You Can’t Go Back

A note in response to a bulk email from an old colleague.

It may be hard for some blog readers to believe, but for a while in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was “famous.”

My fame was limited to a group of people who bought my books and read my articles about using computers. I started writing in 1991 — as a ghostwriter for a John Dvorak book — and was soon writing my own titles. I learned early on that if you couldn’t write a bestseller, you had to write a lot of books. So I did. And then, in the late 1990s, two of my books became best sellers. Subsequent editions of the same book continued to be best sellers. For a while, I was making a very good living as a writer. At the computer shows where I was a regular speaker, people actually asked for my autograph.

I’m not an idiot. I knew that my good fortune could not last forever. So as I continued to write, turning out book after book and becoming well known in my field, I invested my money in my retirement, assets that could help extend (or at least securely bank) my wealth, and something that I thought would be a great hobby: flying helicopters. I learned to fly, I got hooked on it, and I bought helicopter. I started my helicopter charter business in 2001 — it was easy to fit flights in with my flexible schedule as a writer — and bought a larger helicopter in 2005. Building the business was such a struggle that I honestly didn’t think I would succeed. But fortunately, I did.

Mountain Lion VQS
My most recent book was published back in 2012. I don’t call it my “last book” because I expect to write more. They likely won’t be about computers, though.

And it was a good thing, because around 2008, my income from writing began declining. By 2010, that income began going into freefall. Most of my existing titles were not revised for new versions of software. Book contracts for new titles were difficult to get and, when they were published, simply didn’t sell well.

Around the same time, my income from flying started to climb. Not only did it cover all the costs of owning a helicopter — and I can assure you those costs are quite high — but it began covering my modest cost of living. By 2012, when I wrote my last computer book, I was doing almost as well as a helicopter charter business owner as I’d done 10 years before as a writer. And things continued to get better.

I was one of the lucky ones. Most of my peers in the world of computer how-to publishing hadn’t prepared themselves for the changes in our market. (In their defense, I admit that it came about quite quickly.) Many of these people are now struggling to make a living writing about computers. But the writing is on the wall in big, neon-colored letters as publishers continue to downsize and more and more of my former editors are finding themselves unemployed. Freelance writers like me, once valued for their skill, professionalism, and know-how, are a dime a dozen, easily replaced by those willing to write for next to nothing or even free. Books and magazine articles are replaced by Internet content of variable quality available 24/7 with a simple Google search.

So imagine my surprise today when one of my former colleagues from the old days sent me — and likely countless others — a bulk email message announcing a newsletter, website, and book about the same old stuff we wrote about in the heydays of computer book publishing. To me, his plea came across as the last gasp of a man who doesn’t realize he’s about to drown in the flood of free, competing information that has been growing exponentially since Internet became a household word.

I admit that I was a bit offended by being included on his bulk email list simply because he had my email address in his contacts database. But more than that, I was sad that he had sunk so low to try to scrape up interest in his work by using such an approach. Hadn’t he seen the light? Read the writing on the wall? Didn’t he understand that we have to change or die?

So after unsubscribing from his bulk mail list, I sent him the following note. And no, his name is not “Joe.”

The world’s a different place now, Joe.

After writing 85 books and countless articles about using computers, I haven’t written anything new about computers since 2012. I’m fortunate in that my third career took off just before that. Others in our formerly enviable position weren’t so lucky.

Not enough people need us as a source of computer information anymore. All the information they could ever want or need is available immediately and for free with a Google search. There are few novices around these days and only the geekiest are still interested in “tips.” Hell, even I don’t care anymore. I haven’t bought a new computer since 2011 and haven’t even bothered updating any of my computers to the latest version of Mac OS. My computer has become a tool to get work done — as it is for most people — a tool I don’t even turn on most days.

Anyway, I hope you’re managing to make things work for yourself in this new age. I’m surprised you think a newsletter will help. Best of luck with it.

And if you ever find yourself in Washington state, I hope you’ll stop by for a visit and a helicopter ride. I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am that I invested in my third career while I was at the height of my second.

Maria

Is it still possible to make a living writing about computers? For some of us, yes. But we’ll never be able to achieve the same level of fame and fortune we once achieved. Those days are over.

Creating Time-Lapse Movies

How I do it.

I’ve been fascinated with time-lapse photography for as long as I can remember — and believe me, that’s a long time. I love the idea of compressing a series of still images into a short movie. But what I love more is the way it speeds up the process of things that happen slowly: clouds moving across the sky, shadows changing with sun angles, and things being built or moved. There are a lot of time-lapse movies on this site; click the time-lapse tag to explore them. I do want to stress that my time-lapse movies are very simple. If you want to see something amazing, look at the work of a master like Ross Ching’s Eclectic series.

I rely on certain equipment and software tools to create my time-lapse movies. Since I’ve been sharing daily time-lapse movies of the construction of my home, I thought I’d take a minute to explain how I make them.

The Camera

Hero HD
I use my old Hero HD for most time-lapse work these days.

The first thing you need to create a time-lapse movie is a camera capable of snapping an image at a regular interval. These days I use a GoPro. Although I have three of these great cameras — Hero HD, Hero 2, and Hero 3 — I tend to use the oldest (the Hero HD) for this kind of work so if it’s lost, damaged, or stolen, it’s not a huge deal.

The GoPro has an interval or time-lapse mode that I use quite often. Because the process of building my home is relatively slow, I set it to the most amount of time between images: 1 minute.

(In the past, I’ve used a Pclix intervalometer — that’s a time-lapse timer that triggers a shutter release on a camera at a preset interval — attached to an old Canon G5 digital camera. Again, the camera was old and worthless so if someone walked off with it, no big deal. Losing the intervalometer would have been worse.)

Skeleton Housing
The skeleton housing gives me access to the USB port and SD card on the GoPro.

Power is an issue when you run a camera for hours on end. I use the GoPro Skeleton housing around the camera so I can run a USB cable to it. The cable then feeds into a window on my RV where it plugs into a power source. The added benefit is that I can remove the SD card without opening the housing and changing the camera angle. I use electrical tape to cover up the two sides of the housing to keep dust and rain out.

The Camera Mount

For time-lapse photography, it’s vital that the camera be held still (or moved smoothly, if you’re going for that kind of effect). That means a tripod or camera mount.

Pedco UltraClamp
This is a must-have mount for anyone with a GoPro or lightweight digital camera.

I routinely use a Pedco UltraClamp with my GoPros. I can’t say enough things about this clamp-on camera mount. With a GoPro, all you need is a tripod mount adapter and you’re good to go.

For my construction project time-lapse movies, I clamped it onto one of my RV slide-outs, pointing at the construction site. Easy.

The Software

Okay, so the camera has been running for hours and it has collected hundreds of images. Most of my time-lapses run from 6:30 AM to 4:30 PM. That’s 10 hours with 60 shots per hour. 600 images.

The images are 2592 x1944 pixels. That’s way bigger than I need. In addition, I want a 16:9 aspect ratio, which is better suited for video projects these days. So I need to do some processing.

EasyBatchPhoto IconThe first thing I do is run the images through a program called EasyBatchPhoto. (Remember folks, I’m using a Mac.) I have the app set up to crop the image to 1920 x 1080 — that’s standard high definition. This basically crops away the edges of the image, focusing on what’s in the middle. The app also slightly sharpens the image and applies a date and time stamp watermark based on the EXIF data saved with the original file. It then saves it as a medium-high quality JPEG in a folder I specify. I do this for only the images I want to include in the movie; no reason to process them all. The rest of the images are discarded when I wipe the SD card.

EasyBatchPhoto Settings
EasyBatchPhoto can process huge batches of images at a time.

I should mention that you could probably do all this with another app. This happens to be the one I use. I’m sure some readers will share their solutions in the comments.

QuickTime Player 7 IconOnce I have the images in a folder, I open up QuickTime Player 7, which I’d updated to the Pro version years ago. This is an old version of QuickTime. The current version does not have the feature I need, which is the Open Image Sequence command. I use that command to get a dialog box prompting me to choose an image. I select the first image in the folder containing all of the images for the movie.

Choose the First Image
Use this dialog box to select the first image in the folder of images for the movie.

Image Sequence Settings
Use this dialog box to set the frame rate.

I’m then prompted to set the image sequence settings — basically the frame rate for the movie. There are a lot of options on that pop-up menu. After some experimentation, I decided on 15 frames per second for this project. That compresses 10 hours worth of images into about 40 seconds. Any faster and you miss a lot of the action. When I click OK, QuickTime makes the movie and displays it in a window. After taking a look at it, I save it to disk, usually in the same folder as the images.

Why YouTube?
I was really pissed off to discover that Viddler, the site I used years ago to host video, has made my videos unavailable for viewing. I think it’s because they expect me to pay for hosting, which just ain’t gonna happen. This screwed up a lot of embedded video on this site. Because some of the videos are very old, I can’t find the source files so those videos are gone forever. So I’ll use YouTube on a go-forward basis for all video sharing. It’s free and very easy to access.

The last thing I do is upload the movie to YouTube. I do this with the current version of QuickTime. I just double-click the movie’s icon to open QuickTime and use the share command to share it on YouTube. QuickTime prompts me for a movie description and tags. Within minutes, it’s online and available to anyone who wants to see it.

The entire software process takes about 5-7 minutes and is mostly automated.

If you make time-lapse movies and use a different set of software tools, please do use the comments to share your process. It’s always nice to learn about new software that might make things easier or just plain better.

About Style Guides…and a Tip for Writers

A writer’s cheat sheet — and how I maintain mine.

One of the challenges facing writers — especially tech writers — is maintaining consistency and proper usage of words and phrases that describe the things we write about. Is it toolbar, tool bar, ToolBar, or Tool bar? Is it Fonts panel, Font panel, Font window, or Fonts Pane? Is it iBookstore or iBookStore? Is it inspector or Inspector?

This might seem trivial to most folks, but for writers and editors, it’s very important. Inconsistent or incorrect use of established terms is one of the things that mark the work of an amateur. Professional writers do everything in their power to get things like this right — and editors help.

Style Guides

Chicago Manual of StyleStyle guides help, too. A style guide is a collection of words or phrases that might be used in a work, all presented as they should be in writing. You may have heard of some of the more famous style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook. These are style guide books published for professionals who write about a wide range of topics.

But there are also style guides for more narrow topics. Apple, for example, publishes a 244-page document called the Apple Publications Style Guide. This is one of the books I turn to when I write my Mac OS books and articles. Written for developers and Apple’s in-house documentation teams, it lists the right and wrong ways to use hundreds of words, product names, and phrases. Not only does this include a correct list of all Apple trademarks, but it goes into tiny details. For example, did you know that you can “click the icon” but you can’t “click on the icon”? Page 37 of the latest (2009) edition is pretty specific on that point.

Microsoft Outlook 2011Individual publishers also have style guides. For example, when I wrote Microsoft Outlook for Mac 2011 Step-by-Step for Microsoft Press, I was handed not one but two style guides. They covered all of the product names and program terms I might use, as well as rules about usage. For example, I wasn’t allowed to write a sentence like this: “Outlook enables you to send and read email.” Why? Well, the word enables (in that kind of usage) was verboten. (The average reader has no idea what writers deal with when writing technical books for well-established publishers.)

My Style Guide Needs

Microsoft Outlook 2011Although I never used to have trouble remembering the proper forms and usages of the words and phrases I included in my books, as I’m aging — and as my life becomes more complex — I’m having trouble remembering the little things. So this past summer, when I worked on Mac OS X Lion: Visual QuickStart Guide for Peachpit Press, I developed and maintained my own style guide for the book.

The trick was to put the style guide in a place where it was easy to consult as I worked. I wrote (and laid out) the book on my old 24-inch iMac. I was living in my RV at the time, comfortably parked at an RV park with full utilities, but my workspace wasn’t large enough for the luxurious dual 24-inch monitor setup I have in my home office. I experimented with keeping the list of words and phrases in a Word document file, but the amount of overhead — Word running all the time, big window with all the trimmings, etc. — made it an awkward solution. Ditto for Evernote. All I needed was a tiny window where I could list the words I needed to use — these applications made maintaining and consulting such a list multiple times throughout the day a real chore.

The Solution: Stickies?

Stickies IconI stumbled onto the solution while writing the book. One of the apps that comes with Mac OS X is Stickies. This is an app whose sole purpose is to put virtual sticky notes up on your screen.

I never liked the app. I thought it was kind of dumb. After all, who would use an app to put a sticky note onscreen when you can just put a real sticky note on your screen?

But then I realized that the tiny windows Stickies creates were perfect for the simple lists I needed to consult. I could easily fit them on my screen, beyond the area I needed to work with InDesign.

Style Guide in StickiesAnd so I began creating and maintaining my style guides in Stickies.

And I continue to do so today.

There are a lot of benefits to using Stickies as a solution for this problem:

  • The contents of Sticky Notes are saved, even if you quit the application.
  • Stickies are easily modified and updated.
  • Stickies supports formatting, so if I want to remind myself about a word or phrase that should never be used, I can format it as strikethru text.
  • Stickies can be exported as plain text, so I could, theoretically, save a style guide list before closing the Stickies window when the book is done.
  • Stickies take up very little room onscreen.
  • All active Stickies notes open automatically when you open the app.
  • It’s easy to set up my computer so Stickies automatically opens at startup.

Sounds good, no?

For me, it’s a win-win. I get a solution to my problem. But what I also get is a reason to use a silly little free app like Stickies.