Blog Archives

Finding buried treasure — that you buried!


Poker odds book sampleIt’s a rather surreal experience. Here I am, going through a bunch of my writing archives looking for a book proposal template, and I stumble upon an old proposal from 2005. I remember coming up with the book idea. I remember doing the research and sending out proposals. What I didn’t remember was actually writing a few chapters of the book to include in those proposals.

Sometimes, looking at my old work is exciting. I found a 20-year-old magazine with one of my articles in it, read the article, and thought, “Hey, I’m good!” Other times, it’s the opposite. I was looking for some clips on a particular topic and came across one of my old articles. I actually cringed. I couldn’t believe someone actually paid me for that and published it.

Today’s experience is different. The proposal I found was for a book about the mathematical side of poker. As I read through these sample chapters, I honestly don’t remember writing them. But I like them! I have two other projects in the works right now (the Myths & Legends of Tea and another Who Pooped in the Park? book that I’m not talking about yet), but I do believe I’m going to come back to this idea.

The advantage of being a packrat

Packrat (Neotoma cinerea)

Go ahead. Be a packrat. Packrats are adorable!

Everywhere you turn for advice these days, people are telling you not to be a packrat. Simplify your life! Throw away your old junk! If you haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it!

It’s different when you’re an author. You never know when that old idea that went nowhere might be exactly what an editor is looking for. Having a book or article turned down repeatedly can sap your enthusiasm. That’s what happened to me with this book on the mathematics of poker. After having it shot down a few times, I gave up and filed it. Now that I go back through my notes (you do keep notes on your old projects, right?) I feel my enthusiasm returning. I’m going to finish up what I’m working on while this percolates in the back of my head and then blast it back out in a different format.

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Once upon a time, I wrote an opinion piece about computer hacking. I didn’t find a market for it and this was before the days of blogs, so I stuck the article on my website. Lo and behold, it became the most popular page on the site, by a pretty hefty margin. The more emails I got about it, the more I thought I should turn it into a book about hacking and phreaking. I put quite a bit of time into the book, but I had a full time job and I ended up shelving it for a while.

Technology inexorably marches onward. While the partially-completed book sat untouched, it became swiftly more obsolete. When I came back to it, I just couldn’t bring myself to start my research over from scratch. But re-reading it showed me that the history section was still relevant and still interesting. When a computer hacking magazine called Blacklisted! 411 contacted me and asked to reprint the essay from my website, I made them a deal: I would turn that history section into two feature articles. If they paid their going rate for those two features, they could have reprint rights on the essay for free. They jumped at the offer, and I ended up making $1,125 from that “useless” manuscript.

For anyone that’s interested, you can read one of those feature articles, The Origins of Phreaking, on my website in either HTML or PDF format.

The moral of the story

It’s not enough just to keep your old notes, articles, essays, manuscripts, poems, proposals, and ponderings. You need to go back and look at them every now and then. Think about whether any of it has suddenly become relevant. Perhaps that magazine you just wrote an article for might be interested in one of your old unsold pieces. Perhaps that editor who sent the “we don’t want this but keep trying” rejection might like one of your old ideas better.

Don’t just archive your old stuff on a CD, either. You will never get around to loading that CD back up and looking at it. You also might lose it. The dog might eat it. Keep those files on your hard drive where searches will pull them up. You might be surprised at how you end up finding one.

Facebook: A tool for journalists?


Facebook logoAsk anyone what Facebook is, and they’re likely to give the same short, sweet answer: it’s a social networking site. Indeed, that’s its primary use for me these days (once I have all of the games filtered out and ignore the politics and religion), but that’s not its only use.

As an example, I’m working on an article about closed captioning for the Journal of Court Reporting. I needed some interviews for the article, so I sat down to compile a list of people to talk to. I had my email program open on one of my screens, and Facebook open on the other, and it got me thinking. I’ve been fairly diligent about sorting my friends into lists, and I just happen to have a list for friends who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, or work with deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

I went through the list, saying “oh, I need to talk to her” and “I wonder what he’d say about this issue.” I fired off a quick private message to each of the people I wanted to talk to, and started scheduling interview times. In the past, I’ve done a lot of telephone interviews, and a lot of email interviews. I have also done interviews using a variety of chat systems, ranging from CompuServe and IRC online to TDDs (telecommunication devices for the deaf) online, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve done online chat interviews.

Just for kicks, I decided to see how much of the communication for this article I can do using Facebook, just to see how it works out. Obviously, this limited my base of potential interviewees to people I know (or can find) on Facebook. It also slows things down a bit, as typed conversations are slower than oral ones. Here are a few comments, observations, and tips on the process:

  1. Having a verbatim transcript of the interview is handy. During phone interviews, I’m often scrambling to take notes as we talk, and doing it on Facebook chat means I can just cut and paste quotes into the article (however, see #4 below).
  2. The process is much more interactive than an email interview, allowing each question to be tailored based on previous responses. Trying to replicate this in email could stretch the process out for days.
  3. Being able to insert links in the chat is a big help if you want to show the interviewee something and get comments on it.
  4. Using chat introduces an interesting journalistic dilemma. Even careful writers have a tendency to use chat abbreviations (e.g., BTW, OTOH, IIRC) and not worry much about punctuation. When quoting them in the article, should you leave their text as-is, or write it out and re-punctuate it as you would for a phone interview? Hmmm. I think I’ll ask that question on a couple of message boards — or maybe bounce it around on Facebook. I’ll follow up here later.
  5. This could work just as well on Google+, except for the paucity of people on G+ compared to Facebook.
  6. This would be an annoying process on Twitter, worrying all the time about hitting that maximum character count. Some of the Facebook responses were quite long.
  7. The partially-synchronous nature of chat leads to some interesting responses. Often, both of you are typing at the same time (Facebook tries to tell you when the other person’s typing, but that is often flaky). Several times, I typed questions as the interviewees were typing comments that answered my questions. Reading the transcript, it looks like they answered my questions before I asked them!
  8. Sometimes it’s hard to hang back and wait for the other person to finish their thoughts before asking something else, but it pays off if you do!

So, is Facebook a social networking site? Certainly it is. But it’s a lot more these days, too.

Once the article appears in print, I’ll put a copy of it online so you can judge how well the process worked out.

Treadmills, books, e-books, magazines, and apps


We have a treadmill at home. A fine treadmill, but with a major design flaw (from my perspective): the book holder. I’m a pretty big guy, and at 6 feet, 5 inches tall, my eyes are a long way from the book holder when I’m on the treadmill. My eyes aren’t great, but I can read a book with standard print from that distance. It’s a little jiggly when I’m moving, but I can manage. The holder itself is fine for a small book, but won’t easily hold a thick book. It will hold a magazine, but most magazines have pretty small print.

It’s also deucedly awkward turning pages. I have to just about take the book or magazine out of the holder, turn the page, and slide it back in. A real pain in the neck. I want something with large text that fits easily in the rack and has easy-to-turn pages, even when walking or jogging on the treadmill.

Wired Magazine on an iPadEnter the iPad.

I can enlarge the text as I please, it’s backlit so I don’t have to worry about positioning a light on the treadmill, and turning a page is as easy as swiping my finger across the screen — a piece of cake even at a jog. I like the feel of “real” books, and I like buying and selling used books, which makes reading less expensive, but the iPad is the perfect treadmill solution.

Then came Apple’s new release of iOS, which I loaded this week. It has a million new features, but some of the basic fundamentals stopped working, like being able to read an ebook. Big chunks of text disappear between virtual pages. I have to keep changing the text size up and down to try and fit more or less text per page and hope I can read those missing lines. A pain in any circumstances; completely untenable on a treadmill.

“iOS 5 has a million new features, but some of the basic fundamentals stopped working, like being able to read an ebook.”

Apple’s been trumpeting their new “Newsstand” on iOS 5, which allows you to group all of your magazines in one place and read them on the iPad. I figured I’d give it a shot. I can usually count on Wired magazine being ahead of the curve on tech, and they have a free issue when you load the app, so I loaded it up and gave it a try.

I love you, Wired, but you sure missed the boat on your iPad app. It’s almost like a group of designers sat down in a room and said, “How can we make this as awkward as possible for a 50-year-old dude on a treadmill?” It’s pretty; I’ll give them that. It’s an immersive experience that’s better than a magazine and better than a web site. But it has a few problems.

“I love you, Wired, but you sure missed the boat on your iPad app.”

  • You can’t adjust the text size. This is a huge step backwards in both ergonomics and accessibility.
  • Navigation is inconsistent. Sometimes you have to swipe down (for the next page in an article) and sometimes you swipe sideways (for the next article), but you can’t skip to the next article without either going through all of the pages or activating the scroll bar on the bottom and delicately scrolling sideways.
  • Navigation requires precise movements. Turning a page while moving at a jog is easy with the iPad’s e-reader for books. Just tap the right margin or swipe from the right. In the Wired app, you have to have the motion exactly correct. If your swipe isn’t exactly horizontal, it will try to scroll down, even if you’re on a page where downward swipes don’t work. If your swipe is too short, it treats it as a tap and shows the scroll bar. Many of the pages have active spots, and if you accidentally hit one of those, you end up playing an audio clip or showing a graphic instead of moving to the next page.
  • As a combination of my first and third point, some of the features require hitting fairly small buttons with fairly high precision (just a tap, not a swipe), which is quite a challenge on the treadmill.
  • There’s no onscreen indication of how to navigate. When I first loaded it up, I got to the first page of an article I didn’t want to read, and couldn’t figure out how to move on. I kept swiping sideways, and the image would flick sideways and come back. It took several minutes to figure out I had to go through all of the pages to the end of the article, and then flick sideways.

Beautiful app, guys. Looks great. Tons of data. Nice interactive features. But your ergonomics stink.

Until Apple fixes their ebook reader, it looks like I’m back to podcasts on the treadmill. Oh, well. I’ve been missing Science Friday lately. Hey, Ira! I’m back!

New and upcoming magazine articles


Acres USA May 2011 coverJust in case you’re keeping track, these are my latest three magazine articles.

  • “Easy Keepers” (Corriente cattle) in the May issue of Acres U.S.A. (out now)
  • “History of Kilts” in the September issue of Renaissance
  • “Internet Caption Delivery” in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Court Reporting
    (the publication of the National Court Reporters Association)
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