user experience begins at home

On Staying Ahead of Technology & ICFA

Where is March going, you guys? It’s a total blur.

I’m still in editorial mode, but tomorrow I am off to ICFA – the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts. I’m ridiculously excited about all three guests of honor, writers Nnedi Okorafor and Ian McDonald being regular occupiers of my bookshelf, and guest-scholar Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. as well. (Yes, I’m also happy it will be warm and not snowing.)

My schedule: Thursday, March 20, 8:30 am in Vista A, Author Reading with Brett Cox (host), Greg Bechtel, Sarah Pinborough & Fran Wilde

If you’re going, I look forward to seeing you there. If not – check out the papers and panels. This is an amazing conference.

Otherwheres, I was asked to guest post about staying ahead of emerging technology over at SF Signal last week. Here’s the teaser – go read the rest – and jump into the discussion, if you’re so inclined.

On Staying Ahead of Evolving Technology (OR: Things Fall Apart)

John DeNardo invited me to talk to SF Signal readers about the sensor wasps that appear in my Asimov’sApril/May 2014 short story “Like a Wasp to the Tongue,” and I’m delighted to do so.

SF writers spend a lot of time thinking about where technology is headed. In particular, we try to stay far, far ahead of where technology might be headed. It’s part of the job description. Personally, I find it a lot of fun. But it isn’t an easy sort of fun. Tech moves faster every day.

In a former life as an engineering and science writer, I learned that one way to get a jump on technology and where it could evolve is to look at the problems that technology (read the rest here...)

Algorithms Love You and Want You to Be Better!

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a seminar on disruptive technology given by the director of Singularity University, Salim Ismail, his colleague David Roberts, and Banning Garrett, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Heads up — this post is going to be higher-geek-octane than usual. Specifically: robots, 3D printers, gene-hacks, exponential technology growth, pristine-algorithm-theory, self-replication, and godmodding. If those words make you clutch your bleeding ears, Cooking the Books is over here, and there are fine fiction links here and here.

Still with me? Sweet.

(more…)

Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest… – do you need them all?

A question to the floor: pinterest2
What social media tools do you use and for what purposes? We could talk all day about Facebook (or on Facebook) – where many writers have fan pages, or post most updates – but let’s go a bit further afield too.

  • Pinterest – Launched in 2010 as a ‘virtual pinboard,’ Pinterest can be used for research (putting photos in buckets), inspiration, and conversation. Check out some really well-curated pinboards for examples: Arin Dembo, Elizabeth Bear, Holly Black, Jenny Lawson, Sara Mueller, and Craig EnglerMine’s a bit sloppy, but I’ve found it a useful place to store things in buckets, so I know where to find them. Broadcast type: public.
  • Tumblr - Founded in 2007, but rising in visibility recently. The tumblr technique is called short-form blogging by the company. I’m new to this one (which is the reason for this post). In some ways, Tumblr is also a pin-board, though its visual interface is linear where Pinterest’s is more of (more…)

For the Greater Good

The Internet and one of its many, many kittens. Wikimedia Commons image. Photo Credit: Sasan Geranmehr

Ok, some Sunday morning musing for you: How do we as a culture determine what is ‘good’?

In any field, at any point in history, a pulse-point of ‘good’ has been established. That’s where we get various canons – quite often the creative works of a dominant culture, to the detriment of other voices, other data.

Also throughout history, arbiters of taste abound, marketing studies flourish, trends analyses bloom like algae (or tulips) all over the surface of ‘good’ in the marketplace. And sometimes the only result is noise, or mundanity: a horse designed by committee, versus something sleek and fast and wonderfully new. That’s not good at all.

Now though. Now we can quantify good. We can see how and where the market reacts to what we give them, we can establish datapoints, and we can give the market more of what it wants. And we will make the market happy and that will be good. Right? This is the message I’m getting from Fast Company’s article on Amazon’s Serialized Novel program. A cautious sense that -hooray- we will Finally Know What People Like And Be Able To Give Them More Of It. With data. (more…)

Your Voice, in Public

The dreaded podium.
photo credit: Brian Herzog
source: Flickr (creative commons license).

Last week, at a local writers’ coffeehouse sponsored by the Philadelphia Liars Club, the topic of pitches came up. Meaning the kind of pitch you do sometimes in an elevator (giving the pitch its name), sometimes in a conference room, and never in a bathroom. The “I’ve finished a novel/autobiography/teleporter,” pitch. The “you’ll remember me, because,” pitch.

Keith Strunk, an actor, author, and Liar (the club linked above, not the activity), in particular said a number of good things about practice. About knowing well what you’re going to say before you need to say it. About speaking with confidence, and being yourself.

Two great tips:

  • Practice saying your own name, aloud. A lot. That way, when you introduce yourself, you don’t mumble it. Don’t rush it.
  • Practice describing your novel/autobiography/teleporter – NOT so that you can corner someone and bludgeon them with the description, but so that, if it comes up in conversation, you can answer the question, “So what are you working on?” as if you know what you’re working on. This is important.

This week, the topic of reading in public came up in a different setting, during a conversation with James D. Macdonald (aka Uncle Jim on Absolute Write) – some tips emerged:

  • Speak slowly and clearly. Read from a printed manuscript – mark emphasis points, if you work that way.
  • Do your best not to hide behind the furniture. Stand before the mast table, podium, etc.
  • Don’t run long. Practice beforehand, with a clock. No one has ever been criticized in the history of ever for ending on time, or even a bit early.
  • Remember to breathe.
  • (updated, from Scott Kennedy’s comment below) Make eye contact. Draw horizontal lines toward the margin of your manuscript. this will remind you to look up, and help you find where you left off.
  • (ibid) Use your friends. Practice in front of them. If you can, test the reading space early by having a friend sit at the back so they can let you know if you’re being loud/articulate enough. If that room fills up with bodies, you’ll need to be a little louder again, as they absorb sound.

Super-easy, right? At some point in the near future* some of you might have the opportunity to see if I can practice what I preach. (Stay tuned…)

*TBD/TBA

Your Newly Enhanced Experience

What is it about social media that requires constant redesigns of the interface? Is it a desire to stay ‘fresh’?

Or is it the need to feel like you are once again the new kid on the block, when, in actuality, you are getting a little creaky and the new apps are breathing down your neck and offering to walk you across the street?

Hey, Google, Facebook, Twitter… once again, you’re giving us design changes we do not want and have not requested.

Google+ redesigned itself yesterday into a minimalist-facebook, complete with banners in user profiles and a shrunken space for user content.  It’s this second item that should be the biggest clue about who their audience is now. Hint, it’s not us.  What we say and do in these spaces matters less and less, so they’re giving us less space to do it in. As evidenced by the page real estate being sucked up by buttons, advertising, and things that we didn’t ask for and do not use.

In short, we are spending more time finding our way around the new layouts of these mediums than we are using the medium to communicate with others.  This makes no sense, since the stated purpose of twitfaceboogle is to help people communicate with each other.

It’s time for the social media user experience folks to sit down with the VPs and the design consultants and come up with a way to let the users -us- control our own experience, at least in part.

Make us part of the experience again.  That’s enhancement enough.

Don’t be (more) evil

There hasn’t been a tech post in a while. Granted, this only marginally qualifies…

Watching last week’s roller coaster response to Apple’s iAuthor app, and this week’s gaining response to Google’s account-information merge with no opt-out, I’m again thinking about needs vs. wants, standards, and the greater good.

I have no answers.  I can’t tell you how devious the intent was when Apple shifted iAuthor’s product from epub standards and towards an iPad-only model.  I can’t tell you why Google wants All The Info in one spot, though I have some guesses.

What I know is that both decisions limit the choice of the individual (producer or consumer), in favor of what benefits the company providing the technology.  From a programming standpoint, less individual choice may make some sense – it’s easier and cheaper to manage; from a marketing standpoint, it means your audience is captive, not just captivated.  But.  Technology is about personalization.  Which doesn’t just mean a company gets to offer me more things that I might enjoy reading/buying/liking.

It also means that I, as the consumer of technology, should be able to personalize my level of control over the information I create to use on that system.

and, truth be told, I would love to play with HTML5 in my ePubs.

Hopefully, someone out there sees this the same way I do.  Or, perhaps, I’m completely in the wrong here.  Hoping someone can tell me so.

Literary Usability: Footnotes

Dear Publishing Industry, footnotes are your friend! Do Not Fear Them.

"What is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations!"

Ok, they may not be for everyone1, but when you enjoy extended commentary, or if you grew up with an Annotated Aliceon the shelf, you start looking for things with footnotes, because you know they’ll quite often be very funny or illuminating, if done correctly.

Indeed, one of the reasons why I purchased Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books2 in print format versus e-book is for the footnotes. They’re apparently expurgated in the electronic versions, which is a shame. Like many before him, Pratchett uses footnotes in a number of ways, including:

  • to elaborate on a character or event without interrupting the narrative
  • to contradict a character’s statement
  • to offer additional historical background, again without interrupting the flow of the narrative
  • to make coffee shoot from your nose at key moments, preferably in public.

In fact, a number of popular works allow footnotes to provide a secondary narrative, or  to provide supportive reference material in a timely fashion.   These include3:

  • The Hitchhiker Trilogy by Douglas Adams
  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • “Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown” by J.G. Ballard
  • Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Geek Tag On 

Ok, here’s where I put on my other hat, because, while footnotes are very appealing to me from a narrative standpoint, they’re hell to code in electronic documents.  Trust me, I’ve done it, and I’m about to do it again soon for a new edition of a journal I’m very excited to be working on.  Footnotes and Endnotes?  Not digitally friendly.  Which is strange, because content on the internet is ideal for opening up multiple ways of reading, multiple perspectives, and injections of information from outside.  Which is what footnotes can be, in the right hands.

The technical problem started with the internet (haven’t we heard that before?).  Before that, we were all trained (well, most of us) to follow the breadcrumb trail of numbers to the additional information.  Then came HTML.  HTML wasn’t very footnote friendly.  It required online editors to add extensive superscript and link anchors to documents.  Yuck.  Plus, navigating that sort of thing became a very jerky experience.

CSS driven pop-ups offer many more in-place options, but they often overlay and obscure the very text they’re trying to illuminate.  When HTML5 conventions were in development, some of us had high hopes, but these were dashed when it was discovered that HTML5 convention didn’t add solid footnoting standards either – instead, they have this handy recommendation posted on the W3C website.

It comes as welcome news, then that electronic publications are gaining some options, as A New Kind of Book pointed out in July.  I’m going to link to the reprint at O’Reilly Radar, because the images are all still embedded there, which doesn’t seem to be the case at ANKoB. The UVA method is particularly nice, adding a (+) that reveals inline text instead of footnotes.

Geek Tag Off  (you’re safe now)

So, there is hope, especially for those publications that want to dare to explore different uses of electronic text. For those of us who enjoy reading the subtext, the meta information, and the asides that keep even the most linear story a little slant, here’s hoping that notes, foot or not, will continue to appear in electronic publications, and that the ability to encode them will adapt to new and future layouts.

Nota bene, Publishers: I don’t know what I’d do if someone offered me Pratchett without footnotes. The books wouldn’t be the same at all.

You can’t take the sky from me*

Dear [yourname],

Ok, so I’ve just received another “in the event of account deletion, here is my backup information,” email from a friend.  You could, given the news among tech folks this week, infer that my friend is a pseud (or an alt, or her parents named her something that an algorithm has determined is Just Not Real), but that’s not the case.  She’s a person, like you or me, with a reasonable name, who has a lot of important communications tied up in a free service. This is a free service that has done a lot of good over the years.  Some would say it provides a lifekit of communication tools for the online Joe – and it, like many other services, forms a large part of the platform for Joe’s online persona.

But now this service has, at the very least, an image problem.  Because people are noticing that this free service has the ability to immediately and in some cases irrevocably delete access to all the magic tools we’ve been using, as well as zap into oblivion all the things we’ve done with those magic tools.

And the response to an outcry by many people seems to be, “well, it’s not like you’re paying for it.”  See also, “We’re still working out the kinks,” and “mistakes may have been made.”  Other services that provide “lifekit” accounts in various platforms (gaming, business, storage) have in the past also used responses including “you seem to have broken the Terms of Service” (in some cases this is true, in some, you’ve merely been accused of breaking the TOS by a rival, but either way, sorry), “we’re still in Beta,” and “ooops.”

Ok.  So.  This has me thinking. It has others thinking.  It should have you thinking too.

Facebook and Google aren’t the only cloud-based services that take occasional/proactive action against pseudonymity and multinymity.  They are the biggest.  And for years, one of them has allowed folks to create accounts for all the different facets of their lives – one might have an email account that is [myname]-shopping@, another called [mybada**nameontwitter]-feedback@, and etc.  The reasons for this include not wanting to clutter your main email with shoppingspam and not wanting to give your main email out to folks you don’t know that well. In the cases of those with public-facing professions (writers, musicians, bloggers) and private lives (families, for instance) it may also include not wanting to expose these to the all-purpose glare (as in bright shiny light, but also as in that look you’d imagine an internet troll would have on its face when it typed that nasty, threatening, horrible post that kept you up at night, just because it could do so anonymously) of the Internet.

This isn’t a post about pseudonymity, multinymity, and anonymity vs. uninomity.  We’ve lived with pseudonymity and multinymity for a long time – authors and musicians have used pen names for almost as long as they’ve used pens.  The advent of cloud-based services and our willingness to put our data in the hands of well-meaning companies that will then allow us to access that data through the service that they have built and own?  That’s a relatively new thing.  (Brick and mortar parallels include utilities and banks, but there are distinct differences here.)

This is a post about ownership, specifically of data, once it’s gone into any one of a number of cloud-based services, and specifically what happens when one of those services either goes away or decides that for whatever reason, you can’t have access to that data anymore, with little to no warning.  Ownership and access, people.  When you’ve got all of your billing and banking and business accounts tied to a single email (hint, not good), and all your data in the cloud instead of on your laptop, you’ve let go of the ability to reliably control access to information you need.  Hiccups happen.  Fans fail, power goes out, the cleaning lady carries a bucket of water into the server room…. and sometimes someone (or an algorithmic variant on someone) flicks the wrong switch.

One hopes that a shutoff will never happen.  One hopes that one does not at this point sound like the kind of person who stuffs her mattress with gold bars (I don’t, no need to come lookin’) and MREs (blechhh).  But one also hopes that we can start a discussion, a logical one, that includes the main resource providers in this game, about ownership and access to data in the cloud.

Do we want, and are we willing to make, duplicates on and offline of the data that we need access to, wherever we are?  Do we want to feel (as, I think many have felt until the past few weeks) as if our data is up there, safe and happy, waiting for us to call for it, no matter what name we call it by, once we set up an account?  I kind of, in my naivete, do want that.  It’s one less thing I have to worry about.  If that’s what we’re hoping for, what kinds of contracts do we need to forge with the folks who own the clouds?

I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this.

*Yes, apparently this is song week.  Thanks, Joss.