General Rants

The Audiobook Renaissance

audiobookAbout a year ago, I wrote about media-enriched prose as a contrived method of storytelling, and I mentioned audiobooks. This is the follow-up, a year late because my day job has so little regard for my free time. Stop judging me.

If the audiobook sub-industry is a barometer for success in the digital age, then things are certainly looking good for the modern writer. Audiobook publications rose from roughly 3,000 releases in 2007 to more than 20,000 in 2013, and a huge percentage of that growth occurred in the last three years alone. Audiobooks currently account for roughly 10% of all industry sales – a figure that’s expected to climb past 20% in the next five years. There are a number of factors driving audiobook sales, and I would be reticent if I didn’t mention Audible. As unfriendly as Amazon is to writers, I find it remarkably difficult to decouple their services from my life. You can cancel my audible account when I’m dead. Founded in 1998, Audible surfed the digital revolution and found that MP3 audiobooks were more than a niche market. When Amazon purchased the company in 2008, it was a natural marriage that tied Jeff Bezos’s e-publishing vision together (until the kindle paperwhite killed the ability to play MP3s, and consequently play audiobooks). Fortunately, Amazon’s approach is mostly hands-off. Audible still maintains a distinctly separate site with their own marketplace that has direct links to Amazon content.

What Audible has done for the audiobook revolution should not be overlooked – the ability to track favorite narrator as well as favorite authors can introduce writers to a whole new audience. And, conversely, stilted reading that resembles Ben Stein’s monotone soliloquy from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off can kill enthusiasm for fiction. I absolutely loved Rendezvous with Rama, but I could barely get through the audiobook because the performance was suicide-inducingly bad.

The Netflix revolution has inundated society with content. When it becomes possible to watch seven seasons of How I Met Your Mother in one sitting, only to find out the mother was the least important aspect of the show, finding readers willing to invest hours into your work is a tough sell. Audiobooks are not only a brilliant way to spend long car rides, they’re a great way to broaden your readership, and it’s never been easier to self-publish an audiobook. Though you shouldn’t expect any sales elves to shower you with gold. Royalty rates for self-publishing audiobooks are just as dismal as e-books. It’s also worth noting that audiobook contests are taking off, so team up with a rising voice actor today! Ron McLarty had a successful career as an audiobook narrator, which he leveraged into self-publishing The Memory Of Running as an audiobook. Once Stephen King mentioned it, McLarty’s sales skyrocketed.

If you’re writing, you should be reading. Audiobooks are a great way to fill the gap in your reading schedule. I regularly burn through 60 and 70 hour work weeks, which doesn’t leave much time for writing or reading. I keep up with my backlog by sneaking audiobooks in the car (40-minutes a day to and from work means I can churn through a book in about two months), listening to them at night (I’d rather fall asleep to a good audiobook than re-runs of How I Met Your Mother – just don’t listen to Stephen King unless you like creepy dreams), and listening while I’m doing things around the house. I will forever equate NOS4A2 with parmesan-encrusted shrimp.

But you’re not there yet, you say? You’re still working on that ending where your protagonist delivers a 40-page rousing speech? Well, you are reading your work out loud, right? If so, you’ve already realized that a 40-page speech doesn’t work. I’m not even sure why you brought it up.

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Well Played #2

I’m in a public bathroom and go to wash my hands, but the automated faucet doesn’t work. I try another one, doesn’t work. I try the soap dispenser, nope. Paper towel dispenser? Nope. 

Some guy walks up to a faucet and it turns on for him. So I try the faucet next to him, no luck. I said, “Shit, maybe I’m dead and I don’t know it.”

The dude looks me right in the eye and says, “I could’ve sworn I heard something.”

Well played, bar dude. Well played indeed.

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Well Played #1

A few days ago, I tasked a new hire with re-provisioning one of our biggest clusters because we have some firmware updates that should increase per-core performance. It’s a mind-numbing job of pushing a cart around, plugging a mouse/keyboard/monitor into every one of 1200 servers, manually rebooting and manually keying through the firmware update. Takes 2-3 minutes per machine.

So today I check on him. Now, this kid can’t be more than 23, 24, fresh out of college. I ask how it’s going, peek at the monitor which is just finishing up. When the server re-boots, the lights on the front switch from blue or amber to green. The kid says, “Light is green, the trap is clean.”

I said, “Did you just make a Ghostbusters reference? Right on, my man! Slap me some skin!”

He said, “Dude, L-M-F-A-O, my dad likes that movie.”

Well played, kid… well played.

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What happens when you drop the SOPA in the shower?

Unless you’re living under a rock (or a Luddite like my wife) you’ve probably heard something about SOPA and its Senate counterpart, PIPA.  SOPA stands for Stop Online Piracy Act, while PIPA represents the Protect Intellectual Property Act – lawmakers just love their acronyms.  Personally, I think they should’ve called it the Destruction Of Online Foul Unacceptable Stuff (DOOFUS), or maybe Protect Online Files from Internet Technology (PROFIT) – at least it would’ve hinted at what the bill really aims to protect, or even Semi-Legal American Persecution of Online Foreign Fraudulence (SLAPOFF).

At their heart, both SOPA and PIPA aim to address the same problem: there’s an overabundance of online piracy.  Big media companies are convinced they’re losing billions, and they’ve convinced lawmakers that the US economy, democracy, and the lives of kittens everywhere hinges on the ability to protect intellectual property by throwing away more than 220 years of due process.  The Bill of Rights ensures the accused are innocent until proven guilty; SOPA and PIPA ignore that and put the burden on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and content owners (e.g. people who put stuff on the intarwebs – from youtube and wikipedia to sites like mine and even people who post in Internet forums).

Pretty much anything Congress or the Senate puts together reads like it was carved in bark by a three-year-old in native Swahili, then translated to Occitan before being translated into English.  While SOPA is a tad too complicated to sum up, I’ll do my best: these two bills allow Intellectual Property holders (movie studios, recording studios, etc.) the ability to accuse web sites of piracy.  It’s not the accusation that’s the problem – it’s the power said accusation levies against the accused.  Under SOPA, service providers would be required to block access to accused sites, search engines like Google must de-list accused sites, billing services and credit-card companies must block any payments, domain ownership transfers to the accusers, and a hundred fluffy kittens must be killed, all without a court order.  OK – I made part of that up.  They’ve actually dropped the domain ownership issue.

If you dig into it, there’s a lot of good content on SOPA/PIPA from both sides (mostly from the truthful open-internet supporters, rather than the communist pig dogs promoting SOPA/PIPA).  What troubles me, particularly from an author’s standpoint, is that Big Media not only had a key hand in writing these bills, but worked very hard to push them through the process before anyone could complain.  It’s easy to sit back (particularly several days after Dark Wednesday when most lawmakers have rescinded support for SOPA/PIPA) and talk about how much the process works, how the people’s voices have been heard, how the little guy has won and we shouldn’t ever worry about becoming some warped, dystopian society run by corporations.  Nobody sane supports piracy save pirates and people who think it’s their right to have free stuff, and most would agree the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is far from perfect.  Big Media doesn’t exactly have a good track record of fairness – Warner Brothers even admitted last year to submitting DMCA takedown notices for files they didn’t even have the rights to.

The issue is far from over, regardless of where these bills end up in the coming months.  The evolution of technology is forcing content owners and big media to adapt or die.  Survival by litigation is nothing new, but it provokes the kind of innovation-stifling idea-killing future where everyone will end up eating Soylent Green.

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I’m not Batman

I have to wonder – does Batman get dental surgery?  His alter-ego is super rich, so I’m sure he’s got a great dental plan.  But what if he gets a root canal?  Does he just hang up the bat-suit for awhile until he’s all better?  Or does he prowl the streets in pain, taking out his frustrations on Gotham’s criminals?

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Santa is creepy

I was fairly young when I decided that Santa is the kind of person I want nothing to do with.

Santa springs from the dutch Sinterklaas who in turn was based on Saint Nichols, or Nikolaos of Myra, who was a 4th century Greek bishop.  Myra was known for secretly leaving coins in shoes left out for him (though if you’re leaving the shoes out just for him, I don’t see how it could be secret, but whatever).  When he died in 343 AD, he became Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, merchants, students, archers, and thieves.  I wasn’t aware thieves even had a patron saint, but I suppose in the Catholic faith it makes sense – best to be forgiven while committing the crime, even better if you have a saint on your side.  I’m not entirely sure how the patron saint of archers and thieves morphed into the jolly-old gift-giver we know today.

I was in elementary school when we learned about safety.  Mcgruff the crime dog came into class to tell us all how to stay safe and look out for dastardly criminals, like those nasty burglars who dress in black, wear ski masks, and always have goatees.  I think it was Halloween, because I distinctly remember Mcgruff telling us not to eat any candy until after our parents could check it.  I’m pretty old, so this was probably around the same time the myth of razorblades in candy bars was started (likely propagated by candy-corn makers who wanted to increase sales – don’t buy chocolate bars that someone can put a razor blade in, buy candy-corn instead!).  We also learned not to accept candy from strangers, which I had a big problem with since Halloween was all about accepting candy from strangers.  We were told never to speak to people we don’t know, that there are some people – very bad people, possibly people with goatees – who like to kidnap boys and girls.  These bad people lure boys and girls with candy and gifts.

Being a rational and curious child, I naturally assembled the pieces and came to the conclusion that Santa Clause must be a pedophile.  He’s fat (and most of the pictures of burglars and bad people were pudgy), a beard is only a few skipped shaving days away from a goatee, and he sneaks into your house at night.  He leaves you presents, but only if you’re good.  There are no clear-cut rules for what constitutes good, so this guy is always watching you, spying on everything you do, even when you go to the bathroom.  He supposedly lives in a far-away land full of tiny child-like elves.  In December, you can go to the mall and sit on his lap.  The free toys were the sugar used to mask the bitter pill of a pedophile who’s always watching you, wants to give you gifts, wats you to sit on his lap, and will sneak into your house while you’re sleeping.

My parents put a stop to my plans for booby-trapping the fireplace, but one year I did slip some laxatives in the milk we had to leave out for the bastard.  I never made the connection when my dad spent Christmas morning on the toilet.

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Just how big is Adrien Brody’s nose?

Personally, I blame Avatar and James Cameron for the explosion of 3D.  Film critics seem to think it’s the beginning of the end (first cgi, and now 3D?  We’re doomed!)  I happen to think that 3D is mind numbingly awesome, but I’m also amused with cereal-box toys and bubble wrap.  The truth of the matter is that the “new” 3D isn’t going away anytime soon.  Love it or hate it, 3D is the wave of the future.  For a 160-year-old technology, that’s pretty impressive.

We should start with some basics.  If you already know how 3D works, you can skip the next paragraphs  Though I might say something clever, but hey – it’s your loss.  Viewing 3D requires the ability to calculate depth using two images, which is why we have two eyes.  The visual cortex of your brain is performing on-the-fly geometry to figure out that your keyboard is close, but your monitor is further away, and that cup of tea you just made is so far out of reach you’re going to have to get up to get it.  (Go ahead, I’ll wait here.)  To simulate 3D, images need to display two slightly skewed views of the same scene to each eye.  Roughly a quarter of the population can’t even see 3D effects because an eye doesn’t work right, or both eyes don’t focus in sync, or the image is interpreted incorrectly in the brain.

In 1853, Willhelm Rollman figured out how to simulate 3D using color-doped lenses to filter out images.  You can blame him for those red and blue glasses.  It wasn’t until the 1890’s that film caught on.  William Friese-Greene patented a technique for viewing two separate movies projected on two separate screens at the same time.  Greene’s method worked really well, but wasn’t practical since only one person could view the picture at a time.  Plus it took James Cameron too long to make Avatar for 3D to catch on in the 1890’s.  Cheap plastic made 3D possible in the 1950’s since movie theatres could hand out disposable red and blue glasses using Rollman’s technique developed a hundred years earlier.  The down side was poor color, but since the world was only black-and-white in the 1950’s it didn’t matter.

Modern movie theatres use polarization (a method of filtering light) to display two images simultaneously.  Those funky cheap sunglasses are attuned to each separate image (try putting them on upside down to give yourself a bad headache).  The up side is that polarized 3D will display the correct color, but polarization causes a loss of brightness.  Some 3D theatres (like Imax 3D) compensate by tweaking the brightness and polarization.  And sometimes the projectionist is a doofus who forgets to remove the polarized lense and you end up watching a 2D movie that looks like somebody smeared engine oil over everything

The human eye sees still images as motion with as few as 24 images a second.  Anything below that, and it looks like the actors have toureetes syndrome.  Our eyes actually see a continuous stream of light, so the more still images we see per second, the more natural it looks and the less headaches we get.  When TV’s went digital, manufacturers had to invent new methods of producing each frame quickly.  Early LCD and Plasma screens couldn’t re-draw the entire image fast enough, and ended up displaying part of the previous frame, which created a “ghost” image that became more apparent in scenes where something was moving across the screen.  Advancements in technology have led to better screens which re-draw each frame faster, and the faster the frames are re-drawn, the smoother the image looks.  For digital TV’s to look decent, the display should refresh at 60Hz at a minimum (that’s roughly 60 still-images a second, though it gets more complicated than that).  Try turning down the refresh on your PC monitor and see how fast you get a headache.  You could turn it into a drinking game!  Just don’t send me the cleaning bill when you puke on the floor.

Fast-refresh TV’s make 3D at home possible.  Since we need to see two images, the TV has to have a way to show each separate image fast enough that we won’t notice.  At 120hz, TV’s can display two images at 60hz each, resulting in theoretical smooth viewing.  This means that any TV running at 120hz is capable of 3D, but doesn’t have to use it.  And no, 3D TV’s aren’t 3D all the time – you still need to have a 3D signal with two distinct images per frame.  Even with a fast refresh, we need a way to filter each image so its only viewed by one eye at a time.  Polarization like they use in theatres requires an expensive coating on the display that increases the price by $1,000 or more.  Manufacturers have been experimenting with shuttering which turns out to be cheaper for the TV, but more expensive for the glasses.  With shuttering, the glasses flicker in sync with the TV as it re-draws each image, filtering out the opposite image for the shuttered eye.  To shutter, the glasses require a power source to flicker the crystal shutter and transmitter to stay in sync with the TV.  Factor in the battery, transmitter, and liquid-crystal shutters, and suddenly you’re balancing the weight of a small European country on the bridge of your nose.  Some displays, like the Nintendo 3DS and a few phones, use a smaller polarized screen to display both images, but it requires the viewer to be perfectly dead center.  A correctly polarized screen can display two entirely separate images at once to two different viewers.  On the plus side, I could finally catch up on Lost while my wife watches boring reality shows!  On the down side, big polarized displays cost more than the annual budget of a small European country (give or take).

Faster refresh in displays means smoother images and a better picture, which is something all manufacturers are aiming for.  As technology gets cheaper, all displays will be 120hz or greater, meaning a TV manufacturer can throw in 3D shuttering at nearly no cost and add a check-box to the feature list regardless of how much the consumer wants 3D.  More TV’s will be 3D enabled or 3D ready, even if nobody uses them.  Polarization will take a lot longer to improve before it becomes cheap enough for large displays, but it’s coming, like it or not.  And as 3D capable TV’s reach a saturation point, movies and TV will start filming in 3D more often.  We may finally get a chance to see just how big Adrien Brody’s nose really is!

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Long winded

The data center is, quite possibly, the best place in the world to fart.

Racks of computers, routers, and switches require lots of fans to cool.  Lots of fans means lots of noise!  So, unless you’re letting rip one of those earth-shattering bombers, nobody should hear you.  Lots of computers generate lots of heat, which means data centers need to be cooled, and chillers circulate air constantly.  Your flatulence is safely cycled out within seconds, and no one ever need know.

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Squishy

There’s an offshoot of Buddhism that believes people are reincarnated as animals if they’re cruel, and insects if they’re particularly evil.  I’d like to think when I drive down the road, I’m killing tiny pieces of Hitler with my windshield.

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Prepare to meet your DOOM!

The Mayans – the D-list movie stars of ancient civilizations.  Largely ignored, eclipsed by Aztecs, often mistaken for Aztecs, the Mayans were mathematically brilliant and enigmatic.  Perhaps that’s why the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21st, 2012 has captured so much press.  Global attention spans are fleeting – like trying to teach a puppy to pee only on newspaper.  Things are exciting!  Until they’re not, and then global attention spans pee wherever they want.  Last year the world was absolutely infected with the predicted end of the Mayan calendar, right up to the Hollywood adaptation of a surprisingly awful and yet amusingly entertaining disaster movie, 2012.  And this year, nothing.

Once we’ve all woken up from our New Year’s hangover in 2012, I predict the media will be yet again bombarded with gloom and doom of the kind not seen since the Y2K disaster that never was.  We’re already overloaded with books, iPhone apps, web sites – disaster predictions are everywhere.  Here’s a brief list, and why they’re stupid:

Some nutjobs claim the Mayans were predicting solar storms.  The sun tends to spit out radiation every few years, and solar radiation disrupts electronics.  A solar storm in 1989 actually brought down the Canadian power grid for a few hours (take THAT, Canada!).  The last big burst was in August.  Did you notice?  Neither did I.  According to NASA, the folks who actually know about this stuff, the next big solar storm isn’t going to happen until 2013 or 2014.  While it’s true electronics are sensitive, and a really massive solar storm, something like a sun-fart, would knock out satellites and disrupt power, that’s hardly a catastrophe.  Power grids will come back on.  At worst, unshielded satellites may be dead, and launching more will be expensive.  We may have to go through a few years without GPS, and that is a disaster.

Other nutjobs believe the Mayan calendar corresponds to solar variations, in particular, the galactic conjunction (which sounds like a venereal disease).  The galactic conjunction occurs when the earth’s orbit and our sun align with the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.  That the Mayans predicted this isn’t really so amazing, considering their calendar was based on movement of the sun and moon.  Mayans were great astronomers.  You have to remember, these people didn’t have television, so they had to do something with their time.  That the calendar ends during a conjunction is no mystery.  But there’s another subclass of solar nutjob who thinks the Mayans were predicting when all the planets in our own solar system will align, creating a massive gravity well!  First, there is no full planetary alignment in 2012.  Second, even if all the planets did align, they can’t overpower the largest mass in our solar system, the sun.  Only the IRS wields such power, and they’re not likely to audit the sun.  Or are they…

Next up is the earth-axis shift.  The magnetic poles like to move around, and the earth wobbles.  The nutjobs say the earth’s magnetic poles will shift on December 21st 2012, throwing the equator along the poles and creating global earthquakes and tidal waves.  A suddenly shifting magnetic pole would be bad, but it isn’t going to happen.  Virtually every planetary scientist with actual  credentials – not degrees purchased from the Internet or non-existent countries – agrees that the earth’s poles aren’t likely to shift, and even if they did it’d be a slow, gradual change over hundreds of years.  A disaster spanning hundreds of years doesn’t seem like a disaster… and I don’t think people can scream that long.

There are plenty more wacky ideas, including invasions of insects and the mighty Cthulu rising from the sea.  I would’t start hoarding shotguns and canned food just yet.  The Mayan calendar ends on December 21st, 2012, but the Mayans never said there’d be a disaster.  Their calendar was broken up in to eras, and the end of one era doesn’t mean the end of the world.  They were no more likely to plan the next era than we are to start printing calendars for 2025.

And finally, probably the biggest point to make, the Mayan calendar may not really end on December 21st 2012 anyway.  The growing consensus from archaeologists is that the original calculations used to convert the Mayan calendar to the Gregorian calendar are wrong.  Re-calculating puts the Mayan calendar end date 50-100 years off the mark, which means Hollywood will be making a sequel disaster movie: 2112, the revenge.

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