Why Net Neutrality Matters to Writers

Net Neutrality supporters at FCC Meeting, May 15, 2014

Wednesday, September 10 is Internet Slowdown Day, when this site and a whole bunch of others gave you a taste of what the World Wide Web might look like if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approves new rules governing how you can participate and contribute to the Internet for public discussion. These rules, commonly referred to as “net neutrality,” require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like phone and cable companies to treat every bit that travels through their networks to be treated equally.

Need some basic understanding of what’s at stake here? Have some links:

Net Neutrality: What You Need to Know Now, at Free Press

A pair of pieces from Mashable

What I want to focus on is why this is important to writers and other content creators.

Let me start with this lovely tweet from @EdPlocher:

The Internet allows for an unmediated relationship between creators and audiences. Ending ends that.


Let me also offer some other reasons why net neutrality matters:

Writers need web space they can control

One of the central themes Carole Jelen and I stress in Build Your Author Platform: The New Rules is now important it is for writers to have your own website, what we call “home central.” It’s the place where all your social activities point to.

If the fast-lane is implemented, how long does $100/yr web hosting for small businesses and lone creatives last? How long do the new free blogging tools like Medium and the like exist as free? ,  Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter are wonderful places to visit, but I  don’t want to live in any of them. Corporate sites just don’t do enough for us to communicate with readers.

Too many websites don’t pay their “content creators” already.

If the telephone and cable companies get to be first in line to demand money from websites that offer content, guess who moves further down the queue? Too many writers get ripped off already by content mills like Demand Studios, and sites that offer “exposure” instead of cash. As much as I’d like to throttle  the content mills’ bandwidth, that is not how this would work in practice. If anything, the mills would pay the toll and suggest to writers they were the only game in town!

More media consolidation

The central premise of fast lanes and a non-neutral net is easy to understand: Big corporations can pay to play, not so much you and I. What might be easily missed: there isn’t enough competition in the media industry now! In the future, good ideas and good web design won’t be enough for smaller publishers to compete on the web.

Harder for self-publishers/indie authors

More than a few people think self-publishing is the future for writers. Net neutrality is really key for that argument to hold. My guess: Amazon gets even bigger, and writers (eventually) lose!

What to do?

Packt Publishing celebrates 2000 titles


Quick note: Maybe you saw my review of WordPress 3.7 Complete a few weeks ago. Packt just published Learning Dart, their 2000th title, and running a “Buy One eBook, Get One Free” promotion.

Learning Dart

Packt’s 2000th title

Packt has a range of books focusing on open source software, programming, and web development, and I’ve used more than a few to learn new technologies.One other thing I like about them is when they publish a book related to open source, they give cash to the related project . These projects have received over $400,000 as part of Packt’s Open Source Royalty Scheme to date.

Packt eBooks come in PDF and ePub formats, so chances are your reader can consume it. This is a good deal.

Book Review: WordPress 3.7 Complete

WordPress 3.7 Complete

WordPress 3.7 Complete

The fine folks at Packt Publishing asked me to have a look at their latest WordPress book, WordPress 3.7 Complete. This is the third edition in the WordPress Complete series, by Karol Krol and Aaron Hodge Silver. I am happy to recommend it to folks looking for a good introduction to WordPress.

Full disclosure: I read the edition covering WordPress 2.7, when I started getting serious about learning WordPress, but missed the edition that covered v3.0.

Packt specializes in web development and open source software books, so you shouldn’t be surprised that the strongest parts of the book are in this area. But you don’t have to know code to find good, solid information here. Chapter 3, “Creating Blog Content” offers a nice introduction to blogging that will help you start thinking about the kind of content to include in your blog, along with an introduction to the WordPress admin pages.The chapter on choosing themes has some excellent questions that you may not think to ask yourself before choosing a theme from the vast collection of choices.

While there’s a basic introduction to WordPress.com, most of the book’s content relates to WordPress on an independent web host. It might have been nice to note what sections (like setting up widgets and working with the Media Library) apply to both the dot-com and dot-org sites.

WordPress Complete really takes off in the second half, where Krol and Silver focus on creating and manipulating themes and plugins. I don’t know about you, but when I started messing with code, the first thing that scared me was the likelihood of me breaking stuff that was already working. Krol and Silver help break down that fear by showing you how to safely remove your header, footer and sidebar from an existing theme’s index.php file (“What, you want me to break my home page!?”), customize each new template file, and reassemble the new modules so that it all works.

Another big plus for the beginning developer is an extensive section about building themes from scratch. After comparing this method with constructing themes with the help of a theme framework like Genesis, Thesis or Thematic, they advise:

… create your first theme manually, just to learn the craft and get to know all the basic structures and mechanisms sitting inside WordPress. Then, as the next step in your mastery (if you’re planning to work on other themes in the future), you can pick one of the popular theme frameworks, get deeply familiar with it, and use it as the base for your future themes from that point on. Such an approach will allow you to reach maximum time efficiency and save you the effort of dealing with the core set of functionalities that every theme needs, regardless of the design or purpose.

After demystifying the process of theme and plugin creation, and introducing BuddyPress and WordPress MultiSite, Krol and Silver focus the last two chapters on “Creating a Non-Blog Website” using the increasingly powerful content management features WordPress offers.

You’ll learn a bit about using Pages to create corporate and e-commerce sites, membership sites and the like. Can I say that as an author, I especially appreciated introducing custom post types by way of creating distinctive ways of listing books on your site? You may see something like this on michaelmccallister.com soon.

Overall, WordPress 3.7 Complete is a fine introduction to WordPress and web development. Incidentally, don’t be upset that the book misses out on WordPress 3.8. With the increasing speed of WordPress core development, all us authors are at a distinct disadvantage–we can only type so fast!

So what do you look for in a WordPress book? Have you read this one? Comments always appreciated.

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Making Better Software by Building Stronger Communities

Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) thrives on the support from its community of


English: Conceptual Map of the FLOSS (Free/Lib...

English: Conceptual Map of the FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) Polski: Konceptualna mapa FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


users. Every user can make their mark on the software they use. Every so often, one project or another puts out a call for some intensive work to get ready for a release. Case in point:



Depending on your skills and talents, one or both of these events may be right for you. If you’re neither a programmer nor teacher, but you’re not exactly new to FOSS, I’ve got another idea for you to contribute to (keep reading!), but that’s not really what I’m jawing at you about today.


Continue reading

Finding New Software in openSUSE: A New Way?

Amid the bad news of the openSUSE forums getting hit by an invader, came some potentially great news for future openSUSE users. Being the eternal optimist, I want to focus on the good stuff. Perhaps that begins by mentioning that the openSUSE forums are back up and running.

Earlier last week, longtime openSUSE developer Roger Luedecke proposed a new, more user-friendly “app store” for getting new software on openSUSE systems. Noting that the distribution already has a “halfway solution” to the problem of discovering and installing software on openSUSE at download.opensuse.org, Luedecke goes on to say (emphasis mine):

However, there are a number of areas where this interface falls short. The most glaring can be that often the applications lack a description or have one so short as to be nearly useless. Another significant point is the lack of user reviews. Reviews help flesh out things that may be missed in a description, as well as provide tips at a glance on what the new user should expect. I believe reviews would be reasonably easy to implement in the current domain, and getting more robust descriptions should not be terribly difficult.

Yet Another Shopping Cart?

Another problem with the current Download setup is that you have to find and run install packages one at a time. Luedecke believes (and I hope he’s right) that openSUSE could allow users to create a ‘cart’ to select a bunch of packages and then check out. The software would then package everything in the cart, downloading and installing it all with one set of confirmations. This would make installing new stuff from the web as easy as installing packages with the Zypper command line interface, or the YaST software management module.

YaST 2.12.27-2

YaST 2.12.27-2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Good descriptions also simplifies the search for high-quality replacements. If it were up to me, I’d add an “Alternative to” field to the description, so people looking for a Photoshop replacement could easily find The GIMP (perhaps a lame, obvious example, but you know what I mean). The AlternativeTo site could offer a database to pluck from.

Reading through the comments on this post, you’ll find some responses from those resistant to change, but I really hope this happens in a reasonable time frame. Will keep an eye on this in the meantime.

Comment Fodder

If you’re a Linux user (of any distro): How do you discover and try out new free/open source software? Does your distribution make it easy to get new stuff that meets your changing needs?

If you don’t use Linux now: Do you worry that you won’t be able to find the type of software you need? Have you been frustrated when trying to find a replacement for your favorite application? Anything else holding you back?


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The Value of a To-Do List

Happy New Year! Did you go back to work today after a well-deserved holiday break? Maybe you were like me this morning, driving into work and thinking “Gosh, what I am doing today? I’m not really sure!”

You’ve got a few projects in progress, but nothing that your boss is breathing down your neck about, with an especially high priority, or imminent deadline. What do you do?

Maybe your problem is the opposite, when assorted priority projects all have milestones coming due in the coming days, and maybe your boss (or another person you consult with in cases like this) is still on vacation. This can be especially troublesome if you are the only boss you have. How do you keep your head from exploding?

I used ot be indecisive...now I'm not sure.For many of us, when days begin like this, by the end of the day the answer to the question “What am I doing today?” turns out roughly “nothing.” Paralyzed by indecision, or overwhelmed with options, you keep trolling your email box waiting for something to grab your attention, but something never comes.

These are the times when it helps immensely to have an ongoing to-do list (or multiple lists) to make decisions for you about what to do next. I use a terrific bit of code called MyLifeOrganized to keep everything together, and one of the best things it does is algorithmically resolve all your tasks into a to-do list, when you tell it how important and/or urgent a project or task happens to be. I could go on about how well MLO performs, but this isn’t an ad.

By itself, the list won’t solve your priority problem. Do I have to tell you that algorithms aren’t perfect? Your judgment is still required. But better to choose from two or three items than 50, no? And if you really don’t have anything pressing, perhaps now is a good time to take on a little bigger project that takes a little more thought or planning–when better to start that planning?

The new year often prompts new thinking about how to live one’s life. Getting Things Done is a perennial issue in my life, and sometimes you just have to know where to start.

How do you resolve dilemmas like these? Are you as productive as you’d like? Do you make resolutions, set goals, or some other variation of New Year course correction? Leave a comment!

A brief review of the NYTimes Tech Book Review

Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but quite a few technology-themed books are vying for a spot under your Christmas tree this year. So many, in fact, that the New York Times Book Review devoted a special issue to them back on November 3,

Now I haven’t read any of the books, but I have read this whole issue, and want to tell you about the books I’m most excited about reading.

Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

by Clive Thompson

Clive Thompson

Clive Thompson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a book that seems to cover one of my favorite technology topics: Artificial Intelligence (AI) vs Intelligence Amplification (or Augmentation). John Markoff (who, like Thompson, writes for the NY Times) introduced these concepts to me in his book on he birth of personal computing in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s, What the Dormouse Said. Gamers and robot fans are familiar with the idea of AI. Thompson’s thesis seems closer to mine: that the real power of computers is their ability to make everyone smarter. I wrote about this earlier in the year when Douglas Engelbart died.

Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart

Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walter Isaacson, who reviewed the book for the NYTBR, points to Engelbart’s seminal paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect,” for philosophical underpinning for this idea (along with Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” and J. C. R. Licklider’s “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” all terrific pieces). “Thompson doesn’t delve into this rich technological and intellectual history,” Isaacson writes, “What he provides instead are some interesting current examples of how human-computer symbiosis is enlarging our intellect.”

Isaacson, who most recently wrote the big Steven Jobs biography, is now working on a new project “on the inventors of the computer and the Internet.” I may be even more excited to read that next year!

BTW, Slate Magazine is having an online “Future Tense Book Club” discussion of Smarter Than You Think with Clive Thompson on January 14. Click the link for details, and to RSVP.

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

by Brad Stone

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos starts his High Orde...

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos starts his High Order Bit presentation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jeff Bezos has been a very busy guy in 2013. His company continues to grow, acquiring the Goodreads social book review and discovery site, and building distribution centers all over the place (including a new one between Milwaukee and Chicago). He bought the Washington Post on his own, and then gave an interview with 60 Minutes featuring product-delivery drones!

Speaking of that CBS Interview: Read Porter Anderson’s take on what people missed in the 60 Minutes interview while being diverted by drone jokes.

This looks to be a pretty fair history of the man and his company.

Writing on the Wall: Social Media – the First 2000 Years

by Tom Standage

Certainly an intriguing title by The Economist’s digital editor. Reviewer Frank Rose suggests that Standage “asks us to look at media less in terms of technology — digital or analog — than in terms of the role they invite us to play.” The story goes back to ancient Rome and takes us at least through the era of radio, with pointers back to today’s controversies.

Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal

by Nick Bilton

This one came out in the days just before Twitter’s IPO (what a coincidence!), and has generated quite a bit of gossip. As an avid and longtime Tweeter, this should be a fun read.


What have you been reading lately? Getting any of the above for yourself or a loved one? Surprised that none of these are eBook-only (no trees harmed in production)? Discuss among yourselves!

NaBloPoMo: Summing Up

Happy December to all of you!


NaBloPoMo (Photo credit: udge)

We have all survived National Blog Post Month (NaBloPoMo)! I am moderately amazed I completed the challenge of writing a post a day for the 30 days of November. While a few did feel like cheating (the post from the WordPress mobile app a few minutes before midnight Nov. 2 comes to mind), I’m pretty pleased overall with the output.

Before I share a few more things learned this month, allow me to point new readers to my halfway-point summary, What I’ve Learned So Far. I shall try not to repeat myself.

Primary Goals Reached

I did this for two primary reasons: To see if I could, and to see if I’d get more readers. I succeeded in both. Be aware that in October, my posting had gotten so sporadic, I seriously considered dropping this blog entirely, and focusing on my author site. Now, I don’t think I want to do that (though I won’t rule out moving this blog over there someday). So y’all are stuck with me for the foreseeable future. Readership has increased, returning nearly to the maximum numbers this blog has reached over the years. I think that bodes well for 2014.

NaBloPoMo: Glorious Madness

NaBloPoMo: Glorious Madness (Photo credit: cizauskas)

Deadlines are a Good Thing

When you know you have to get something done, it’s amazing how you can organize yourself to do that something. While Douglas Adams’ sentiment from The Salmon of Doubt resonates strongly:

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

it still feels quite good to complete the challenge of daily posts. It may not be sustainable over time (for me at least), but as with many NaBloPoMo’ers, you can do this for a month.

Journalism is Hard


NaBloPoMo (Photo credit: underdutchskies)

Feeding a hankering to return to my journalistic roots, one goal I didn’t reach was writing one “newspaper story” a week. I went to a public forum on mining with the intention of covering the event and writing a story as if for a  news outlet, online or not. I didn’t like the story as written, and it was a day late too.

My intent with Mark Shuttleworth’s keynote was also to cover it as news, but I succumbed to the temptation to blog about it instead. It’s just easier.

My link posts on news events (Prince Fielder, the Space News post, and some of the Typhoon coverage) consisted of curating other people’s news stories, which is one form of journalism. Just not of the traditional variety. I’m still going to try to get better at that.

Zemanta is a Wonderful Tool

Speaking of links, I want to recommend the Zemanta plugin (for both sides of WordPress). Credit this tool for all the Related Articles down at the bottom of every post, the Wikipedia links for common terms that might need clarification, and more than a few of the images accompanying my posts. It simplifies so many things, and speeds up publishing too.

Seems OK to Stray From the Main Topics, But…

The audience still likes the tech topics. The Top Five posts for November are (as of this moment):

openSUSE: Porting YaST to Ruby
Tracking the Worst Storm Ever
Kubuntu and the “Sinking Ship” of KDE: Really?
New Life for Vivaldi Tablet? Improv Takes the Stage
Big Linux Day: openSUSE 13.1 and Ubuntu Dev Summit

All but one of these five posts appeared this month. The interloper: My rant about Kubuntu is well over a year old (and yes, Kubuntu and KDE are still thriving, BTW). Again, out of the five, all are Linux-related except for my first post on Typhoon Haiyan. So you can probably expect continuing coverage of Linux and other open source topics here. I am at your service.

Well, this has gone on way too long. Congratulations to all those who successfully completed the NaBloPoMo challenge. To those who feel like they fell short: it’s really all about the effort. Life intervenes. But please keep on posting! Writing every day is essential for anyone who considers themselves a writer; blogging offers the opportunity to publish every day too–take advantage of this as often as you can!

I have some serious catching up to do on my next book, so it may be a few days before I fill this space again. I do hope that the day never comes again when I start a post with “Apologies for not having been here for so long.” So — see you soon!

A Surprise Ending to NaBloPoMo: Domain Fun

And so we come to the end of National Blog Post Month (NaBloPoMo). Now I was planning to try to sum things up, but that will have to wait one more day, as a friend and I need some help from the blogosphere.

Law School Textbooks

Law School Textbooks (Photo credit: Jesse Michael Nix)

This story begins last spring, when a good friend got accepted to law school. Among other ambitious ideas, Boone ran an online support and critique group for Milwaukee area writers. I built a WordPress site for this project, but now that he was leaving Milwaukee temporarily to hit the books, the workshop would have to run itself for a while.

The writers were notified of the situation, and Boone went off to law school. Apparently, we all forgot about the website. Last night, Boone had some downtime, and was thinking about updating the WordPress site, and making plans for its eventual revival. Except he couldn’t log in to WordPress, nor would WordPress reset his password. Boone (who is not a technical person) emailed me about this dilemma. I went to the site–and I couldn’t log in to WordPress either. The interesting thing is that the site itself (at least the home page) displayed normally.

Boone and snow!

This is a random dog named Boone in the snow! (Photo credit: otakuchick)

Both of us could get into the hosting account, but when I tried to look into the site’s database admin tool, I got a Server Not Found message. Couldn’t access the database online. After Boone had a chat with his host’s tech support, and just before I started researching their proposed solution, Boone wrote to tell me the domain had expired on July 1, and apparently had been scooped up by someone in the interim. That would explain much.

A WhoIs search for the owner told us the domain had been registered with GoDaddy in August, and the Nameserver was at domaincontrol.com in Arizona. Incidentally, GoDaddy was not the original host for this site. We later learned that domaincontrol.com is a GoDaddy subsidiary, but I’m no longer sure that’s relevant. You see, I’ve never fought with hosting companies, or had a domain I controlled expire, so this is new to me.

Good news is that Boone got a new domain for his site, and we still have the old database backed up. So I think we’ll be ready to go when it’s time to relaunch.

Less happily, Boone is concerned that the new owner/squatter is still using his (and his writing collaborators) content, presumably until whatever replacement content arrives. Boone would like to see that content disappear (and as long as we’re wishing, get a redirect to the new site).

To those of you out there with more experience in these situations, how does one find and contact the new domain holder? We’re assuming that large sums of cash would be required to reclaim the domain, but where do you send the cease-and-desist with regard to the content? Any other tips and ideas?

Thanks to all for any help you can offer!

Tomorrow, some more lessons learned during NaBloPoMo. A bunch of folks have done this already. Listed below are some of them.

The Week in Space: The Universe Does Not Care About Your Puny Holidays

Planets of the Solar System


Just when you think you’re going to have trouble finding blog topics during a sleepy holiday week, stuff starts happening in the cosmos. One natural occurrence, but two events related to human exploration. Let’s review:


Comet ISON (mostly) melts down


Since its discovery in September 2012, Comet ISON was shaping up to be one of the brightest objects we’ve ever seen flying through the night sky. Astronomers always tempered their descriptions of what was going to happen with this clause “IF it survives its solar flyby.” This proved to be a wise disclaimer. At first, it appeared as if the whole 2-kilometer wide dirty snowball had completely melted while passing just a million miles away from the incredibly hot surface of the sun. Yet this morning, other spacecraft could still see a trail of something along the presumed ISON trail.


This small remainder of the comet could still break apart by the time you read this, but there’s a small hope it could still brighten before it flies back by Earth. The good news is that more comets will be in the vicinity soon. The BBC reports:


In 11 months’ time, Comet Siding Spring will breeze past Mars at a distance of little more than 100,000km. And then in November 2014, Esa’s (the European Space Agency) Rosetta mission will attempt to place a probe on the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.



SpaceX misses its launch date


Private launch company SpaceX failed twice to launch a TV satellite on Thursday. Both launches counted down to under a minute before an engine malfunction prevented launch. They may try again on Saturday. Best wishes!


Falcon rocket on the pad, Space Exploration Te...

Falcon rocket on the pad, Space Exploration Technologies, (SpaceX) Space Launch Complex – Three West (SLC-3W), Vandenberg Airforce Base Image (See talk page for GFDL permission notes and SpaceX contact information) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Chinese prepare for moon lander launch, and otherwise think big about space


After reading the BBC story on Comet ISON, this story caught my eye: Why China is Fixated on the Moon. Besides reporting on the upcoming Chang’e 3 mission that may launch this weekend, there was an interview with a “top Chinese scientist,” Ouyang Ziyuan of the department of lunar and deep space exploration.


Chang’e 3’s mission is to land on the moon and use a rover to explore its geology, the first time any craft from Earth has done that since the Soviets did in 1976. The Chinese hope to put a human on the moon in the near future.


Ouyang suggested that the moon could solve many, if not all, Earth’s energy problems. He envisions concentrating the energy from an array of solar panels on the moon and getting that energy back here. Similarly,


The Moon is also “so rich” in helium-3, which is a possible fuel for nuclear fusion, that this could “solve human beings’ energy demand for around 10,000 years at least”.


Cool, huh? If only a nation with a few more resources could envision using something so hot that it can destroy a 4.5-billion-year-old iceball in minutes to power generators on this planet. Hmmm….