NPR Playback

An excellent podcast for those interested in history.

Last October, National Public Radio (NPR) began a new monthly series called Playback. Each month, the show explores the stories that were making news on NPR 25 years before.

NPR PlaybackI’d heard commercials for the podcast on the other NPR podcasts I listen to, but never got around to checking this one out. This past week, I found NPR Playback on iTunes and subscribed.

The show is hosted by Kerry Thompson. She introduces segments with a few facts and plays actual news stories and interviews from those days. Some segments include current-day interviews with NPR reporters who were covering the story back then. Each monthly 20- to 30-minute episode is an amazing look back at the past, brought into perspective by the events that came afterward.

For me, however, I think it’s more interesting. 25 years ago, I was just getting out of college, starting my new and independent life. News was going on around me, but I was only 21 and how many 21-year-olds really think much about world events? Playback brings these events back to the forefront of my memory and gives me the information I need to think about them as an adult with a more fine-tuned sense of what’s going on in the world, what’s wrong, and what’s right. I can think about these events the way I would have if I’d been 46 back then. It’s helping me understand what the world was like in the early 80s and why it has become what it is today.

I can’t say enough positive things about this podcast. If you’re interested in history and world events, give it a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

You can learn more on the NPR Playback page of the NPR Podcast Directory, on NPR.org.

eBooks

Some thoughts from a writer (and reader).

Earlier this month, I wrote a post that briefly touched upon my experience as an author finding my copyrighted books freely distributable on a pirate Web site. (Refer to “Copyright for Writers and Bloggers – Part I: Why Copyright is Important.”) The post generated some comments that made me think more about the electronic versions of my books that my publishers sell: eBooks.

About eBooks

An eBook is an electronic book. While some eBooks are published in electronic format only, others are published in print and then are followed up with eBook versions of the same book.

Sometimes both print and eBook versions of a book are put out by the same publisher. This is common with modern-day titles. But there are also a number of eBook publishers out there who take older titles that are still in copyright and make arrangements with the publisher or author to create and sell eBook versions. And, of course, anyone can take an out-of-copyright book, like the works of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe — the list goes on and on — and publish them anyway they like: in print, electronically, or even tattooed on someone’s leg. Project Gutenberg came into existence by making out-of-copyright works available to the world and that’s what you’ll find among its thousands of titles.

eBooks are available in a wide variety of formats, from plain text to PDF to Windows Help Viewer format. They can include or exclude illustrations. They can contain hyperlinks to make it easy to move from one topic to another. They can be printable as a single document or by pages or sections.

My first involvement with eBooks was way back in the 1990s when I used a program called DocMaker on the Mac to create my monthly, freely distributable newsletter, Macintosh Tips & Tricks. I later moved to PDF format. 10 Quick Steps, one of my publishers, publishes all of its books as PDFs optimized for onscreen reading. I later published some of my own eBooks in the same format.

eBooks and Copyright

eBooks are usually sold with the same licensing used for software. One copy, one user. This is pretty basic stuff. Although I admit that I’ve never read an EULA for an eBook, I assume that if an buyer is finished with it and wants to give his/her only copy to someone else, he can. After all, that’s how books work. And, as someone who has legally transferred ownership of software by selling it (after removing the original from my computer), I’m pretty sure eBooks have a legal second hand market.

Unfortunately, due to their portable nature — pop them on a CD or compress them and send them in email or leave them on an FTP server for others to download — they are often the victim of piracy and copyright infringement. People put eBooks — whether they obtained them from legal means or not — on pirate Web sites, FTP servers, or other file sharing systems for free or paid download to anyone who wants them.

As this problem becomes more and more widespread, readers begin to think that there’s nothing wrong with downloading and sharing illegally distributed eBooks. They begin looking to illegal sources of eBooks rather than legal sources, hoping to save $10 or $15 or $20. They justify their participation in this illegal activity by saying that “knowledge should be free” or that the publisher makes enough money or that eBooks cost nothing to produce. And soon this affects the sale of both printed and electronically published books.

Who Suffers?

Are you an author concerned about illegal distribution of your eBooks? You may be interested in the new Authors Against Piracy group I’ve started to discuss the issue and share solutions. It’s a private group, so you’ll need an invitation to join. Contact me to introduce yourself. Be sure to identify your most recent published work; the group is open to published authors only.

The real victim of this is the author, who often makes less than a dollar for every book sold.

Most authors these days can’t afford to just write for a living. Some of them have regular day jobs. Others are consultants or speakers or programmers or some combination of those things.

About 95% of my net income comes from writing books and articles. My helicopter charter business, which is still in its infancy, eats up all the cash it brings in. (Helicopters are extremely costly to own and operate.) And between writing and flying, I simply don’t have time to do anything else to earn money.

So when I find my books being illegally distributed on pirate Web sites, I get angry. Can you blame me?

Is It Worth It?

In the comments for my “Copyright is Important” post, reader Nathanael Holt asked this question: “Do your digital sales warrant the increased risk posed by piracy?”

This is a really good question — one I had to go to my royalty statements to answer. And, after a quick glance at that most recent 60-page document, I’d have to say no.

For example, one of my recent titles sold more than 2,600 printed copies in the quarter ending March 31, 2007. That same title sold only 2 electronic “subscriptions.” Another title, which is older and which I have found online on pirate sites, had 9 copies of the PDF sold during the same quarter, earning me less than $15.

My conclusion from this: eBook versions of my books aren’t selling very well. And apparently the ones that get out there are going to pirate Web sites.

I’ve e-mailed my publisher’s royalty department to get lifetime figures for all of my in-print titles. I’m hoping the numbers they deliver will paint a more rosy picture. But I doubt it.

I’m an eBook Reader, Too

This is disappointing for me. You see, I’m an eBook reader.

A while back, I was looking for a book about .htaccess. That’s a normally invisible configuration file found on servers. I wanted to modify the .htaccess file for my Web site so it would do certain things for me.

This is an extremely technical topic and one I didn’t expect to find a book about. But I did: The Definitive Guide to Apache mod_rewrite by Rich Bowen. And after a bit of research, I learned that I could either buy the book from Amazon.com for $40 and wait a week to get it or buy it as an eBook in PDF format from the publisher’s Web site for $20 and download it immediately. I admit that the deciding factor was the length of the book: 160 pages. Since I like to be able to look at a computer-related book (rather than switch back and forth between a book and an application onscreen), I could print it for reference.

And that’s what I did: I downloaded the book as a DRM-protected PDF and sent it to my printer. Within an hour, I had the whole thing in a binder and was editing my .htaccess file to my heart’s content, with all kinds of notes jotted in the margins of my new reference book. (That’s another thing: I’m far more likely to mark up a printed eBook than a printed and bound traditionally-published book.)

I also read eBooks on my Treo (when I’m trapped somewhere with nothing to do).

The only reason I don’t buy and read more eBooks to read onscreen is because I think I spend enough time in front of a computer without using one to read, too.

What Does All this Mean?

Well, first I need some solid information from my publisher regarding lifetime eBook sales. Then I need to sit down with my editor (figuratively, of course — we never see each other in person) and decide whether eBook editions of my work are something we want to continue to publish. If we decide to go forward, we need to come up with a solution that will protect eBooks from piracy.

What Do You Think?

Have you ever bought an eBook? Why did you buy that version instead of a traditional print version? Did you like it? What do you think about eBooks in general: pricing, formats, licensing, etc?

Don’t keep it all to yourself! Use the Comments link or form to share your thoughts with me and other readers.

I Don’t Like Being Seriously Dugg

The activity finally winds down — I think.

In yesterday’s post, “Getting Seriously Dugg,” I reported the history of a blog post that rose quickly to stardom in the world of Digg users. But that report was done early in the day, before the shit hit the fan (so to speak).

The Heat is On

The Digg count continued to rise throughout the day. And the hits kept coming. All morning long, there were at least 100 visitors online at my site at once. This is not normal here. And it was rather frightening. I kept expecting something to break.

But it wasn’t just the popular Digg post that was getting hits. It was the post about getting Dugg, too. Soon, it had more hits than the dugg post — even though it wasn’t dug by anyone at all. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

Things came to a head at 11:15 AM when I got an e-mail message from my ISP:

Our Hosting Operations Admins have alerted us to an issue with your hosting account. The account has overutilized resources within the shared environment. As a result, the account has been moved to an isolated server for Terms of Service violators. You have 30 days to research and resolve this issue. After this time, the account will be evaluated again. If the issue is resolved, the account will be migrated back to the shared environment. If it persists, you will need to move to a full Dedicated server.

I got on the phone immediately and called my ISP. To my knowledge, I hadn’t violated any terms of service by getting hits. My plan allows 2,000 GB of bandwidth per month. The billing month starts on the third — that day. So far, in all the years I’ve hosted there, I’ve never exceeded 6% of my monthly allowance. Just because I was getting 30 times the usual number of hits I get in a day, it was still not much more than I’d get in a total month. So there was no way I’d even come close to 10% of the monthly allowance — let alone exceed it.

The guy who answered the phone was extremely polite but equally clueless. He had to talk to Advanced Hosting. He couldn’t let me talk to them. They gave him a song and dance about too many domain names pointing to the same site. He attempted to hand the same thing to me. I told him that that shouldn’t matter since none of those domain names were advertised anywhere. Besides, there were only about a dozen of them pointing to one site and maybe 15 pointing to another. I wasn’t aware of any limitation.

“I’ve been dugg,” I told him. When I got no answer, I asked, “Do you know what that means?”

“No,” he said.

I explained that it meant that one of my blog’s posts had become very popular and that people were flocking to my site to read it. I told him this was a temporary thing and that it should be back to normal by the end of the day. I hoped.

He told me that if I continued to get so many hits to my site, I’d have to get a dedicated server. I told him I’d evaluate after I’d seen my stats for the day. (My account is updated daily in the middle of the night.)

We hung up.

A Brief Intermission

I went flying. I took a couple from Virginia on an hour-long helicopter tour in the Wickenburg area. I showed them mine sites and canyons from the air. We saw a lot of cows, too. Afterward, I goofed off at the airport, chatting with two jet pilots who’d come in and were waiting for passengers. Then I went shopping for dinner. I got home and had a snack. Then I looked at Digg. It was 4 PM.

What Happened in Five Hours

The post that had started it all now had more than 1,200 diggs. It had been viewed almost 30,000 times. The post about that post, which hadn’t been dugg at all, had been viewed more than 40,000 times.

But thankfully, there were only 33 people online. So the flood had begun to subside.

On the Digg Technology page, my dugg post was listed near the bottom, under newly popular. (Ironically, on the same page, near the top, was a post about how Digg was losing popularity. That had more than 1,200 diggs, too.)

The Morning After

It’s the next day. I can now look back objectively on my blog’s day with a Digg Top 10 Tech post by studying some of the stats for the day and how the differ from other days.

My ISP reports that for the first day of my billing period — yesterday — I used up .55% (that’s just over half a percent, folks) of my monthly bandwidth. That means that if every day was like yesterday, I’d still come in at less than 20% allowable bandwidth. So I don’t know what “terms of service violation” they were whining about.

W3Counter, which I use to track page hits and visits, says I got just over 27,000 page hits yesterday. Look at the chart below; it makes my site look flat-line dead before yesterday. Honestly — it wasn’t that dead.

Hits

Today’s hits are about 3 times a normal day. Nice, but I’m willing to bet it drops down to normal within the next few days.

W3Counter also sent me an e-mail message warning me that their free service doesn’t cover sites that get more than 5,000 hits a day.They say I need to upgrade to a pro account for $4.95/month. We’ll see how long before they disable my current account — I’m not paying them to tell me how many hits I get when I can easily set up some stat software with a free WordPress plugin. (ShortStats, which we wrote about in our WordPress book, comes to mind.)

(I have not been able to reconcile page hits as reported by W3Counter with article reads as reported by a WordPress plugin. I have a sneaking suspicion that the WordPress plugin counts bots.)

Digg, as a source of hits, kicked Google out of the top spot on my site. Google used to account for 54% of my visitors. Now, for the 14-day period tracked by W3Counter, Digg is the big source. Google doesn’t even make the list any more, with all the different Digg URLs people used to find my site. So my sources stat is completely skewed and pretty much useless for the next 13 days. And 93% of the hits in the past 14 days have been to the 18-year-old mouse story.

Meanwhile, WP-UserOnline reports that yesterday saw the most users online at once on this site: 375. I don’t think this site will ever see that many concurrent users again.

My RSS feed subscriptions have more than doubled. That’s great. (If you’re a new subscriber, thanks for tuning in. And don’t worry — I don’t write about Digg every day.) It’ll be interesting to see if that number continues to climb or if I manage to scare all the new folks off by failing to provide more Diggable content on a daily basis.

My Google AdSense revenue for yesterday was right in line with an average high day. When you consider that I got about 20 times my normal number of page hits yesterday, you might think that I’d get 20 times the revenue. I didn’t. Obviously, Digg users don’t click Google ads.

The last I checked, the 18-year-old mouse story got just over 1,357 Diggs. I think that I actually encouraged the extra Diggs by placing the Digg icon at the top of the post. I’ve since taken it away from all posts.

I’ve realized that I don’t want to be seriously Dugg. Other than the surge in new RSS subscribers, there really isn’t any benefit to it.

What do you think?

Have you been slammed by being dugg? How did it affect your hosting account or other services? Use the Comments link or form to let the rest of us know.

Harry Potter Fever

I’m done.

I’ll admit it: I’m a Harry Potter fan. I think the books are well-written and entertaining. And I think the movies are extremely well done, faithful to the books in such a way to satisfactorily bring the author’s scenes to life.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)I’ll admit this, too: I ordered the final Harry Potter book three months ago. I ordered it from Amazon.com with another item, chose free shipping, and waited. I wasn’t in a rush. I just wanted my collection complete. Amazon shipped the other item immediately and put my HP order on hold until it was time to ship it.

Last week, Amazon sent me an e-mail suggesting that I upgrade shipping so I’d get the book on its publication date. I wasn’t in a hurry to get the book so I ignored the e-mail.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6)Meanwhile, I was listening to the Slate Political Gabfast podcast. One of the staff mentioned that the audio books for Harry Potter were excellent. Since I didn’t remember much of the sixth Harry Potter book, I figured I’d try it as an audio book. I ordered it from Amazon.com. They gave me a free trial to Amazon Prime. Free 2-day shipping for a month (when I’ll cancel to avoid the outrageous $79 annual fee). I figured the audio book would arrive before the printed book. I could listen to book 6 and read book 7.

I got an e-mail from Amazon.com on Thursday to let me know that my HP book had shipped. I could expect it by July 26. Fine. I was in no hurry.

So imagine my surprise when I opened my mailbox yesterday — two days after being told the book had shipped — and the book was in there. On the publication date. With free shipping. And the darn thing had cost me less than $20 — about half the retail price. Not bad.

So now I faced a dilemma.: read the book right away or wait until after listening to the Book 6 audio, which still hadn’t arrived.

Yesterday afternoon, after a pleasant day Jeeping on dirt roads and an even more pleasant shower, I cracked open the 700+ page final book of the Harry Potter series. The reason I didn’t wait: I was afraid that someone would spoil it for me by telling me the end.

I was 1/3 finished when I went to bed at about 10 PM last night. This morning, I got right back into it with my breakfast. By 12:30 PM, I was finished.

I won’t tell the ending. In my opinion, anyone who does is a major-league asshole. That includes the people who ripped off copies before they were released and published them on the Web. It also includes the reviewers for the New York Times who released plot points in a review the day before the book was released.

I will say that the ending works. That’s it.

I think J.K. Rowling has done a fine job on this series. Although a lot of the books were a bit longer than they needed to be, I think that gave readers — especially those who can’t crank through a 700+ page book in 8 hours — more for their money. It helped them stay in the fantasy world of Harry Potter and his friends for just a little bit longer.

Is the whole Harry Potter thing worth the ridiculous hype? In my opinion, no.

But then again, in today’s world, people seem anxious to grab on to any hype they can. It’s better to latch on to Harry Potter’s struggle against evil than Paris Hilton’s short prison stay — or to stand in line for an iPhone.

Isn’t it?

As for that Book 6 Audio…I look forward to hearing it. If it’s half as good as the Slate podcaster claims, I’ll enjoy it immensely.

My Cactus is Growing an Arm

The 20-foot saguaro in my front yard is finally becoming more than just a “big pole.”

When we moved into our home a little more than 10 years ago, it had absolutely no vegetation in the yard around the house. Due to some problems with septic system paperwork — not the septic system itself, mind you — it was two years before we were able to plant anything.

We had a landscape designer come over. He had a grand plan for our empty canvas of a yard. It included waterfalls and all kinds of non-native vegetation. When we told him we wanted a saguaro, he said, “What for? It just looks like a big pole in your yard.”

Needless to say, he didn’t get a contract with us.

Instead, we decided to do it ourself. Although it may not have been the best decision, it certainly wasn’t a bad one. We were able to plant whatever we liked wherever we liked it. And since we wanted a saguaro, we bought…well, two of them.

If you’re not familiar with the saguaro cactus, it’s a very tall, very slow-growing plant that grows in Arizona and northern Mexico. Propagated by seed, it takes at least 5 years for the plant to reach a size that can even be seen on the desert floor. When the cactus reaches 50-75 years old, it may begin to sprout “arms” that give it its characteristic look. Indeed, the saguaro cactus is an icon for the American Southwest.

When you buy a saguaro, it is always a transplant from somewhere else — often from vacant land being developed for homes or mining. It’s illegal in Arizona to dig up or cut down a saguaro without a permit. Indeed, if you hit one of these with your car and it falls down (hopefully not on you), you’ll be fined. So you must buy from a reliable source and you must ensure that it has been properly tagged by the folks responsible for monitoring this kind of stuff.

Saguaro prices are determined by size. When we bought ours, the going rate was $35 per foot. One of ours was only 5 feet tall; the other was about 16. Neither one had arms. If a saguaro does have arms, the arms are measured, too. So if you have a 10-foot cactus with 2 3-foot arms, you’ve got a total of 16 feet of cactus. Obviously, the ones with arms are more costly, which is why ours didn’t have any.

How do you plant a 16-foot cactus? Fortunately, we didn’t have to do it. The guy we bought it from did it for us. He had a special truck that cradled the cactus almost horizontally for transportation. When he got to our yard, he backed the truck up to the hole he’d dug for it. He then raised the top end of the cactus with a lift on the truck. There was a lot of rope holding and pulling and the constant fear that the thing would topple over. But he managed nicely and the cactus stands upright to this day, 8 years later, now close to 20 feet tall.

Cactus ArmWe always worried about this investment in cactus. After all, when a saguaro dies, it doesn’t do it immediately. It takes years. He guaranteed it for 5 years. In reality, it would take at least that long to die. Although the one in the back yard seems very happy and looks healthy, the one out front has become home to birds, which have burrowed nests in the side of it. And it doesn’t always look as healthy as it should.

But it must be healthy because it is now growing an arm. I first noticed it about a month ago when I photographed the snake on top of it. Now it appears to be growing remarkably quickly (for a saguaro) and, if I’m not mistaken, there’s a new arm bud for a second arm growing nearby!

You can see the new arm clearly in the WebCam image for this site, in case you want to monitor it. I’ll try to take another photo in six months or a year to bring readers up to date.

Message to Twitter Users: Use a Lint Screen

A plea to those who [should] care.

I write about Twitter too much. I know that. But Twitter has become part of my life and, like other things that are part of my life, it has given me plenty to write about.

lint screenToday’s topic is Twitter fluff. That’s my term for the kinds of tweets that are downright boring and childish, written by people who should know better. The sole purpose of these tweets seems to be to fill the Twitter world with content. Trouble is, the quality of that content is about equal to the quality of the stuff that accumulates in a clothes dryer’s lint screen.

While you expect that kind of behavior from people who really don’t have anything to tweet about or people too immature to realize the significance of their everyday experiences, you don’t expect it from people with experiences worth sharing.

I’m not naming names here. Or Twiter IDs, for that matter. But I recently added a professional journalist to my list of Twitter friends. This is a person who works for a media organization and typically follows stories relating to the Iraq war and politics — stories that matter. An adult. A professional. Someone who should have interesting tweets.

What I found, however, is that more than half of this person’s tweets are messages to his new Twitter friends to greet them. For example, “Hi new Twitterfriends, @AlexTheBird, @JackTheDog, and @mlanger!” While it’s very friendly of this person to greet all his new friends, reading dozens of tweets like this throughout the day — between the daily “Good morning, Twitter!” and nightly “Good night, Twitter!” posts — is pretty much a waste of my time. I’m interested in what this guy is doing. Who is he interviewing? What has he learned? What insight can he share about his professional journalism world? How can what he’s doing make me think about the world around me?

I need to mention here that I don’t expect every tweet I read to contain some kind of deep revelation for me. (If that were possible, I’d spend all of my time reading Twitter tweets.) This morning, one of my Twitter friends posted a tweet in which the text was all upside-down. How the heck did she do that? She followed up with a link that showed us how. Useless? Yes. Trivial? Sure. But fun? You bet! And a heck of a lot more interesting than “Hello new Twitterfriends @joe, @jim, and @jake!”

And, for those of you ready to go on the offensive, I’m also not saying that my tweets are anything special. I just tweet about the things I’m doing. Some of them are pretty dull. (Who cares that I’m reading my e-mail?) Some of them are pretty interesting. (How many people land their helicopters in a new friend’s backyard?) But I’m not filling the Twitter world with fluff, either.

Anyway, I’m kind of hoping this journalist friend reads this and recognizes himself and thinks about what he’s typing to the world — especially to all of those new friends he keeps greeting. No offense guy, but you can do much better than that. I know you can.

iPhone Purchase Poll Results

The votes are in and the results are mildly surprising.

Here are the results for the iPhone purchase Poll I started on June 26. I’m pleased to see that 379 people participated. Thanks for voicing your opinion! I’m just not sure why the other 3500 people who viewed the poll (according to my stats) didn’t take the time to vote.

[poll id=”7″]

Anyway, I found these results a bit surprising. The biggest surprise: that 28% of the respondents (or 106 people) said they wanted an iPhone so badly that they’d wait in line to get one. Wow.

But the top result was from folks who said they wanted one and planned to get one by year-end (without waiting on line on June 19). That had 132 votes for 35% of respondents.

I voted in the next category: want one but won’t get one by year-end. 92 other people for a total of 25% of respondents were with me.

And, of course, there were 48 people or 13% of the respondents who said they didn’t want one at all.

I think the poll results were skewed. After all, who would find this poll on my site to vote on it? People searching for material related to the iPhone. These are people who are already interested in it and caught up in the hype surrounding its release.

I was away for the big release on Friday and only caught news stories on NPR about the lines on Friday afternoon. Now that I’m back in civilization, I’ll have to catch up on the iPhone hype to see what I missed. (Fortunately, I have a few more important things to do before that.)

In the meantime, I’ve closed the poll. I’ll probably be launching a new one for iPhone owners shortly. Would love to see what real people — as opposed to certain Apple fanboys from the media who got their hands on phones for review — really think about their new acquisition. Stay tuned.