside devices that contain potentially lethal capacitors. Combine that reticence with the flickering I had seen, and the low, staticky hum that had been building up in my monitor for the past year or two, and it suddenly seemed prudent to once again peruse the state-of-the-art display offerings available in the market before the very device I would need to rely on to do so failed completely.

(There are all kinds of things that can go wrong with a computer, and the most maddening aspect of all of them is that those issues immediately make it impossible to access the internet, which is where all the solutions are. If your operating system locks up you need to access another computer to research the problem. If your monitor dies you need to have another display on hand in order to order a replacement, which you would not need if you already had one on hand. Speaking of which, even if you use an add-on graphics card, the motherboard in your computer should always have its own graphics chip for exactly that reason. If your card dies — and graphics cards are always dying, or freaking out — you can still drive your monitor and access the web.)

As was the case with my venerable old keyboard, I was not at all surprised that my monitor might be at the end of its useful life. In fact — and you will no doubt find this amusing or absurd — I am still using a second-hand CRT that I bought in the mid-aughts for the lofty price of twenty-five dollars. While that in itself is comical, the real scream is that the monitor was manufactured in 2001, meaning it’s close to fifteen years old. Yet until a couple of weeks ago it had been working flawlessly all that time.

The monitor is a 19″ Viewsonic A90, and I can’t say I’ve ever had a single complaint about it. It replaced my beloved old Sony Trinitron G400, which borked one day without the slightest hint that something might be amiss. Scrambling to get myself back in freelance mode I scanned Craigslist and found a used monitor that would allow me to limp along until I found a better permanent solution. Eight or so years later here I am, still using the same A90. (In internet time, of course, those eight years are more like eight hundred. Not only were LCD’s, and later, LED’s, pricey back then, yet quite raw in terms of performance, but you could also reasonably expect to use Craigslist without being murdered.)

Between then and now I have kept track of changes in the price, size, functionality and technology of flat-panel monitors, and more than once researched display ratings with the thought that I might join the twenty-first century. Each time, however, three issues kept me from pulling the trigger.

First, while all that snazzy new technology was indeed snazzy and new, relative to CRT technology it was still immature, requiring compromises I was not willing to make in terms of display quality and potential effects on my eyes. Having always been sensitive to flickering monitors, I was not eager to throw money at a problem I did not have — or worse, buy myself a problem I did not want. (As a general rule, putting off any tech purchase as long as possible pays off twice, because what you end up with later is almost always better and cheaper than what you can purchase today.)

Second, at the time I was primarily freelancing in the interactive industry, which meant I was working with a lot of beta-version software that had not been fully tested with every conceivable display technology. Using lagging tech at both the graphics and display level meant I could be reasonably confident that whatever I was working on would draw to my screen, at least sufficiently to allow me to do my part.

Third — and this relates somewhat to the second point — one advantage CRT’s had and still have over LCD/LED displays is that they do not have a native resolution:

The native resolution of a LCD, LCoS or other flat panel display refers to its single fixed resolution. As an LCD display consists of a fixed raster, it cannot change resolution to match the signal being displayed as a CRT monitor can, meaning that optimal display quality can be reached only when the signal input matches the native resolution.

Whether you run a CRT at 1024×768 or 1600×1200 you’re going to get pretty much the same image quality, albeit at different scales. The fact that I could switch my A90 to any resolution was a boon while working in the games biz, because I could adjust my monitor to fit whatever was best for any game while still preserving the detail and clarity of whatever documents I was working on.

While imagery is and always has been the lusty focus of monitor reviews, there is almost nothing more difficult to clearly render using pixels of light than the sharply delineated, high-contrast symbols we call text. Because LCD/LED monitors have a native resolution, attempting to scale text (or anything else) introduces another problem:

While CRT monitors can usually display images at various resolutions, an LCD monitor has to rely on interpolation (scaling of the image), which causes a loss of image quality. An LCD has to scale up a smaller image to fit into the area of the native resolution. This is the same principle as taking a smaller image in an image editing program and enlarging it; the smaller image loses its sharpness when it is expanded.

The key word there is interpolation. If you run your LCD/LED at anything other than its native resolution what you see on your screen will almost inevitably be less sharp. While that may not matter when you’re watching a DVD or playing a game, interpolating text is one of the more difficult things to do well. Particularly in early flat panels the degradation from interpolation was considerable, making anything other than the native resolution ill-suited for word processing.  Read more ]