A Certain Irreverence
9Feb/140

Why Canadians Programmers Don’t Work Here.

Posted by Ben Trafford

Picture of a programmer putting his fist through the monitor.

Canadian firms compete with Silicon Valley for software engineers

This story is awful. It's amusing as hell watching Canadian companies making excuses for why so many of our people head south. And quoting HootSuite -- what a joke.

Here's why Canadians work in the U.S.: more money, less bullshit. HootSuite is currently advertising for a senior engineer -- whom they will likely pay anywhere from $90k to $110k Canadian a year. The same engineer would make $150k in Silicon Valley.

Moreover, on top of being able to do their job, HootSuite wants "thought leadership" (i.e. you write articles, have a big ol' GitHub account, and speak at MeetUps) and they also want you to have a religious belief in Agile methodology.

By comparison -- in the U.S., they want you to be able to code reliably. That's it. All the other stuff is icing. And they'll pay you handsomely for it.

All the sad explanations of Canadian companies as to why they can't attract talent are complete malarky.

6May/130

The Best Explanation for Why Spanking is Stupid and Wrong.

Posted by Ben Trafford

A picture of a crying child.

From my good friend Mikael Andersson:

Cultural customs are terrible things that twist people's minds up.

Yes, every kid is different and there's no way to adapt a specific parenting formula to a random child and get a reproducible outcome. But just as surely as nobody of sound mind and morals in today's society would say "I'd let my 4-year old have a cigarette if they felt like one, because I think raising my child to make their own choices is important", neither would they say "some wives just need a good slap in the face now and then to keep them in line" or "some people need to be raped to make them learn their place". Because current cultural norms do not allow such opinions under any circumstances.

That is not to say the outcome wouldn't be - from the perpetrator's perspective - a positive one. Perhaps that serial cheating wife -would- stay 'faithful' after a broken nose or two. Perhaps that cocky convict -would- lose his attitude and find Jesus after the prison guards had their way with him.

But from the studies, we know there are adverse effects. Even if, from an objective societal perspective, the end effect is a net positive, we know it's hellish and/or mentally damaging for the individual to become broken and live in fear. By and large, we frown on "solutions" of this type. For some reason, the culture of beating your kids to instill respect or "get attention" is still prevalent in North America, which lets people make excuses for it instead of seeing the absolute but obvious moral stance that'd be in line with the rest of the moral and legal rules we live by: you do not physically assert your dominance over anyone for any other reason than to prevent immediate physical injury to themselves and others.

I cannot fathom why this rule is in place for everyone in society except for those who are the most vulnerable and impressionable.

This is the best explanation I've ever heard on this topic. No other discussion should be necessary.

4Apr/130

Child To Be Stolen For Her Own Good.

Posted by Ben Trafford

CPS logo with a red slash through it.

Read this: http://www.freerangekids.com/6-y-o-who-walked-alone-to-post-office-may-be-removed-from-her-home/

This is horrifying. You know, I was raised by a parent who professionally interacted with the Canadian version of child protective services all the time. The staggering incompetence, the arrogance, and the overreaching is horrifying. In Canada, it's next to impossible to challenge these people.

I cannot imagine some stranger trying to take my child. I agree that children need to be protected from real abuse, but their method of handling it is awful, and only likely to traumatize the child.

The stupidity and casual cruelty of these organizations astounds me.

Even more to the point: I find it very interesting to read the comments on stories like this, the ones about people pushing back against unjust authority. Especially in the U.S., about half the comments on these articles read, "Well, if you weren't doing anything wrong, why didn't you cooperate? You're just picking a fight to make a point. You should comply. Comply and everything will be fine."

I am amazed at how quickly people are willing to give up their rights in the face of authority figures -- and even more amazed at how much they demonize people who don't.

 

16Jan/130

Thoughts on Aaron Swartz.

Posted by Ben Trafford

Aaron Swartz

As many of my readers will know, internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide on January 11th. I have very mixed feelings on this case. I don't think that a young man who had well-known depression issues should've been encouraged to take on the U.S. legal establishment, for example. I also think the prosecutors were overzealous, especially considering that the allegedly infringed parties either didn't pursue prosecution or specifically requested that leniency be granted. It's fairly clear that the only people who wanted Mr. Swartz to go to prison were the prosecutors involved in the case.

However, what baffles me the most is the reaction of right-wing commentators on this case. Aaron Swartz was waging a battle against injustice and tyranny, in his own mind and in the minds of the many people who supported him. I don't actually think the way he went about it was very smart, but he did a lot of other smart things that make it fairly clear this young man wasn't some crook who was out to rob people of their money.

And yet the reaction from the right wing types is that he was just a thief, a common criminal, and that he got what he deserved.

I wonder if they'd say the same thing about the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution? Like Swartz, they were upper class, privileged white males. Like Swartz, they decided the law was wrong, and that they didn't want to pay for the law said they should. Like Swartz, they believed that they were in a battle against tyranny, a stance that around 20% of the colonies' population heartily disagreed with. In any sense of the word, they were criminals.

I don't see the logic in being a supporter of the U.S. revolution while casting people like Swartz as unrepentant villains. I guess the victors do write the history.

23Oct/120

Bill Hill (1950-2012)

Posted by Ben Trafford

billhill

Bill Hill passed on October 19th, 2012. The inventor of Microsoft's ClearType and a pioneer in digital publishing and typography, he was a humble giant in our field.

I had the opportunity to meet Bill on a few occasions. I found him to be a generous, kind and insightful person. And whether or not you're a Microsoft fan, there's no doubt that ClearType was a leap forward in digital typography. Sixty-two years old is way too young to lose such a great mind.

My thoughts go out to his family and friends.

An article on him from Forbes:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/anthonykosner/2012/10/19/rip-microsoft-cleartype-inventor-bill-hill/

And Bill's blog, always a favourite read, is here:

http://billhillsblog.blogspot.ca/

22Jun/120

Alan Turing.

Posted by Ben Trafford

Picture of Alan Turing with text.

Think about this: if Alan Turing hadn't been driven to suicide, he could've been productive well into 1970s, possibly even the 1980s. Think of what this man accomplished in the first 20 years of his career -- and then tack on another 40. What a horrific, tragic loss -- and all due to homophobia.

18Jan/120

Going Black to Protest SOPA.

Posted by Ben Trafford

Anti-SOPA avatar.

This blog will go black to protest SOPA for the entirety of January 18th, from midnight PST to midnight PST on the 19th.

SOPA is very bad news  for everyone. As in, everyone, American or not.

15Jan/120

Bill Mumy on nerds.

Posted by Ben Trafford

I like science fiction people.  There’s a large percentage of them that take things too seriously, and within any fan group there’s people that just go, “Oh, danger, danger,” but for the most part science fiction people are very pro-environment, they’re very pro-space program, and they’re very good about having no prejudice about other people, no racism, no bullying.  They’re the outcasts, kind of.  They’re not the handsome jocks.  They’re more or less the nerds and they get a better perspective of their place in the planet in conjunction with the other life forms that we share it with, and I like and respect them for that.

- Bill Mumy, recently

I doubt I've heard a better description of my favourite social circle than this.

11Nov/110

Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street.

Posted by Ben Trafford

172687-occupy-wall-street-moves-uptown

I find that, among my friends, the response to the OWS movement is cut into two clear camps: OWS is ineffectual and people should stop wasting their time and work within the system to change the system, and people who are rah-rah supports. I fall into the latter camp, and here's why:

The system is broken. The whitewashing of political lies (weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Canada needs more prisons, etc.) with no consequence. Mass banking fraud with no consequences. Corporate taxes dropping through the floor; corporate influence in politics becoming unbridled.

The system elects people with the right connections -- our democracies have become oligarchies. And even when a candidate makes all the right noises, like Obama, they get into office and change their tune fairly rapidly.

Some people complain that OWS accomplishes nothing, and that the protesters are just layabouts who expect a handout. To them, I say: get a clue. Actually look at the pictures of the people protesting -- the senior citizens, the veterans, the middle class people who woke up one morning and discovered their investments had evaporated.

The OWS movement is raising these issues in the international consciousness -- people are hearing a different message than the corporate media wants them to hear. And governments are showing their hands, replying to peaceful, legal protests with overwhelming force. That, more than anything, is cluing people into the real nature of this struggle, and the truth the OWS message represents.

7Oct/115

Fixed Width Layout – A Waste of Time.

Posted by Ben Trafford

I follow the trends in ebooks fairly closely. Although I'm no longer affiliated with the IDPF, I'm still interested in where the technology is going.

Of late, I've been hearing a lot of chatter about fixed width layouts. A brief explanation: most ebooks use a variable width layout, meaning they resize to your screen, whatever size that screen is. This is very useful -- it means the same EPUB file can be read on my phone, my netbook, my tablet, and my massive desktop screen. When you think variable width layout, you should be thinking along the lines of most webpages.

A fixed width layout is one where it does not resize to the screen in a graceful manner. The document is designed to look a certain way, and it should always look that way and have the same proportions. When you think of fixed width layout, think along the lines of a PDF document.

Fixed width layouts are important to people who are trying to recreate what we see in magazines, comic books, newspapers, etc. And the supposed need for fixed width layout is a topic of considerable interest among the ebook production crowd. I've heard rumours that the IDPF will be standardizing it after EPUB3 is complete.

I have several arguments against this focus on fixed width layouts, and they come down to these: the IDPF should be focusing on more important issues; the community should be solving more relevant problems; and we've already solved the fixed width issue.

I'll address these point-by-point.

The IDPF's Focus

The IDPF is a great organization, and they do important, meaningful work. However, they have bigger fish they could be frying -- namely, public relations, developer outreach, and EPUB3.

Public Relations - I am on two dozen or more ebook-related forums. I regularly see smart people say things like, "Well, there are several ebook formats. Kindle, iBooks, EPUB..." No one seems to realize that in most cases, the formats they're reading came from EPUB. EPUB can transform into anything; not everything can transform into EPUB. Smashwords, for example, is making a mint off this lack of awareness -- people think that they need a service to make their books available in all these different bookseller formats, not realizing that all of them accept EPUB.

Why are people so ignorant? Because the IDPF is not engaging their constituency. I spent years explaining to people the difference between an ebook and an ebook reader, for example. The IDPF should own the hearts and minds of the ebook community -- but precious few people even know who they are.

There is a massive self-publishing movement out there. Why isn't the IDPF providing authors with tutorials on how to make an EPUB? Why aren't they hiring third party developers to make EPUB output plugins for Word? Why doesn't the typical author, editor, or small publisher have any idea who the IDPF is?

Developer Outreach - The IDPF has almost zero presence in the developer community. Oh, they're well-represented by the big companies, but there are a host of people developing ebook apps in their basements. Why isn't there a developer tutorial for EPUB? Why isn't an EPUB validation service hosted from their site? Why isn't there sample code posted? Why isn't there a service to confirm applications as being EPUB-compliant? Right now, when you develop for EPUB, there's no way to know if third party software is compliant to the specs.

EPUB3 - I've watched EPUB3 getting savaged by developers on Twitter and elsewhere. The specs themselves are already far later than the IDPF would've hoped, and significantly under-specified in a number of areas. The IDPF has traditionally punted compliance wording -- it's time for that to end, especially since EPUB3 supports scripting, a morass that they've barely touched on.

With all these issues, the IDPF wants to waste their time on fixed width layouts? I sincerely hope that isn't the case.

More Relevant Problems

There are two notable camps in the ebook development world -- software engineers and designers. Of late, the designers have been ascendant. This has been a very good thing -- the quality of ebooks produced has dramatically risen in the last few years. But I think its day is done. Designers focus on the beauty of the ebook -- the art of it. But art isn't what we need, at the moment, and especially because a lot of their sensibilities have been formed by the print world. And the print world is, frankly, becoming increasingly irrelevant. We're in the midst of a paradigm shift, and designers are still going on about the beauty of typesetting.

When I get on a bus and see people happily reading on the tiny screens of their smartphones, reading things that have had zero thought put into their typesetting, that tells me that the war for "good enough" typography has been won. We get "good enough" typography free with technologies that originated with the web. A designer will say "but it's not good enough," to which I say, "people are using it."

We have more important things to do than to try to recreate the beauty of print in an electronic medium. As I will point out below -- it's already been done. Why not focus on bigger issues that will enable ebooks to be more than just "novels on your screen?"

Here's a few items: common DRM, interdocument linking; social discovery of books; ebook lending; and shareable annotations.

Common DRM - Right now, EPUBs get transformed into a host of formats, each one only usable on its parent platform. You buy a book on the Kindle, and you can't read it with your Kobo or your Sony Reader. Things are getting better in this regard, but that's only a sign of Amazon's dominance -- I can read the same ebook on my phone, my desktop, or my Kindle. But that's not enough -- I want to be able to read it on the device of my choice, even if that's provided by another bookseller.

Moreover, as I'll discuss in a moment, I want to be able to lend my ebook to someone using another bookseller's device.

We need a common DRM for ebooks. Yes, some will argue, what we need is no DRM, but since authors will never go for that, a light, non-intrusive DRM would be extremely useful.

The battle for a common DRM is less a technical one and more a social one. Why would Amazon give up its dominance? The big boys don't play well together, but there are various business models where a common DRM could be most useful to even them.

Interdocument Linking - Imagine you're reading a textbook, and there's a footnote. You click on the footnote, and a screen opens, inviting you to purchase the book that's footnoted. Maybe it even provides you with a sample of the book. You buy it. The next time you click on the footnote, it jumps to exactly that page in the textbook you've just bought.

This is not possible with today's technology.

Social Discovery of Ebooks - One of the biggest questions plaguing the ebook world today is, "How do we get consumers to notice our books?" There's just too many, and the downside of the self-publishing revolution is that a lot of crap is getting published, which drowns out the good stuff. For example, my friend Michael Shean's ebook, Shadow of a Dead Star has gotten rave reviews, but is still not selling anywhere near what it deserves, and Michael spends significant chunks of time to market it.

Instead of wasting time with fixed width layout, why aren't the ebook developers of the world building apps that let me "Like" a book in Facebook style and have all my friends notice? Why can't I simply click "Share" on an ebook, and have it go out to my friends? Or even better -- why isn't there an app on Facebook and Google+ and Twitter and on its own site that lets me search for books that are like books I've already given a good rating?

The ebook development community is focused on metadata for ebook discovery. This is foolish. The battle for metadata has been won -- it just needs to be used appropriately. But metadata won't tell me if a book is to my taste -- my friends will.

Ebook discovery will be social. And the company that builds a social discovery tool, and gets traction, will be very wealthy.

Ebook Lending - I should be able to buy an ebook and lend it to a friend. I can do this, to a limited extent, on single platforms -- i.e. I can lend my Kindle ebook to another Kindle user. I should be able to lend it to anyone. There is no reason why I can't do everything with an ebook that I do with a paper book, and more. Right now, that isn't the case.

Shareable Annotations - Imagine -- you're a teacher. You get the textbook, and you make notes on it. Then, you click a button, and every student in your class has your notes on the textbook. Those students make their own notes -- and sometimes, notes on your notes. They click, and those notes are shared with anyone they choose.

Now, that's powerful. And not possible today. Why?

These are just a few of the interesting problems the ebook community could be tackling. But they want to focus on fixed width layout...and really?

The Problem Has Been Solved

We have PDF, which duplicates print more-or-less exactly. It can be hyperlinked, it can be interactive, etc. etc. What more could a fixed width layout fan want?

Perhaps they don't like PDF. Maybe they're not Adobe fans. Maybe they find the files bloated. They want something like EPUB, but for fixed width layout. Take a bunch of static content, wrap it up in a zip file, and distribute it.

Oh, wait. Isn't that the Comic Book Archive format? The IDPF could take that, wrangle some OPF into it, and bang! Problem solved.

No, no, no, they say. We don't want to be shunting binary files around. We want static content in XML!

Wait...isn't that SVG? Which is already a blessed specification by the IDPF, and totally usable in EPUB3?

This problem has been solved...and solved...and solved.

Conclusion

I understand how seductive it is to want beautiful ebooks. I understand how much it seems to make sense to take the detritus of the paper book world and convert it into electronic format, so we can say, "Here, see! You can have your glossy magazine/manga/newspaper in ebook format!"

But those battles are won. The designers, the ebook software developers, and the IDPF have much bigger problems to solve that their audience (authors and readers) would love to see solved.

Stop wasting your time.