Don’t ever let your software do the thinking for you
By Graeme HAGUE
[Standing in for David Hague]
I’ve had six novels published in Australia, but my next manuscript could still wallow like many others in my virtual bottom drawer.
Four of my novels got some exposure in the UK, one crept momentarily onto the bookshelves in the US and is currently doing well in Germany and another was licensed to Readers Digest in Australia and the Netherlands. So theoretically I’ve got a rough idea about what I’m doing. However, the competition is still very tough and nothing is guaranteed, despite having a foot in the door at any publishers from simply having a track record.
One of the problems is the vast amount of manuscripts being created by enthusiastic novice writers that are swamping the system. In the good ol’ days the sheer effort required for writing 150,000 words was enough to discourage all but the most determined. Word processing software changed all that. While it still needs a serious level of dedication to “pen” a complete novel at least you no longer have to re-type the good bits of your manuscript anymore. The creative writing process has been significantly streamlined. Unfortunately for some.
At last count most popular publishers were receiving something like eight thousand unsolicited manuscripts a year- that’s novels they didn’t ask for. They just appear in the mail (or worse, in the email Intray). About 99% of them aren’t anywhere near good enough and some are truly awful. Still, every manuscript has to be given due - albeit often brief – consideration and clogs the works. More consideration, it would seem, than the authors bothered to apply.
I don’t normally read other people’s manuscripts anymore - it’s become too time-consuming and people get too easily offended by bad news. But a “friend of a friend” broke through the security cordon and I was faced with over 250,000 words of terrible prose. I’m not being harsh or snobbish here - it was a real mystery how someone could write so much material and not see its many, many flaws. Without a doubt, he had used his software’s thesaurus to painstakingly provide an alternative word for every adjective or verb and the result was an impossibly “wordy”, unreadable mess - a quarter of a million words long. Worse, I didn’t return the MS (standard procedure now- it’s cheaper for the author to reprint than to courier two kilos of printed paper back and forth) and got accused of attempting to steal his genius. Hmm…HH
Full marks for effort, a “fail” for story content and a visit to the headmaster and a big slap on the wrist for trying to make the software - the thesaurus - do all the hard work. Creativity begins and ends inside that word processor between our ears. The same applies to photography, film, music and to some extent art. You are the creative element, not the fantastic computer resources we have at our fingertips now. We are supposed to have the ideas, the inspirations, those “light bulb” moments that are the start of something great.
In other words - not chosen by my software’s thesaurus - don’t ever let your software do the thinking for you.
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Virgin’s Facebook sackings generate disturbing turbulance
By Ian GRAYSON
News that Richard Branson has opted to sack 13 of his airline staff after they posted comments to a popular social networking site is a worrying sign of what might be to come.
The serial entrepreneur, who made his name as a maverick who loved nothing more than bucking the system, appears to have had a sense of humour by-pass. He’s terminating the employment of staff who allegedly posted criticism about the airline and some of its passengers on Facebook.
The move is particularly troubling as it sets a new demarcation between what constitutes an individual’s professional and personal life. If it’s OK for Virgin Atlantic, expect many other firms to follow suit.
The crux of the airline’s argument is that the posted comments brought the company into disrepute. According to a BBC News report they included claims that planes were full of cockroaches and that jet engines had been replaced four times in a single year.
Whether the comments (which have since been removed) were true or not is not the point here. It’s the employer’s reaction that’s totally over the top.
Facebook is a social networking site. User comments vary from banal to esoteric and cover every imaginable subject. It’s pretty much the same thing you’d hear in a crowded pub any Friday night of the year.
And that’s the thing. Since when did criticising your employer become a sackable offence? If that was the case there would be a whole lot of empty desks in most companies each Monday morning.
The fact that the comments were made on a social networking site should make no difference at all. Anyone visiting Facebook knows it’s not a news site, and that the opinions expressed may bear no resemblance to reality whatsoever. Most of it is opinion, gossip and casual conversation.
Also, presumably the comments were posted out of hours (unless the staff used in-flight internet access which is doubtful). Is it right for an employer to monitor what staff do in their spare time and then penalise them if it doesn’t measure up to some corporate code?
Come on Richard, remember the days when you grabbed headlines for doing silly things? Hell, you built your entire company on it!
Get off your high horse (or 747) and take a reality check. Facebook, just like a session at the pub, should be seen for what it is – a casual communication medium. Surely Virgin Atlantic can withstand a few jibes, can’t it?
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Sonos 2.7 - the best just got better
By Adam TURNER
The awesome Sonos multi-room audio system has embraced internet radio and the iPhone.
I've been testing out Sonos' new features for the last fortnight, under embargo until this week's announcement. It's a few years since I first got my hands on the Sonos gear and I've been raving about it ever since.
The Sonos system consists of amplifiers with built-in wifi, which form a wireless mesh network across your home (up to 32 rooms). This lets you listen to your music from anywhere in the house - with the same song playing everywhere, or different music in different zones. The icing on the cake is the iPod-like handheld controller, with a colour LCD screen, which lets you easily search for music and pump it around the house.
Until now the Sonos system has let you listen to your digital music collection, from a computer or network drive, or to online subscription services such as Rhapsody, Napster and SIRIUS. The latest Sonos 2.7 free firmware update now gives you access to 15,000 radio stations plus the free Pandora and Last.FM streaming music services, which let you program your own online radio stations.
The Sonos gear is beautiful in its simplicity, but the first thing that struck me when I got my hands on the gear again is how big and clunky the controller feels in the iPhone age. It's got an iPod-like click wheel for navigating menus and searching for music, but using it to scroll through the letters on the on-screen keyboard is cumbersome and I was pining for a touchscreen. Sonos has delivered the goods, with an excellent iPhone/iPod touch app with offers all the functionality of the wireless controller with the added bonus of the iPhone's touchscreen keyboard.
I'd still say Sonos' killer feature is access to Rhapsody and Napster, the amazing subscription music services which are generally blocked for Australians. Using my iPhone to search Rhapsody and then pump the music around my house creates an amazing feeling of freedom. Suddenly the concept of "owning" music seems obsolete, as does the concept of "stealing" music.
Until iTunes launches a subscription music service, and then waits a few years before making it available in Australia, the closest to Sonos and Rhapsody you can cobble together on a Mac seems to be a Last.FM account and Airfoil to pump the sound to a few Airport Express base stations spread around the house. Unfortunately you can't control Last.FM or Airfoil remotely from an iPhone, but hopefully such things are on the drawing board. The Sonos gear is a far more elegant solution.
The $AU2199 price tag for Sonos starter kit is obviously a little rich for some people, but if you've got the cash to splash you won't regret it.
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iPhone rescues the ebook from the rubbish bin of history?
By Drew TURNEY
[Standing in for Stephen Withers}
Ebooks have been a long time coming. If you believe most they’re still coming. If you believe some, their day is already over before it started.
There was a rash of ebook reader models early on to capitalise on the ‘nobody will be reading books in five years’ hysteria, but people bought them in inverse proportion to the number of books they continued to buy. Whether they were any good or not is almost a moot point – books were still around because we were used to the form factor after almost six centuries.
Now it’s ten years on from the original ebook hysteria, and those crazy 15th century stalwarts are still cutting down trees and pressing ink onto them. In the US alone, the market was worth $10.51 billion in 2007.
We have a better class of ebook reader now, however. Amazon’s Kindle, Sony’s reader and iRex’s Iliad all have faults, but they have an expanded toolset more suited to the increasingly wireless and converged world where we not only want content on the go but see no need to restrict it to just books.
And just like the iPhone’s ushered in the Jetsons age many dreamed of in other areas, the stats say it’s doing the same for ebooks. Forbes magazine reported earlier this month that 395,000 copies of an ebook reading application called Stanza had been downloaded through the iTunes application store since July 2008, compared to the 380,000 Kindle units analysts predict Amazon will move throughout the whole year.
Of course there’s a deeper story behind the stats. Stanza isn’t the content, it’s the delivery system and there’s no report of the number of ebooks downloaded with it. It’s also a free application and more importantly, so are the public domain or creative commons titles available – a very different playing field from copyrighted works and the thousand dollar devices they’re read on.
The Kindle, Reader and Iliad still hold the lead in usability as they don’t need nearly as much power and the interfaces and screens are designed specifically for reading text. By comparison, anyone who’s tried to watch a movie on an iPod or iPhone knows what a cluster migraine-including experience it can be.
But the numbers don’t lie, and like in so many other areas, Apple’s world beating device is unwittingly leading the pack. If nothing else, the company has proven its mettle in moving into and taking over an industry sector – everything from the graphical user interface to the mp3 player.
And with Stanza publisher Lexcycle’s chief executive saying he’s in talks with major publishers, Apple just might be synonymous with another kind of content any day now.
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Why eBooks suddenly matter (to me)
By Anthony CARUANA
I've never really understood the whole eBook thing. I've tried - really, I have. I've read long books like Michael Crichton's "Timeline" Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and a few other public domain novels on a number of different devices and none have been comfortable to read. When it comes to reading non-fiction, I've not yet found something that makes feels like reading a book.
I've also given audio books a go and quite like the idea of the convenience they offer. I've listened to a couple of full novels and often use an audio bible when leading bible studies. In that context, I find that reading along with the audio increases my comprehension and retention.
My problem is that books, particularly reference works like encyclopaedia and dictionaries take up a lot of space and tend to cost a lot of money. At the moment, I'm studying for an exam on the early New Testament church. It's focussed on the Book of Acts and some of the epistles of the Christian bible.
Studying requires that I read a wide variety of different references in addition to my lecture notes. This has lead me, for the first time, to establishing an electronic reference library so that I can carry my reference books with me.
I've purchased three sets of electronic reference books. The actual books and supporting software are very interesting and, in my view, essential for the library of any theological student. However, they're not the point of this story. The point is that I've finally found a worthwhile use for what till now has looked like a great solution for a problem I didn't have.
Many of you will have already cottoned on to the utility of eBooks but the real epiphany for me hasn't been the content, it's been the availability of a reader. I use my notebook computer (a MacBook AIr) to read these books. It works for me as, when I'm studying, I do all my note taking on the computer. The problem is that we need different readers in different contexts and the whole DRM and file format business rears its ugly head.
Let's say you have a paperback version of the latest Stephen King novel. I Australia that's likely to cost about $20. If I want the audio version I might need another $40 and the eBook version might cost another $20. Why can't I upgrade my user license so that I can buy the hard copy and an SD card or a download voucher for the eBook version or the audio version at a discounted price? In other words, change the pricing model so that it's comprised of two parts - the content and the delivery media.
It seems that consumers are again the victims of antiquated, 19th century thinking. The publishing industry needs to wake up to the fact that an increasing proportion of its customer base will demand access to books in more than just the printed form.
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