Digital Vs. Physical Goods

Not long ago, I posted about how paper books are now the deprecated choice in my household. Recently, as my daughter began crawling and pulling up, she wreaked havoc on our CD rack, throwing disks all over the place. Cleaning them up and moving them to somewhere safe, I was struck with how many of them I couldn’t remember playing in the last decade. I was even more struck with the desire to get a number of these out of my house.

I am forming a new three-tiered approach on how to deal with goods that I could just as easily have in physical or digital form. This is still a work in progress but looks to be something like the following:

  1. Goods that I for sure want to own physically

    These are items that have been autographed, items that are collectible, items that have sentimental value such as heirlooms or gifts.

  2. Goods that I for sure want to own digitally

    These are the things I now buy (or download for free) to my Kindle or for my MP3 player. This is the category of things that I actively don’t want a physical copy in my living space, even if I get it for free.

  3. Goods that I am ambivalent about their physical vs digital ownership

    This is the new category that I realized shlepping CDs around. Many of these CDs are ones that I should do what many of my friends did 10 years ago, which is to rip them digitally, put them on a safe backup drive somewhere (or the cloud) and get the hell rid of the physical disk. If and when Ion Audio ever releases their book scanner, many of the books that are in my house would also fit in this category. These are goods that I currently own in physical form that if and when I could convert that do a digital form, I’d gladly get rid of the artifact. I’m going to take a wild stab and say for either books or music, between 30 and 50% of what I own would fall inside this category.

I love the idea of the DIY Book Scanner project and godspeed to them, but I’m not handy enough to build on myself. That’s why I’d rather trade $150 to Ion Audio to get a prebuilt production model of something that appears to be based off the open design. If I get one, I will go on a spree of digitizing books, putting them on a backup drive and my Kindle and either listing on eBay or donating to my local library’s book sale.

Interestingly, when I get a Kindle Fire and install the Comixology app, [Update: I’m told Comixology comes pre-installed on the Fire] I’ll have a new category of entertainment that is governed by these three tiers. I can totally see the books I currently buy one copy of issue #1 at my local comic shop to try out migrating over to Comixology. If it turns out I don’t like the book, I’ve figured that out more cheaply. For the books I do like, I’ll add them to my pull list and possibly go back and get the earlier issues in paper if I care.

One of the aspects of myself I like the least and most would like to change is my pack rat behavior. Whatever in my life I can move from a pile in my messy office to a file on a hard drive or a device, that is a positive trade to me. Dear digital world, help save me from myself.

Decision Fatigue

I’m still catching up on the unblogged items from throughout 2011, aka “The Year Lost to A Tiny Human.” Here is one from last August that I’ve been thinking about for months.

According to this article in the New York Times, there is a phenomenon called “Decision Fatigue.” I can’t attest directly to the science or the reportage of the science, but I do know in my life I feel like this is a big issue. In our modern first world lives, every single day I am asked to make dozens of decisions over and over that I don’t really care about. According to the article, each one of those whether profound or trivial is using up a bit of your store of “decision making mojo” (term coined by me, TM.)

A trivial example of this from the average lunchtime is this – compare going to Subway to Jimmy Johns. In either case, you walk out with a fairly similar sandwich. All told, you get more food for cheaper at Subway, but I prefer the experience of going to Jimmy Johns. Why? Because I walk in to Jimmy Johns and tell them I want a #6. I even make a substitution, deli mustard for mayonaiise but when I place that order, that is the end of it. I hand them money and shortly get a sandwich handed back to me. I can order three or seven, and the experience is the same. Contrast that to the Subway experience. Going to the head of the line at Subway is like being interrogated at the station house.
“What sandwich do you want?”
“What bread?”
“What size?”
“What cheese?”
“Do you want this toasted?”
“Which toppings?”
Even if you say ‘the works’, you still get asked “Do you want the jalapenos? How about the banana peppers?”
“What sauces?”
“Chips and a drink?”
“How about a cookie?”

By the time this experience is over, I’m exhausted from having to answer all of these frigging questions when truth be told, I don’t give much of a shit about any of it. You could hand me my sandwich on any bread, with any cheese, and with any permutation of toppings and I’d feel about the same about it. Scale this up to across your whole life all day, and it begins to get abrasive.

Recently we went to get photos of the baby taken at the mall, and we had not even thought about Santa being there. We’d already had a photo session when we saw the Santa stand and decided to do that one too. I didn’t even think hard about the options, I went straight for the top package with the most stuff. The reason was that the few dollars in savings mattered less to me than making an arbitrary decision I didn’t care about and trying to decide right there on the spot whether it was better to have 3 5X7 vs 4 5X7 and whether it was better to make a tradeoff on wallet sized. Further, the purchasing experience at JC Penney’s Photo Studio is such that they take photos and then 2 minutes later you have to make all decisions about which and how many to purchase, and if you don’t decide right that second the price skyrockets from $4 to $10 a sheet. It’s kind of a gross and unpleasant user experience but not at all atypical in modern American consumer driven society.

One of the things I do on a small scale is the invariant ordering at certain places. When I go to Starbucks, I get an Americano 99.5% of the time. I get the same sandwich at Jimmy Johns every time, and at most restaurants I frequent I have a small set of go-to options. For me personally, I’m happy to trade off variety for simplified decisions. In those places where I am a regular customer with invariant ordering, after a while they learn my choices. I’ve had my Jimmy Johns sandwich (with correct condiment substitution) waiting for me on the counter because they saw me parking my car and started making it. My regular Starbucks will often bring my drink to my table without us ever exchanging a word, which is fun because the beach tourists always look confused over how a guy who never ordered at all got a drink ahead of them.

I’m not telling anyone how to live their life, but if you are in the business of trying to shake money out of American consumers, you might want to consider the best ways to streamline decisions out of the process. Every one of them is a roadblock that might abort the transaction entirely. Think of the ways to reduce the whole transaction to “Yes, I want it” and then boom it is done. Amazon is particularly good at this. What is “one click ordering” if nothing but “decision free checkout process?” Brilliant.

Testing ThinkUp

Just today I ran across a reference to ThinkUp and on whim I installed it on my hosting account. This is a way for you to keep your own local cache of Twitter, Facebook and Google+ (so far.) It is open source and with luck will continue to have features added for some time. I have been using Twitter for nothing but the auto-posts from this blog for some time now. It’s possible that having ThinkUp available will make me willing to use Twitter again. Also possible that it doesn’t. It does solve one of the very annoying parts of Twitter, that you post things and eventually they plop out the memory hole and into the crapper.

My first thought was that ThinkUp really needs a generic RSS plugin as well as plugins for some of the big services. My second thought was that all it really needs is a plugin to read FriendFeed and then all of the rest of it is taken care of. if I contribute any code, that might be the code I’m willing to do.

My ThinkUp instance is here. I’ve made the Twitter and G+ streams public, and for G+ and Facebook only posts that are made fully public get imported. I have to remember while using G+ that anything I want to prevent bubbling into the open internet needs to be more restricted than Public. It remains to be seen how useful this wil be, but it looks promising for now. I had thought of doing something similar with the Drupal Activity Stream module except that it looks abandoned now and has no Drupal 7 version available. I’ll see how this works for me and report back later.

Update: As a bonus, I’ll put the embed code for my most recent post here. I honestly have no idea what it is going to do. We can learn together.

Pragmatic Programmers Black Friday Sale – Now with Dropbox Support!

On Friday, here’s a Black Friday sale you can take advantage of without having to find a parking place. Pragmatic Programmers will be having 40% off of all their books for that one day only. I’ve been a customer of theirs for some time, having bought a number of Ruby books that I have read on my Kindle. If you purchase either the ebook or ebook/paper combo, you can get the books in DRM-free ePub or MOBI. Use them with whatever device you might happen to have.

I recently made an order with no coupon, so I’m pretty good on their books at the moment. However, I think I’ll buy Build Awesome Command-Line Applications in Ruby: Control Your Computer, Simplify Your Life by David Bryant Copeland. I am doing an ever larger set of command line Ruby scripting, mostly without any sort of automated testing at all just eyeball verification. If I get get out of this book some best practices for testing these scripts, that would be well worth the $12 it will cost after coupon.

Also, in going to the site to assemble these links I just learned something completely new and cool. Pragmatic Programmers now has Dropbox support. They periodically update books that you have purchased, and you can configure your account to have them update your books via Dropbox whenever a newer version is available. That is a killer feature. I’m off to set that up right now.

Blog Fodder and Life

Our baby was born last January. It’s amazing how much came to a grinding halt then and has never come back. I have seen no television since then except for maybe 4 hours total of college football and a few hours of NASCAR races. I just looked at my Google Reader under my tag “Blog fodder.” I had been using that to tag entries I might later want to blog about here. The last entry in there was dated December 2010. I don’t know how far behind I am in reading my GR items but I’d guess three or four months.

None of this is a complaint. If anything it is the opposite. One of the many gifts the baby gave me is showing me that parts of my life that were major time sinks can completely disappear and I will barely miss them. I had already had the goal to jettison some of the fast twitch parts of my online life (Twitter being a prime one) before she was born, but after she was born it was no longer a choice or intention. Having a baby – especially at our ages – is the equivalent of on Star Trek when the captain says “Life support only!” It doesn’t matter what you want, you do what is physically possible for you.

I’m calmer and happier now, even with the exhaustion and stress of keeping this small being alive whose primary goal is to do dangerous activities. Life is good, even as far less of it occurs on the internet. It’s quite possible it is because far less of it is happening on the internet.

“There Are Too Many Skeptic Podcasts”

I’m catching up on blogging things from the past. A few months ago I heard the episode of Skepticality that was the audio of Tim Farley’s presentation from Skepticamp 2011 in Atlanta. It was entitled “Please Don’t Start Another Blog or Podcast!” I like Tim Farley’s stuff on Skepticality, but I’m going to say right up front, I think the entirety of the sentiment and content of his presentation was pure assholery.

The basic gist of his talk was that there are already lots of online skeptical venues, many blogs and podcasts and websites so you, newly minted skeptic with enthusiasm, you should not start another one. Because there are too many. Bullshit. I’ve been hearing this kind of sentiment for as long as I’ve been involved in the blogosphere. When I went to Bloggercon in Palo Alto in 2004, people were making that kind of statement, that there were “too many blogs.”

There is a cruelty inherent in this kind of statement. It says that there is a time period that one can join the party and after than that, you are shut out. Sorry kid, you should have been involved in 2005 and then you could have a skeptic podcast but because you missed it we don’t need you. Sorry, person who wants to blog but we filled all those positions in 2002.

These stances are clearly nonsense on the face of it and driven by the fallacy of full consumption. That is to say – any amount of production more than I personally can consume is excess. This is a selfish and solipsistic view and is inconsistently applied. People will say there are too many podcasts on topic X because there are more than they can listen to, but they never say “There are too many television shows being produced” or “Too many books being published.” These rules only apply to the hoi polloi and their citizen media, not the serious professionals doing serious work.

I’m on record as saying there are never too many of any of these things. There are not too many blogs, not too many podcasts, not too many skeptic podcasts, not too many comic book podcasts, not too many stand up comedian podcasts or any sort of category you can come up with. Back at Bloggercon 2004, I made the statement that “I don’t think there are too many blogs if there are ten billion in the world, one for every single person and some people having a few. I’m not required to read any more than the ones I care about, which is all anyone is asked.”

I’m sure Tim Farley has good intentions with his presentation and has the goal of making the skeptical community a more efficient entity. However, the methodology he is using to state that is downright harmful. Telling people you can’t get involved in the way that excites you because other people are already excited and doing that is not an effective motivational message. Creating a class system where the early adopters get to do whatever they please and the late comers are relegated to helper roles is not cool, and is the opposite of everything I believe about citizen media.

If you care, create. If your creation isn’t that good, it will find it’s own level. More importantly, as you log the flight time it will get better. Telling people not to start is telling them not to log that flight time, not improve, not develop skill sets. It is stunting tomorrow’s superstar creators because today has superstars. It is short-sighted, not fun, not cool and a terrible message for any kind of community.

Webcomics Weekly on Creative Burnout and Personal Branding

I’m a fan of and listener to the Webcomics Weekly podcast. 2011 has been a year of sporadic publishing of the podcast (not as sporadic as mine though.) The last episode they’ve published, #83, is a really interesting conversation. They start with a discussion of ending long running projects, letting the excitement of a new project detract from the familiar challenges of a long-running (even when successful) project and the ups and downs of .

One of the bits of specifics that really fascinated me was when they discussed whether they are doing things wrong by not branding themselves as creators more. Brad Guigar brought up that he has had for a long time without doing much with it. He’s got multiple web comics and print comics, and he talked about whether he should use as a central hub that pulls in all those projects into a single place. That way, as long as he’s posting something new to any project, the hub has new content. The other big efficiency is that in combines the traffic from all of those sites into a single place which might help if one generates any significant amount of revenue from advertising.

I think about this myself. I’ve owned for a while, and all it is now is the merest collection of links to side projects and my OpenId redirector. I’ve thought about installing Drupal or something on there and using it as a central hub for all things me. If the lifestream type Drupal modules were more mature and actively developed, I’d be all over it. I could pull in my blog posts from here, links to other projects and use it as a FriendFeed style aggregator for all my social media presences, but one that I own for and about myself. As more of my output shifts into social media sites, more and more I would prefer to be owning that myself instead of giving away my mojo, traffic and mindshare to some third party. I don’t have good answers to any of this, but I enjoyed listening to the Webcomics Weekly guys work through the questions.

Using Google+ For Authors

Over on his A Simpler Way blog, my friend Evo Terra has a guide to using Google+ for the publishing author. It’s an interesting guide, applicable for anyone whose primary use of Google+ is as a touchpoint for a creative presence. I would think this would map well for musicians, cartoonists, podcasters or anyone whose primary motivation in G+ is to simultaneously engage with and promote your work to interested fans.

I’d urge anyone whose interests lie that way to check out his post. Even if you don’t agree with his advice down the line, it’s an interesting and effective looking approach to managing one’s G+ presence.

Grand Strand Tech Awards

I am delighted to be nominated for the first running of the Grand Strand Tech Awards as one of the founders of CREATE South. I think there is zero chance of me winning as I’m up against several of my co-organizers in the same category. I’ll take the warm fuzzies from the nomination process. I’m just happy to see our community accepting and honoring people doing this kind of work. A large portion of our motivation in founding CREATE South was to allow those in technology in and around Myrtle Beach to find each other and recognize that they were not alone. In that respect, I think it has been a wild success.

Thanks for the nomination!

I Love Automation

it’s one of my quirks that I love automation in practically every form I encounter it. When you see the things that light me up at work, at home, in side projects a lot of the involve automatic processes that passively make work happen for me. I don’t know why, but this has always been the case for me.

My very first job out of college was doing QC at a pharmaceutical factory. We did mostly liquid chromatography of samples out of in process tanks. Our instruments had autosamplers and if you managed them well, you could make an astounding amount of work happen. I butted heads with coworkers who I thought didn’t deal with these properly. One guy would spend the first four hours of his shift preparing every sample he needed, then load it up and go. I would prepare one sample, get it running and then try to prepare as many as I could before the machine needed the next one. Then I’d load it up, program the computer, and do the rest of them. My whole point was that if the instrument is sitting idle, you are not getting as much work throughput as you could.

Even today, a lot of what I enjoy doing in software involves automated process. In the days before we had thinks like Hudson or Cruise Control, I built and rebuilt automated build systems at multiple jobs. If I started a job and they didn’t have a repeatable, machine driven build process they would have one by the time I left. The idea of doing some work, committing it to source control and having things trigger along the path that result in final product makes me happy.

This is why I was so happy when we got our first Roomba. For years, pushing the button and having this thing clean our floors just tickled me every time. We got a newer version a year or two ago that didn’t work newly as well and it really bummed me out. If we had a self-loading dishwasher it would make me deliriously happy.

A lot of my side projects involve automation of some form another. I’ve just been soft-launching a new one called Buy It at That Price, which is a tracker of prices for items at Amazon that will notify you if the price drops. (Yes I know there are others, I just don’t care and built one too.) I like having robots do work for me, keep track of things. I remember the mythical Apple Knowledge Navigator video and I still want that product. In grad school in 1997, one of my AI projects was a client side webcrawler that would scan web pages (and Usenet!) for information that matched certain queries, and would weight links to other pages based on how well the referring page scored. If I had stuck with that a little harder, maybe I’d have Larry Page/Sergei Brin money. There’s gold in that there automation.

I think I’ll want the robots working for me until the day I die. I only hope that I’m not dying at their hands in some sort of Skynetty takeover. Until then, keep it up, machines! I’ll check in with you when I finish this cup of coffee.