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Cory Doctorow

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aaron swartz lead

I met Aaron Swartz in Cambridge shortly after he’d been indicted for downloading lots of JSTOR articles on MIT’s network in 2011. My Wired colleague Ryan Singel had been writing about his story, and I’d talked a lot with my friends in academia and publishing about the problems of putting scholarship behind a paywall, but that was really the level at which I was approaching it. I was there to have brunch with friends I’d known a long time only through the internet, and I hadn’t known Aaron that way. I certainly didn’t want to use the brunch to put on my journalist hat and pepper him with questions. He was there primarily to see his partner Quinn Norton’s daughter Ada, with whom he had a special bond. The two of them spent...

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If I had to make a list of the top 10 things I've done in my life that I regret, "writing a book" would definitely be on it. I took on the book project mostly because it was an opportunity to work with a few friends whose company I enjoy. I had no illusions going in about the rapidly diminishing value of technical books in an era of pervasive high speed Internet access, and the book writing process only reinforced those feelings.

In short, do not write a book. You'll put in mountains of effort for precious little reward, tangible or intangible. In the end, all you will have to show for it is an out-of-print dead tree tombstone. The only people who will be impressed by that are the clueless and the irrelevant.

As I see it, for the kind of technical content we're talking about, the online world of bits completely trumps the offline world of atoms:

  • It's forever searchable.
  • You, not your publisher, will own it.
  • It's instantly available to anyone, anywhere in the world.
  • It can be cut and pasted; it can be downloaded; it can even be interactive.
  • It can potentially generate ad revenue for you in perpetuity.

And here's the best part: you can always opt to create a print version of your online content, and instantly get the best of both worlds. But it only makes sense in that order. Writing a book may seem like a worthy goal, but your time will be better spent channeling the massive effort of a book into creating content online. Every weakness I listed above completely melts away if you redirect your effort away from dead trees and spend it on growing a living, breathing website presence online.

A few weeks ago, Hyperink approached me with a concept of packaging the more popular entries on Coding Horror, its "greatest hits" if you will, into an eBook. They seemed to have a good track record doing this with other established bloggers, and I figured it was time to finally practice what I've been preaching all these years. So you can now download Effective Programming: More Than Writing Code for an introductory price of $2.99. It's available in Kindle, iPad, Nook, and PDF formats.

 More Than Writing Code (Jeff Atwood)

I've written about the ongoing tension between bits and atoms recently, and I want to be clear: I am a fan of books. I'm just not necessarily a fan of writing them. I remain deeply cynical about current book publishing models, which feel fundamentally broken to me. No matter the price of the book, outside of J.K. Rowling, you're basically buying the author a drink.

As the author, you can expect to make about a dollar on every copy that sells. The publisher makes several times that, so they make a nice profit with as few as, say, five thousand copies sold. Books that sell ten or fifteen thousand are rare, and considered strong sellers. So let's say you strike gold. After working on your book for a year or more, are you going to be happy with a payday of ten to fifteen grand?

Incidentally, don't expect your royalty check right away. The publisher gets paid first, by the bookstores, and the publisher may then hold on to your money for several months before they part with any of it. Yes, this is legal: it's in the publisher's contract. Not getting paid may be a bummer for you, but it's a great deal for the publisher, since they make interest on the float (all the money they owe to their authors) - which is another profit stream. They'll claim one reason for the delay is the sheer administrative challenge of cutting a check within three months (so many authors to keep track of! so many payments!)... a less ridiculous reason is that they have to wait to see whether bookstores are going to return unsold copies of your book for a full refund.

Here's one real world example. John Resig sold 4,128 copies of Pro Javascript, for which he earned a grand total of $1.87 per book once you factor in his advance. This is a book which still sells for $29.54 on Amazon new.

Resig-book-check

Tellingly, John's second book seems permanently unfinished. It's been listed as "in progress" since 2008. Can't say I blame him. (Update: John explains.)

When I buy books, I want most of that money to go to the author, not the publishing middlemen. I'd like to see a world where books are distributed electronically for very little cost, and almost all the profits go directly to the author. I'm not optimistic this will happen any time soon.

I admire people willing to write books, but I honestly think you have to be a little bit crazy to sit down and pound out an entire book these days. I believe smaller units of work are more realistic for most folks. I had an epic email discussion with Scott Meyers about the merits of technical book publishing versus blogging in 2008, and I don't think either of us budged from our initial positions. But he did launch a blog to document some of his thoughts on the matter, which ended with this post:

My longer-term goal was to engage in a dialogue with people interested in the production of fast software systems such that I could do a better job with the content of [my upcoming book]. Doing that, however, requires that I write up reasonable initial blog posts to spur discussion, and I've found that this is not something I enjoy. To be honest, I view it as overhead. Given a choice between doing background research to learn more about a topic (typically reading something, but possibly also viewing a technical presentation, listening to a technical podcast, or exchanging email with a technical expert) or writing up a blog entry to open discussion, I find myself almost invariably doing the research. One reason for this is that I feel obliged to have done some research before I post, anyway, and I typically find that once I'm done with the research, writing something up as a standalone blog entry is an enterprise that consumes more time than I'm willing to give it. It's typically easier to write the result up in the form of a technical presentation, then give the presentation and get feedback that way.

Overhead? I find this attitude perplexing; the research step is indeed critical, but no less important than writing up your results as a coherent blog entry. If you can't explain the results of your research to others, in writing, in a way they can understand, you don't understand it. And if you aren't willing to publish your research in the form of a simple web page that anyone in the world can visit and potentially learn from, why did you bother doing that research in the first place? Are you really maximizing the value of your keystrokes? More selfishly, you should always finish by writing up your results purely for your own self-improvement, if nothing else. As Steve Yegge once said: "I have many of my best ideas and insights while blogging." Then you can take all that published writing, fold in feedback and comments from the community, add some editorial embellishment on top, and voilà – you have a great book.

Of course, there's no getting around the fact that writing is just plain hard. Seth Godin's advice for authors still stands:

Lower your expectations. The happiest authors are the ones that don't expect much.

Which, I think, is also good life advice in general. Maybe the easiest way to lower your expectations as an author is by attempting to write one or two blog entries a week, keep going as long as you can, and see where that takes you.

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An editorial in the 200th anniversary issue of the New England Journal of Medicine looks at mortality and health through the centuries, and includes this chart of causes of death from the turn of the last century, which makes for quite a comparison. We're doing great on kidneys, but hearts not so much.

During the 20th century, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions assumed more dominant roles (see bar graphTop 10 Causes of Death: 1900 vs. 2010.), although outbreaks of infectious disease — from eastern equine encephalitis (1938) and kuru (1957) to legionnaires' disease (1977), AIDS (1981), and multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (1993) — necessitated ongoing vigilance against microbes. New concerns also came to medical attention, from the terrifying consequences of thermonuclear war (1962) to the indolent but devastating effects of environmental pollution (1966) and climate change (1989). Optimism about prospects for the health of future populations persisted but remained tempered by concern about the pathologies of civilization. An obesity epidemic, feared in 1912, has come to pass. Our previously steady increase in life expectancy has stalled and may even be reversed (2005).

The Burden of Disease and the Changing Task of Medicine
(via Beth Pratt)

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King City collects Brandon Graham's magnificent Tokyo Pop comic serial in one mammoth, $11 (cheap!) trade paperback edition, and man, is that a deal.

Take the sprawling, weird, perverse cityscape of Transmetropolitan, mix in the goofy, punny humor of Tank Girl, add ultraviolent gang warfare, the impending resurrection of a death-god, and a secret society of cat-masters whose feline familiars can serve as super-weapons and tactical material, and you're getting in the neighbourhood of King City.

Graham's black-and-white line drawings have the detail of a two-page spread in MAD Magazine and a little bit of Sergio Argones in their style, if Argones was more interested in drawing the battle-scarred veterans of a Korean xombie war who consume each others' powdered bones to drive away the madness.

Despite the fact that this is a very, very funny story, it manages to be more than a comedy. Joe the cat-master's lost love, Pete the bagman's moral crisis, and Max the veteran's trauma are all real enough to tug at your heart-strings, even as you read the goofy puns off the fine-print labels on the fetishistically detailed illustrations showing King City and its weird and wonderful inhabitants.

JWZ wrote "It's the best comic-book-type thing I've read in quite some time. The trade is a huge phonebook-sized thing and it's awesome." He's right.

King City

(via JWZ)

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St Colin and the Dragon is a perfectly great 27-page kids' comic about a dragon that hatches in a faraway kingdom and the dumb things that the residents of the kingdom try to get rid of it. They give it an endless parade of sheep to eat, in the hopes that it will mature, grow wings and fly away. But no such thing happens. So Colin, the king's disgraced ex-squire, decides to join the knights who ride out to challenge it. All the big, tough guys are defeated, but Colin figures out what the dragon really wants and saves the kingdom. And then things get weird. In a good way.

St Colin was created by Philippa Rice, whose long-running My Cardboard Life comic (more aimed at grownups) uses the same torn-paper style that makes St Colin such a treat.

I read St Colin to my four-and-a-half-year-old at bedtime earlier this week, and it's had two re-reruns since, because she loves it. There's also plenty of grown up fun in the humorous and sometimes wry dialogue.

You can buy St Colin on its own for £6.50, or together with the massive, perfect-bound My Cardboard Life book for £15.00, should you want one book for the kid(s) and another for the grownup(s). I certainly recommend both to you.

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In early celebration of the Turing centenary this week, Ars Technica's Matthew Lasar has a lovely list of seven of Alan Turing's habits of thought, including this one: Be Playful.

There was something about Turing that made his friends and family want to compose rhymes. His proud father openly admitted that he hadn't the vaguest idea what his son's mathematical inquiries were about, but it was all good anyway. "I don't know what the 'ell 'e meant / But that is what 'e said 'e meant," John wrote to Alan, who took delight in reading the couplet to friends.

His fellow students sang songs about him at the dinner table: "The maths brain lies often awake in his bed / Doing logs to ten places and trig in his head."

His gym class colleagues even sang his praises as a linesman: "Turing's fond of the football field / For geometric problems the touch-lines yield."

Turing's favorite physical activity, however, was running, especially the long-distance variety. "He would amaze his colleagues by running to scientific meetings," Hodges writes, "beating the travelers by public transport." He even came close to a shot at the 1948 Olympic Games, a bid cut short by an injury.

The highly productive habits of Alan Turing

(Image: Alan Turing in 1927, Sherborne school archives)

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Here's a trailer for "Line of Sight," a documentary on underground bike-messenger racing that uses helmetcams to capture some pretty insane (and often terrifying) examples of cycling skill:

Line Of Sight is a rare view into underground bicycle messenger racing which has become a global phenomenon. For over a decade Lucas Brunelle has been riding with the fastest, most skilled urban cyclists around the world while capturing all the action with his customized helmet cameras to bring you along for the ride.

This is bike riding like you've never seen before, in gripping first-person perspective through the most hectic city streets, on expressways in Mexico City, over the frozen Charles River, under the Mediterranean Sea, across the Great Wall of China and deep into the jungles of Guatemala.

LINE OF SIGHT - Official Trailer

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From the Twitter feed of Pixar story artist Emma Coats, a series of "Pixar story rules." Some of these strike me as specific to the Pixar business and/or filmmaking, but others are perfect storytelling koans that I plan on stealing for my future writing workshops. Here are a few of my favorites:


#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on - it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Pixar story rules (one version)

(Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

(Image: Pixar Animation Studio, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from superstrikertwo's photostream)

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Henry Rothwell has an epically long, epically snarky review of Prometheus, entertainingly and engagingly written. Its fundamental point is that science fiction films are visually consistent, not logically consistent (the opposite of science fiction novels, which is why I'm a pain in the ass to take to sf movies). Rothwell gets there by pretty humorous means.

The first duty of the captain is, naturally, to decorate the Christmas tree. Because it’s Christmas apparently. Charlize Theron reminds him that there is a mission briefing. He informs her that he has yet to have breakfast. He’s been asleep for two years, and decides to decorate a Christmas tree (while smoking a cigar in a closed environment) before he has breakfast. We realise that the crew selection procedure was yet another casualty of the cuts required to ensure that they had a sodding big spaceship (SBS from here on in).

At the breakfast table a rather nice biologist (played by Raef Spall, son of Timothy) introduces himself to a grumpy geologist, who is very rude. Later on, he confirms he’s the geologist, by shouting “I’m a geologist, I fucking love rocks!” as if that was the most pressing point that needed explaining. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The current point that needs explaining is the implication that these two crew members have managed to make it this far without actually meeting each other, and are plainly incompatible. It seems that at least one part of the crew selection procedure took the form of a raffle at an arsehole convention.

Prometheus: an archaeological perspective (sort of).

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Jonathan Fetter-Vorm's Trinity is a nonfiction book-length comic for adults about the birth of nuclear weapons. It covers the wartime events that spawned the idea of a nuclear weapons program, the intense period of wrangling that gave rise to the Manhattan Project, the strange scientific town in the New Mexico desert that created the A-bomb, the tactical and political decision-making process that led to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the unspeakable horror experienced by the people in those cities and the existential crises the Nuclear Age triggered for scientists, politicians, and the world at large. Though this is primarily a history book, Trinity is also a pretty good nuclear physics primer, making good use of the graphic novel form to literally illustrate the violence of atoms tearing themselves apart, and the weird, ingenious, improvised mechanisms for triggering and controlling that violence.

I think Trinity is a very good book. It manages to be short and straightforward without being crude or lacking nuance. Fetter-Vorm does a great job of bringing the personalities involved in the bomb's creation to life, and to show the way that human relationships -- as much as physics -- resulted in the bomb's invention and use. He walks a fine, non-partisan line on the need to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, opting instead to lay out the facts in a (to my eye) fair and neutral way that neither argues that the bombing was a necessity, nor that it was a callous whim from a military apparatus that wanted to test out its latest gadget.

More than anything, though, Trinity is unflinching in counting the human cost of the bomb. The pages given over to the aftermath in the bombed cities are, if anything, understated. No gross-outs here. But they manage to convey so much horror that I had to stop reading so I could finish my lunch. Also wrenching, in its own way, is the section on the impact that the news from Japan had on the Trinity scientists and their families. Fetter-Vorm does a credible (and disturbing) job of putting you in the shoes of people who wanted to "end the war," but who found no respite in the war's end, as they struggled with the feeling of blood on their hands.

Trinity illuminates a turning-point in human history, and does so with admirable pace, grace, and skill.

Trinity

(Excerpted from TRINITY: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb, by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, to be published by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC in June 2012. Text copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Michael Gallagher. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. All rights reserved.)

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