Become a master of public radio with NPR Ninja

Being both a news junkie, and a big fan of NPR, I decided to put together a little utility that I call NPR Ninja to help me track topics that interest me, and search for stories on specific topics. It’s a client-side (JavaScript) application that leverages NPR’s open APIs.

Now that there’s also an NPR One API, I might just add some hooks into it one of these days, as well.

AirPlay is Another Nail in Cable’s Coffin

airplay

I had an interesting experience while sitting around with some friends Saturday night. The subject of awkward pregnancy photos came up (my sister-in-law is weeks away from giving birth), so we decided to bring up the pregnancy category of Awkward Family Photos for a few good laughs at other people’s expense. Having just installed Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8), I decided to use AirPlay from my 11″ MacBook Air (best laptop ever) to my Apple TV so everyone could see better. The conversation eventually turned to politics and TED talks as it so often does, so I threw up Nick Hanauer’s excellent and very controversial TED talk. Eventually control of the Apple TV was passed around the room via iPhones, iPads, and AirPlay, and in addition to playing a few hilarious rounds of Draw Something and laughing at hundreds of photos, we watched some Olympics highlights, Portal: No Escape, Lego Black Ops, the JK Wedding Entrance Dance (there was an uninitiated among us), and finally, one of Stephen Colbert’s many excellent interviews with Neil deGrasse Tyson. By that time, it was getting late, however we’d barely scratched the surface of our favorite videos, sites, games, photos, memes, etc. so I’m certain we’ll pick right back up where we left off next weekend.

There were three things that really struck me about the evening:

  1. All of the entertainment throughout the course of the night was entirely free. We did have to watch a few YouTube pre-roll ads, but they were quick and relatively tasteful.
  2. The evening was much more interactive than if we’d watched a movie or a few TV shows.
  3. The experience was extremely collaborative and inclusive as control of the Apple TV was passed around the room and everyone got to have their say in what we all experienced.

I’ve been a cord-cutter for a long time now which means we’re as likely to spend our evenings with our phones, laptops, and tablets as we are with our TV. In fact, since I do most of my gaming either on a PC or handheld device, I’ve frequently wondered if we still actually need a 52″ LCD taking up space in our living room. However last night was the best reason I’ve come up with in probably two years to keep my TV.

If you’re a cord-cutter, next time you have people over, ask them to come up with some of their favorite internet content and put together your own interactive and collaborative programming. I’ve never been so certain in my decision to cancel my cable service as I am now.

(Note that AirPlay is not the only technology for making this kind of thing work, but in my experience, it’s probably the most hassle-free. I have a Nexus Q which I hope to use more for this kind of thing in the future, and I’ve experimented with all kinds of streaming media solutions in the past. At least for now, Apple’s technology is probably the easiest to use, most robust, and — since so many people have iPhones, iPads, or Mac laptops — it’s more or less ubiquitous.)

The Internet Didn’t Kill Newspapers; Newspapers Killed Newspapers

I know the conventional wisdom is that the internet killed newspapers, but I think that’s too simple of an explanation. And I also think it lets newspapers off way too easy.

I don’t think the internet killed newspapers; I think newspapers killed themselves, and the internet was simply the best and most convenient alternative. In other words, the internet was the catalyst that started a process that had been queued up and ready to happen for a very long time.

What did the newspaper industry do wrong? The same thing most failing businesses are guilty of: they failed to innovate. Rather than constantly trying to outdo themselves, they waited for someone or something to come along and outdo them. Up until a few years ago, I’d been getting the Washing Post (or some other major paper) delivered to my house daily for my entire life, and I’m fairly certain that the only significant change that was ever made to that paper was the transition from black and white photographs to color. Over the course of decades, that’s pathetic.

I believe that the Washing Post, the New York Times, and many other major papers in this country could still have a very healthy and profitable print business if they simply offered a product that people wanted. Of course, the internet is still an incredibly efficient and effective means of delivering news, but I don’t think it entirely replaces the demand for thoughtful, thorough, well-researched, and journalistically sound articles that can be read anywhere and anytime, can be easily shared, that you don’t have to worry about your kids spilling juice on, and that can be comfortably read for long periods of time. Does that mean newspapers could have stopped the rise of the internet as a news medium? Of course not. But it does mean that they could probably have coexisted.

So what would a modern physical daily newspaper have to look like for me to be willing to pay for it?

  • Magazine-like format. I don’t understand why it was deiced that newspapers, by definition, had to be massive and unwieldy.
  • Print that doesn’t come off on your fingers. My hands shouldn’t look like I just changed the oil in my car after reading the news, and my kitchen table shouldn’t look like my driveway. Newsprint alone practically makes physical newspapers and computer keyboards and mice incompatible.
  • Customizable content. Why do I get the Sports and Entertainment sections when I’m not interested in either? Getting something delivered every day that I only read a very small percentage of feels way to wasteful by modern standards.
  • Sequential stories. Why is reading an entire article like going on a scavenger hunt in a traditional newspaper? Even when this was considered "normal", I hated the process of hunting down the reminder of stories.
  • Internet integration. The internet is, of course, a fantastic way of delivering and accessing all kinds of media, so why not integrate print and online content through things like augmented reality and QR codes that you can use to easily access things like updates, photo galleries, comments, and video content?

At this point, it might very well be too late for newspapers to change. They have so completely failed to modernize — and they have given phones, tablets, laptops, and ebook readers so much time to embed themselves in our lives as news devices — that even if the perfect print paper were to be introduced at this point, the general public might scoff at it. But I’m pretty convinced that there was a window of time — a window that started closing a long time ago, but that slammed the rest of the way closed just in the last decade — where newspapers could have made the decision to innovate and keep themselves relevant. And now that it might be too late, I think blaming the internet is letting the industry off way too easy.

Now don’t even get me started on cable companies.

Review of the Logitech Revue with Google TV

logitech_google_tvConclusion: It’s not ready.

Having gotten rid of my Verizon FiOS television service some time ago, I’ve been eager to try out the new TV solutions from Apple and Google. I reviewed the new Apple TV about a month ago, and really liked it. Last night, I spent the evening with the Logitech Revue with Google TV, and all I can say is that it’s really not ready yet.

Here’s a summary of my experience so far:

  • The first thing I had to do was go through a 12-step setup process which probably took about 15 minutes. I didn’t have any trouble with it, but I’m guessing the proverbial mom might have called her son or daughter to come over and help.
  • The good thing about the setup process was that it gave me time to read the manual on the keyboard. I actually had to look at the included documentation in order to understand all its functionality. To be fair, the keyboard does make Google TV potentially very powerful, and if you’re going to do things like surf the web, it’s actually a great accessory to have. I got used to it very quickly, and as soon as I accepted it as a powerful universal remote rather than an additional clumsy remote, I actually liked it.
  • Once my Google TV was all set up, the first thing I did was go to Hulu only to find that it doesn’t work with Google TV. Thinking I was more clever than Hulu, I changed my user agent to spoof a Chrome browser on Mac. That got me further into the site, but when I tried to play to a video, I was presented with yet another error message which essentially said: “Hulu is for computers, not for TVs. Nice try, though.” (The Flash Hulu player seems to be using some property from the Flash Capabilities class to determine that the client is a Google TV — huge bummer.) So after 15 minutes of setup and a remote control learning curve, the very first thing I was hoping to do was a complete wash. This isn’t Google’s or Logitech’s fault, of course — this is just Hulu (and the television networks) continuing to protect their traditional television advertising revenue.
  • I then decided to do ultimate test: I wanted to see how easy it was to go from a search for a television show to actually watching that show, so I brought up the search box and typed in “The Office”. I got results from NBC’s site (which claimed I could watch full episodes), and for Amazon Video On Demand. The NBC site refused to work with Google TV just like Hulu, and Amazon wanted to charge me $2.99 for one 20-minute episode. Conclusion: test failed. (I did get to watch some very funny previews, though.)
  • Realizing that I wasn’t going to be watching much TV with my Google TV, I decided to surf the web instead. I decided with a keyboard, mouse, and a 52″ monitor, the Google TV might be a great way to kick back on my couch and read some news and check out some blogs. Unfortunately, the hardware is so inadequate that surfing the web is actually much better on my phone. Pages load slowly, and any page with Flash content not only has rendering issues, but scrolling is painfully laggy.
  • The last hope for my Google TV was BBC news. BBC is probably the only thing I miss after having canceled my Verizon FiOS service, so I figured if I could catch some video clips on BBC’s site, my Google TV would still add some value. The problem was that navigating the site was way too painful (primarily because Flash content made it so slow), and every time I watched a video clip, I had to sit through an advertisement before the actual news began. I don’t mind some ads (I don’t expect content to be free — just reasonable), but to watch 15 short video clips (which is about what it would take to get a good sense of the day’s news), I would have to sit through 15 ads over the course of about 20 to 30 minutes, most of which would be the very same ad. (I watched about four video clips, and got the same ad three out of four times). Again, not Google’s fault, but a clear indication of technologies and business models not being aligned yet.

That’s about when it occurred to me that the Google TV was creating what was probably the worst TV watching experience I’d ever had. So I turned it off and picked up my laptop.

To be fair, I should point out two very important things:

  1. I don’t have a TV service, and part of the magic of Google TV is probably integrating it with a paid TV service. That said, even if I still had FiOS, the only thing Google TV could do for me is put a better interface on top of it. That’s not necessarily a small thing (both Comcast’s and Verizon’s DVRs are atrocious examples user experience), but it’s still probably not compelling enough to add another box to my living room setup. And to be frank, I’m looking for an alternative to traditional TV service — not another piece of hardware to augment it.
  2. It’s not Google’s fault that Hulu and NBC don’t allow access from Google TV. Of course, as a consumer, I don’t really care whose fault it is — I only care about the fact that my new (and not inexpensive) device isn’t very useful.

In summary, the Logitech Revue with Google TV feels like an early prototype to me. The hardware is way too slow and the partnerships and business models aren’t in place to make it even remotely useful yet (for me, anyway). Until one or both of these things change, I recommend the following:

  • The Apple TV. It actually has less functionality, but it’s cheaper, smaller, faster, and as of right now, I would say it’s generally more useful.
  • A Mac Mini and a bluetooth keyboard (or the equivalent in the Windows world). I may end up going this route yet.
  • A laptop or even a phone. You probably don’t want to cuddle up with your friends on your couch and watch something on a small screen, but with a significant other or by yourself, it’s fine.
  • Do something else with your time other than watch TV. Permit me to recommend some good science fiction.

Update: Richard’s comment has inspired me to make a quick update. First, just because Google TV isn’t working out for me, it is working well for others. If you’re thinking of getting one, analyze your particular TV watching needs and habits, and you might find that it works great for you. Second, I actually have very high hopes for Google TV in the future. I believe in what Google is trying to do — I just don’t think the hardware, software, and the partnerships are there yet. As the various pieces fall into place, I will continue to experiment with Google TV, and I will work it into my TV-watching routine as its features and functionality permit.

Everything You Need to Know About How to Digitally Self Publish

Final Update: I’m now publishing with a traditional publisher, so I haven’t updated this page in quite a while. Some of this information will still be relevant, but some will also be obsolete, so make sure you cross reference with other (better maintained) sources. Good luck!

Update (9/27/2011): Added the section on copyrights.

Update (5/15/2011): Changed DTP (Digital Text Platform) to KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) in accordance with Amazon’s rebranding.

Update (10/1/2010): Added details about PubIt, and added the royalty chart.

If you’re thinking of publishing to the Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks store, or to the Barnes & Noble Nook, this article will provide you with everything you need to know to get started. It is the result of many hours of research and experimentation, and probably represents the most comprehensive guide on digital self-publishing currently available. Keep in mind that this is necessarily a living document; I’ve been shocked at how much the industry has changed just since early 2010, and I expect it to continue to change at an equally rapid pace for the foreseeable future. As it does, I will update this resource to reflect everything I continue to learn.

Introduction

Digital publishing has been around in one form or another for many years (starting with early eBook readers from Sony and devices like Palm PDAs), but it wasn’t until Amazon introduced the Kindle — and then Apple followed up with iBooks and Barnes & Noble with the Nook — that eBook readers really went mainstream.

I’ve been digitally self-publishing fiction on these new platforms for about as long as it has been possible. I’m a huge believer in digital publishing, but the truth is that it’s not nearly as easy as it should be. The industry is changing extremely quickly as are the tools, devices, and the best practices. The newness of the industry, and the pace at which it continues to evolve, means that mastering digital self-publishing is still pretty challenging. I’ve spent a huge amount of time learning the ins and outs both through research and trial and error, so I decided to put together this comprehensive resource to try to make digital self-publishing more accessible to as many other writers as possible.

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Why Google Needs to Find Social Success

It’s incredible to me that the same search engine technology which seemed indomitable only a few years ago is now being seriously threatened by something most of us initially mistook for a silly diversion: social networks. The point is best illustrated with a story:

My daughter’s hermit crab recently died and she’s been asking for a guinea pig to replace it. There was a time when the first thing I would do is search Google for information on guinea pigs and do research to see if they would make a suitable pet for an eight-year-old girl. Not anymore. Instead, the first thing my wife and I did was query our social networks.

Two things are happening that are seriously undermining search engines right now:

  1. Because of Facebook and Twitter, we now have the ability to ask just about everyone we know and trust anything we want and get extremely relevant responses usually within minutes.
  2. The internet is flooded with extremely low-quality content designed to be nothing but search engine bait making search-based research less and less efficient.

In other words, the quality of the results I get from search engines like Google is declining while the quality and relevancy of results I get from Facebook and Twitter is increasing. And this is happening alarmingly fast.

To put things into perspective, I still use Google (and even Bing sometimes) several times a day — dozens, in fact — and by no means am I predicting the death of anyone. However, I am finding that my search queries are now divided into two distinct categories:

  1. Information seeking. If I want to know how long it takes for a wildebeest calf to be able to start walking after birth (yes, I actually looked this up the other day), I use Google (and frequently end up at Wikipedia).
  2. Question asking. When I have a specific question about something (Do guinea pigs make good pets for young children? Which brand of printer is most Mac-friendly? Should I go Nikon or Canon?), I almost always turn to social networks first.

(As an aside, a third but less relevant category is navigation: most sites have such poor navigation that it’s often faster to use Google to find a particular page inside a site than to use a site’s own navigation or search. Sad but true.)

What’s interesting (and potentially very alarming) about these categories is their relevancy to advertising. I’m finding that the kinds of searches I do with Google these days are less relevant to commerce than the searches I do through social networks. In other words, I’m not going to pay for information about wildebeests, but if I’m researching the differences between Nikon and Canon DSLRs, I’m likely in the market for a camera and poised to spend some serious money. As you can imagine, this is a huge problem for Google.

So why are many of us unconsciously drifting away from using Google for certain kinds of search? The answer is surprising: because Google has become a victim of its own success. Google’s search algorithms fueled an explosion in advertising revenue, both for Google and for publishers (sites hosting Google ads). Advertising has become such a big business with such low barriers to entry (thanks largely to blogging) that the amount of content specifically tailored to capture search engine traffic has increased at an astounding rate. Unfortunately, as its growth has increased, its quality and relevancy have plummeted.

I’ve become increasing frustrated with the quality of result I get from Google, and increasingly suspicious. I would estimate that at least half of the links I click on lead to information that was generated purely to capture search traffic and show ads. It’s getting more and more difficult — and taking more and more time — to find high-quality results through search engines while simultaneously getting increasingly easy and efficient to simply ask my friends and let the information come to me.

Search engines need to diversify. Bing is branding itself as a decision engine rather than a search engine which I think is interesting and will very likely prove an excellent distinction. Google seems to be experimenting with the decision engine approach, as well (hence their recent purchase of ITA, I suspect), but Google is also trying to figure out how to be social. Google Talk, Google Buzz, Google Wave, Google Profiles, the ability to search your social network, and the rumored "Google Me" service are all strong evidence that this is certainly not escaping Google’s attention (nor has it escaped the attention of Facebook and Twitter). However, in the area of social networking, Google is looking more and more like Microsoft: struggling to find a foothold, launching branded service after branded service hoping that one will eventually stick. This isn’t necessarily a criticism — Thomas J. Watson said that the best way to increase your rate of success is to increase your rate of failure. However, Einstein also said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

It’s time for Google to do something very different.

Epilogue

Although it’s search engines that are immediately threatened by social networks, e-commerce sites are next. It won’t be long before we’re buying and selling through our social networks, as well.

Why is Media Getting Longer When Our Attention Spans are Shrinking?

Remember the days when all you had to worry about was email, and if you were really cutting edge, maybe a few IMs a day? Compare to what demands our attention today:

  • Email (usually multiple accounts)
  • Facebook
  • Twitter (and/or Buzz and/or FriendFeed, etc.)
  • Instant messaging
  • Text messages
  • Blogs/RSS (both our own, and the dozens we follow)
  • Geolocation services (Latitude, Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, etc.)
  • Forums, lists, comment threads, and/or the online communities of our choice
  • The occasional voicemail (though I think leaving voice messages will be considered rude in five years if not sooner since they take longer to consume than email, texts, etc.)

This isn’t a post pining away for an older, simpler time. In fact, I prefer the direction we’re going in now: more choices, and more ways to stay connected to the people and things we care about. Yes, it’s overwhelming sometimes, but it’s also empowering.

But at a time when our attention spans are shrinking and being divided across an increasing amount of content, why are some forms of media actually getting longer? Shouldn’t movies and novels be getting shorter? Shouldn’t articles be condensed? Shouldn’t long pages of directions be reborn as short instructional videos?

In many cases, we are seeing exactly that:

  • When I go to a new website now, I usually expect to find a video explaining the entire concept of the site in no more than a minute or two. If I’m interested, I can spend hours or days or weeks exploring, but most sites only have about 60 seconds to make their pitch to me.
  • When I recently bought a new Jeep, I received a DVD with a series of short videos rather than an owners manual. Nice touch.
  • Television shows (especially when watched on a DVR where commercials can be skipped, or on Hulu where commercials are nice and short) are a great way to get some quick (and in some cases, very high-quality) entertainment.
  • YouTube is the master of short films. You can watch everything from quick product reviews to short films to hilarious series in just a few minutes a day.

But in other ways, we’re seeing media go in the opposite direction:

  • Movies just keep getting longer. I frequently find myself choosing between movies in my Netflix queue based on length since by the time I get around to starting a movie at night, it’s usually already no earlier than 9:00. And when I do watch a long movie, I often can’t help but think about the 30 or 45 minutes that could have easily been cut out to make the story tighter.
  • There aren’t enough really good novellas and short stories to choose from. Short stories are notoriously difficult to market, and publishers stay away from novellas because they don’t have the shelf presence or the perceived value of something longer. But surely it’s not the case that good stories can only be told in 300 or more pages.
  • Most non-fiction books I read really should have just been articles. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction books anymore because my experience is that they usually lay out a premise, then spend about 300 pages either reiterating what they’ve already said, or simply providing example after example (without any counter arguments, naturally).
  • The majority of popular albums only have one or two good tracks with the rest obviously having been created as filler. (Fortunately it’s now possible to buy individual tracks rather than full albums, so music is finally moving in the right direction.)

Of course, content shouldn’t be short for the sake of being short just like it shouldn’t be long for the sake of being long. If you need 900 pages or 180 minutes to really tell a story, then take it. But in my experience, length is based far more on perceived value, established markets, and constraints imposed by distribution than on how long it takes to actually tell a story or to make and prove a point.

Interestingly, the gaming industry has really figured this out. You can easily spend 40 or 50 hours playing through a good modern first-person shooter, or you can spend a few minutes of downtime playing any number of casual games on just about any device with a screen. What’s the difference between games and movies and books? Distribution. There are distribution models to support everything from hardcore to casual gaming, but those same distribution channels don’t yet exist for other forms of media.

I’m experimenting with this myself. I recently released a science fiction novel called Containment which is only about 240 pages long (novel length, certainly, but a little on the short side by modern standards). An early draft was over 350 pages, but I put a lot of time into editing it down to just what it needed to be rather than what a publisher wanted it to be, or what would make it thick enough for the spine to be noticed on a shelf. The end result is a very dense, tight, and fast-paced story. Additionally, I’m now writing short stories like Brainbox and Human Legacy Project that have all the character development and plot twists of a novel, but can be consumed in a single sitting. I don’t know how commercially viable they will be, but I do know that they are the size they need to be rather than the size dictated by a particular distribution medium or market.

The bottom line is that media should be whatever size it needs to be, and for our culture to evolve, we need distribution models that support much more variety than what we’re currently stuck with.

The Real Media Revolution Must Come From Content Creators

As I was watching TV on my iPad last night, I was struck by two things:

  1. How far hardware and software have come over the last few years.
  2. How far media distribution still has to go.

Media distribution will be broken until it reaches one single and very simple objective: anyone should be able to watch or read anything at any time on almost any device. What’s interesting about this objective is that it’s 100% achievable today in terms of technology; it’s media distribution that makes it laughably unrealistic.

As much as I like my iPad, I just don’t find it all that useful because of the incredible lack of media options. First of all, I think we call agree that the iPad is designed primarily for media consumption rather than creation. Yes, you can do some creative things on the device, but for the most part, if you really want to make something, most of us are better off using our computers or cameras or whatever it is we use to create. But for media consumption — reading, watching video, and playing games — the iPad is fantastic.

In theory, anyway. In practice, it’s hugely lacking. Rather than watching and reading the books and shows I’m interested in, I find myself having to pick from very limited selections carefully designed not cannibalize other revenue streams. A good example is my recent interest in Modern Family (the show which recently set a new standard in product placement and shilling, but which is a good show nonetheless). I got into the show very late in the season which means that I’ve missed about ten episodes, and there’s no practical way for me to get caught up. In the year 2010, while surrounded by some of the most advanced devices on the planet and having massive amounts of bandwidth at my disposal, the only options I have available are:

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Great Example of How Apple Understands Consumers

I was watching something like Community or Modern Family the other night when I saw two commercials that really struck me: one for the iPhone, and one for the Droid. The juxtaposition seemed like a very simple illustration of a point I’ve been trying to make lately which is that Apple is one of the few technology companies that really understands consumers. In other words, probably more than any other technology company, Apple makes products for everyday people rather than for the geeks who design and build them.

Hence all the control Apple insists upon. Geeks like freedom and openness when it comes to technology while most people just want something to work. By carefully controlling the hardware and the software, as well as the retail and support experiences, Apple can give customers exactly what they want: simplicity and elegance.

Google cares about the web. Microsoft cares about software platforms. Apple cares about good experiences. That’s their only prejudice. They will pursue almost any technology whether it’s web-based, installed, mobile, set-top, or otherwise if it makes the power of technology accessible to consumers.

I don’t think most people care about multi-tasking or application approval processes. They just want a device to be easy and fun. I think the two commercials below illustrate which company understands that better: