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Books written by Ray Sullivan

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Is Mars Trip a Reality?

You've probably heard about the project to send a group of people to Mars on a one way trip.  It doesn't sound that great a deal on the surface - you agree to travel to a planet with a guarantee that you won't be coming back.  In fact you will be establishing a new human frontier, be expected to bring new life onto the planet and develop the community.  Given that the human race has only managed to send a few sensors and a rover to the red planet so far - and the UK contribution was to drop an extremely expensive sensor from a great height to create the ultimate splat image on the surface - then there is clearly a lot of development work needed and fast.

Unlike the moon missions, where the astronauts only needed to survive on the moon for a few days and the transit time to and from the rock orbiting the Earth - or at least survive a few weeks of filming in Burbank if some sceptics are to be believed - the inhabitants will need a complete environment conducive to surviving the rest of their life and continuing for the life of their offspring.  Of course this won't be a one way drop off and see you affair, I presume the project includes continuing support with resupply drops.  Hopefully they will be more successful than the UK efforts so far.

I've been watching this project with a certain amount of interest, not because I think it will work or even happen, but because it mirrors part of the storyline in The Journeymen, my second novel.  In that book there is a significant sub-plot where a community has to travel through three generations to a distant planet and they are all recruited to ensure they have a suitable DNA mix to make sure there aren't any inbreeding issues, they have the right skills to make the mission viable and the correct mental attitude to survive.  I won't spoil the story, but needless to say, there are issues.

Presumably for this project they want fit and healthy people young enough to raise children with sufficient technical skills to make such a venture self supporting.  So engineers, doctors with surgery experience, scientists and the like.  Given that the mission is ten years away and that they will need to be reasonably young when taking part, getting the mix of skills and experience is going to be a challenge given that they've had the first recruitment drive.  It seems that over 200,000 people applied world-wide and that has been whittled down to under 2,000 applicants.  Seemingly the project managers were disappointed that only 200,000 people were prepared to go on a one-way mission.  I'm surprised that many did.  Why would people volunteer for such a mission?

Well, there is the pioneering spirit, and interestingly the largest group of volunteers were from the US, a country with a strong pioneering history.  To be fair many of the volunteers weren't the right stuff, in fact a bit barking by all accounts - especially the couple who sent in a video application in the nude. How warm do they think it is up there?  Of course there were many reasons and motivations for applying and for me, one reason would be to get away from so-called reality TV, you know, the TV that puts strangers together in an unrealistic environment and watches their every move.  A bit like sending a group to Mars on a one-way trip, in fact.

Indeed there is talk of turning the whole saga, from recruitment, through training and off to the red planet you go as a reality show.  My gut instinct is that the whole thing is a reality show project with a remote possibility that it could end up as a Mars mission.  The research for the project, the development of transport and living quarters and all the other big bucks technological requirements aren't funded yet.  A $400,000 research contract with a major US space company is due to be paid at the end of January and is only $300,000 short at the moment, which should indicate the feasibility of this project.  And whether they plan to send a handful or a bus full of travellers to Mars the project is going to cost billions, so I'm far from convinced it has enough legs to make it off this planet, let alone all the way to Mars.

But they've secured the first volunteers, who may be too old and infirm to make the journey by the time the funding is found.  Which is great, because it means they can select unqualified, uneducated sociopathic morons as the first potential travellers, lock them up in a mock Mars compound for years on end, film them bickering and send the FBI in when one of them goes postal with the Colt 45 conveniently left lying around.  All streamed 24/7, of course, preferably through a subscription service.  Such a service may generate enough funding to actually run such a project but will also save me the problem of accidentally straying onto the reality show as I'm way too mean to pay for subscription. 

They say they may run another recruitment campaign soon, to bolster the candidate pool and haven't ruled out anyone who applied the first time applying again.  Perhaps we will see the couple in the buff after all. Maybe I'll review my policy on subscription services.

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Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Ultimate Android

DARPA, the US defence agency responsible for technological research, has been running competitions with defence contractors to design and build robots capable of carrying out useful tasks on the battlefield. Most attempts fail quite miserably, and in this year's competition three failed in all the tasks. One robot, however, passed all of the tests. This doesn't mean we can expect to see the battlefield filled with robots anytime soon, but does show that the aim is likely to be achievable in the coming years.

Apart from the engineering, technological and ethical challenges the biggest issue is one of finance. Few companies in the world can afford to front this level of investment, hence the DARPA competition. Presumably the real prize isn't the government contract but the government investment for development. There's an upside to this process that isn't immediately obvious, and that is the obligation that the company with the research funding will have to Uncle Sam. Governments and the national military may not always be seen as the best guarantors of common sense, but between them there's enough accountability in a decent democracy to address any excesses over time.

But what if the company with the best solution doesn't need the government's cash? One such technologically advanced company is Google - cash rich and acquisition happy it has bought up no fewer than eight robotic companies in the last year. That should secure them some of the best robotic engineers and access to cutting edge patents available. Critically Google doesn't need DARPA's money, although on past experience they'll probably take it. And if you thought KitKat was the best Android yet, just wait until you see what these guys bring to the table.

And on top of this Google are forging a top table in the fields of artificial intelligence, applying it to areas such as self driving vehicles and instant language translation.  There is no doubt, in ten years time the search engine front end of Google will be a side player to the technologies they are developing.

So it is probable that sometime soon Google will amass sufficient technology and knowhow to be a leader in the robot field.  Obviously not all robot applications are military and there are plenty of applications where a machine could be risked to save a human from being put into danger, especially in the field of civil emergencies.  But the biggest drive will come from the military and there will be pressure to generate military applications.  All of this is fine, but what happens if Google disagree with a specific military aim? What if the informal company motto 'Don't be evil' is invoked because someone in the upper echelons of Google believes they should interfere?

Because the way Google are going, by the time this technology is mature enough to count, they will be too big financially for any government to bully, even if they start paying all of their taxes.  Possibly they already are (too big that is).  If they secure the top engineers, hold the best patents and ring-fence the critical technology could they hold any government using their technology to ransom? Will the government need Google's tacit agreement over the deployment of any Google originated technology?

After the credit crunch the big question was should governments let banks get too big to fail.  Perhaps the new question is should they let companies get too big? Period.

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It's a Gift

At this time of year many of us are lucky enough to have our fair share of presents. Some of us will have emboldened our sock drawer with comical socks, a few garish ties will have been worn on Christmas day, possibly for the only time ever, and of course there was a lot of tech unwrapped on the 25th.

It's not always easy to decide what to get the person who has everything or maybe nothing - where do you start?  And in today's acquisitional world it isn't always possible to know what everyone has at any given point in time.  Many are resistive to the idea of giving cash as a present, even though it ensures that the recipient gets what they want, however the very close cousin, the gift card, doesn't seem to have the same degree of resistance.  To be honest, though, a gift card is cash in another guise with a significant difference - it can generally only be redeemed in one store or chain.

What isn't always realised is that these gift cards have a finite life - if the recipient fails to spend the money on the card within a specified period, often around two years, then the cash that has been sitting in the store or chain's bank account earning interest for the last two years suddenly becomes a cash bonus to the store. So if you pull out the sock drawer and decide to get rid of the joke pair of socks you received two years ago, perhaps to make room for this year's offering, and you find a gift card wrapped up in them that has expired then you have inadvertently made a store a little bit wealthier.

This isn't universally correct.  At least ten US states have enacted laws that make the expiry date illegal, although some have just extended the period to give the recipients an opportunity to redeem over a longer period, but then creaming off any unclaimed credit for the public purse after, say, five years.  Probably still as unreasonable, but at least it should alleviate local taxes a smidgeon.

But store cards aren't the only source of gift cards and the two biggest sources available are the Apple iTunes card and the Amazon gift card.  One reason for giving these - or using them yourself - is that they avoid the need to register a credit card with the online stores.  The main reason is as a gift, though.  These have probably been given in their thousands, possibly millions, over the Holidays.  It makes sense - for everyone getting their first iPad or Kindle a gift card is an excellent idea, or so it seems.  It's also convenient if you're stuck for ideas and know they have a suitable device that would benefit from one of these cards.  If the recipient fails to register the card within two years or even just fails to spend it all then the balance reverts back to Apple and Amazon - like they need the cash.

I can't see the reasoning, apart from greed, because there's no cost associated with holding onto the cash value of the card electronically, although I'm sure their accountants would point to the liability hanging over their company.  It's a problem many traders would love to have, but in a technical accounting sense every gift card represents a potential credit note against their stock.  I'm sticking with greed in the main.

If you received such a card as a present then do ensure you register it and spend it.  If you gave such a card then let the recipients know that the card will expire in time and encourage them to use it - after all, you've already made Apple or Amazon wealthier than necessary by lending them a sum of money to invest while your son/daughter/brother/sister/mother/father/mate etc thinks about downloading a few eBooks or the odd iTunes.  Send them a link to this article if you like.

My advice for the future is to avoid giving gift cards.  If you must, keep the value as low as you can get away with.  And make sure you always spend any card values you hold while encouraging others to do the same.

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Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Best Value 7" Android Tablet Yet?

I've moaned plenty about the Nexus 7 and the incredibly expensive repair costs, which given a lot of other people on the net seem to have experienced spontaneously cracking screens that are apparently not covered by warranty is a real issue.

Now apart from the screen issue, the Nexus is a great machine, if a little on the pricey side. Chinese manufacturer Hisense seem to think so too. They've modelled their Sero 7 tablet on the Nexus. Perhaps they were involved in the manufacture on behalf of Asus, or maybe they are unashamed of engaging in the sincerest form of flattery. Anyway their tablet is being sold in the UK by ebuyer, a web based retailer that specialises in electronic goods and often sells grey imports at a cracking price. I've personally bought three Olympus cameras for myself and members of my family through ebuyer and I'm fairly certain all three were intended by Olympus to be sold in the US. Certainly researching Hisense Sero 7 accessories appears to centre on the States, suggesting that is the primary sales area.

Is it is good as the Nexus 7 it so closely appears to resemble? No, it appears to be better from the short exposure I've had. As an Android tablet it comes with all the normal functionality you would expect and within minutes of inputting my Google Mail details I had all of the apps I had paid for on my Nexus up and running. Not a hitch.

But it has more features. You can add additional memory in the form of a micro SD card, for example. The instructions are a bit vague about the maximum capacity of the card and some net correspondence suggested it would take up to 32gb of memory, however I only had one card and that was the 64gb I had in my Surface RT. I swiftly popped the card in the Sero, downloaded a free file manager from the Google store and was browsing last years holiday snaps in minutes.

It has a front and rear facing camera. In the way of these things the front facing camera doesn't appear to be particularly high-definition but perfectly adequate for selfies for use on the net and for Skype calls, while the rear facing camera seems to take good quality photos.

The crowning glory has to be the mini-HDMI output, though. Thanks to the Christmas broadcast schedule a trip to Netflix had everyone watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail on the large TV in an instant, then a recent blockbuster courtesy of a digital download via ultraviolet technology.  Both films ran without a hitch.

It's early days though and I'm probably going to be cautious about carrying the tablet in my trouser side pockets when out walking, even though I believe such clearly portable devices should be robust enough to be carried around in this anner, however this little tablet has shown itself to be a great little device very quickly. At less than £120 for the 32gb version it is certainly worth a look for anyone looking for a new Android tablet.

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Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Sullivan's Almanac 2014

Last year I made some suggestion on how 2013 might pan out in the weird and wacky tech, social networking and ebook worlds. Not surprisingly I didn't get everything right and in the time honoured tradition of making forecasts out of nothing more than a misguide sense of my own opinions, I have decided that history was wrong and that I could do better this time. All I need is for my version of the truth to be accepted and for that time machine that I've been working on to give me the edge this year.

But not everything I forecast last year was wrong. I guessed the stock values of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter would rise and fall. They did, if not in that order and heck, Twitter wasn't even listed back then! I did consider that Google or Amazon would rule the planet by this time this year, so I guess I was right after a fashion. Google didn't build the time machine I've been working on, or if they did I haven't noticed the temporal tear as they attempted to go back in time to invent Facebook. Or perhaps it was the other way around and the timeline has been rewritten. I guess I'll never know.

So what does 2014 hold in the tech world? Well we'll see the demise of the dedicated eReader. I've mentioned this a few times this last year, but this holiday season will be the last time significant amounts of these fine devices will be sold in quantity. The rise of tablet computing, with the attached benefits, has made the dedicated eReader all but redundant, especially as you can now buy basic tablets for under £50 and reasonably well specified models for just over £100. The trend is going to continue, we'll just accept the daily routine of charging our tablets and learning to read in the shade - a no brainer in the UK thanks to the clouds. There will be a small surge in sales of dedicated eReaders as companies holding stagnant stock offload them - that'll be me at the front of the queue making sure I've secured a spare for a knock down rate. Just in case the sun comes out.

Apple will have a crisis of confidence mid year when they realise that they are losing market share big time. They've translated a loyal and essentially niche customer base to the general population, not realising that real people are less forgiving than the long term Apple aficionados. To be fair, if they hadn't made such a mess of iOS 6 then upset nearly everyone with iOS7's new layout, they might have got away with it. But of course they still only provide one size of phone, two sizes of tablet and everyone knows they make over 65% of the product price as profit. Arrogant we can take, arrogant and greedy - taking the Michael surely? I know of people seemingly locked into the Apple environment seriously considering turning their backs on Apple next time they replace their tablet or phone - especially the phones with their outrageous lock in periods - aiming to adopt the cheaper and more varied Android devices. They'll probably keep their old Apple devices limping along to access the content they've bought on iTunes, but it's a slippy slope for Apple. If they're smart, and they do seem to be a bright bunch over there, they'll allow others to make devices that can run iOS, which might just turn sentiment around, but I doubt it. They've crashed and burned from a stellar position before and this time Steve Jobs won't be back to save them.

Google are going to have a rough year, along with Facebook. Normal people will start to realise that the NSA snooping on our emails to try and keep the majority of us safe from the evil minority is nothing compared to the shameless way these guys cut, dice and hawk our personal data. The Snowden scandal will have its second wind as journalists start to ask the real questions. Such as why Facebook saves the text we choose not to post. There's a background rumble about the way these organisations accumulate and sell on information about us, it could turn into a backlash this coming year. Of course we all accept that search engines and social media is here to stay, but expect alternatives to surface this coming year. Perhaps they'll have a model that doesn't involve stripping every piece of data out of us just for interacting with them.

Amazon will come under fire internationally as governments start to realise that the downside to a phenomenally successful company investing in their country is that it cuts the legs from underneath the small and medium sized traders who cannot compete with the likes of Amazon. When the politicians realise that Amazon employ less potential voters than they displace, and the tax revenues from the failed home-grown companies lost is greater than Amazon's less than generous tax avoided donations to the exchequer then things might get a little awkward.

So my forecast for next year is that between the people and their governments the excessively large players in the tech world will have a stormy ride. They'll survive it, of course, and may well come out stronger than ever. But I suspect there will be plenty to blog about this coming year.

If we don't meet before 2013 is out, have a happy New Year. Unless you're a tech giant.

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Saturday, 21 December 2013

Did Apple Reach An Evolutionary Dead-end?

About this time of year the Royal Society, the august scientific organisation created by Charles Babbage amongst others, hosts a series of lectures for the BBC. Ostensibly the lectures are pitched at bright, inquisitive kids, but most normal adults will find the subject matter interesting and perhaps a little challenging. One series a few years ago introduced me to the concept of the evolutionary tree. The idea behind this is that as all species evolve, they effectively choose branches that my lead to further branches or they may find themselves at the end of a branch going nowhere. Which is why some species have rudimentary eyes that cannot improve, no matter how many mutations their DNA goes through. I found this difficult to accept initially as the whole evolutionary idea suggests that ultimately all species should evolve to a sentient state. At least that was my uninformed perspective before watching the lectures that year. Now that the BBC pretty much gives its content away to every citizen on the planet except for those of us in the UK where we have to pay a national tax for the privilege I should commend any of my overseas readers to try and catch the Royal Society Christmas Lectures on the BBC iPlayer. Don't worry, I'll pay.

I mention this because a few days ago I read that 200,000,000 copies of iOS 7 had been downloaded since its release. Make that 200,000,001 now. We downloaded the new version after realising that Apple were preventing crucial access to the annual 12 days of Christmas promotion that it runs at this time of year. Clearly if the 12 days are going to be held to ransom, there is little hope for other applications.

So the iOS was downloaded and the skeumorphisms apparently hated by Jony Ives were banished to the virtual waste paper basket. The iPad works much as before, but is a lot less interesting visually. And because it is being used on an iPad 2 there isn't much in the way of compensating features. I am aware that newer variations of Apple's incredibly expensive hardware does get some benefit from the new iOS, but that doesn't apply to items almost two years old, apparently.

It got me to thinking - did Apple find themselves at the wrong end of an evolutionary branch? Did they realise that they couldn't move the iOS forward unless they backtracked to the joint in the tree where they had committed to the previous direction? Of course iOS6 probably helped with the decision. Microsoft have taken the nuclear option of creating a radically and polarised interface with Windows 8 but Apple have tried to cling to the shadow of their previous iOS. Perhaps the idea is that once everyone has gotten over the disappointment of iOS 7 they can move forward and develop the next generation of iPad and iPhone functionality without the baggage of the previous incarnation.

If that is the case, can they make it quick? And could they make it work with the older devices they happily took our hard earned money for. Evolution should be a gradual process, hence we have small irrelevant parts of our bodies no longer needed, but still there. OK, sometimes they go rogue and hurt us, but I'm personally quite fond of my appendix - if I ever have to have it removed I'll press it flat and stick it in the back of one of my books. Critical these body parts may have been redundant for generations but haven't been thrown completely on the scrap-heap by evolution. We should be able to use older iPads and iPhones while they still work, not until Apple decide we should but a new one. Because the buying decision might not include Apple next time around.

In the meantime, while Apple decide on the next step of their evolution, consider catching the Royal Society Christmas Lectures - perhaps they're discussing technology this year.

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Friday, 20 December 2013

Smashwords Writes New Alliance With Scribd

Smashwords has just announced a new alliance, with eBook publishing platform Scribd. Scribd has apparently about 80 million visitors each month according to a press release from Mark Coker and many are subscribers. For those who subscribe they have access to a massive library of eBooks they can read, a library about to be swollen by the Smashwords premium catalogue.

The deal for Smashwords authors is that all of their books can be browsed on Scribd, with the first 10% available as a sample. If a reader continues reading then after the 30% point has been passed then the booik will accrue a royalty sale. Additionally, for every book that is browsed beyond the initial 10% by at least 5% but less than the 20% required to qualify for a royalty then it will be awarded a point. Accumulate ten points for a particular book and you get your royalty. Keri-ching (maybe)

Like the Oyster deal set up earlier in the year I struggle with the payment logic - the monthly subscription per customer is $8.99 and for that you get to read to your hearts' content. The big reader should do well from this deal,  although Scribd are probably working on the assumption that initially subscribers will read many books, then they will taper off their reading.  Otherwise it's hard to see how this will pay for them, unless they come to an arrangement with really popular book authors.  I'm ready to cut a deal.

It will be interesting to see how these subscription services fare - we now have two claiming to be major players linked to the Smashwords catalogue so perhaps we'll see some browsing action going on soon.  If these services don't make Amazon with its KDP Select programme take a second look, then nothing will.  Because unlike KDP Select these services don't require exclusivity to the books, so customers are free to browse through Scribd or buy through their normal channels (although if you're already paying $8.99 a month, why would you want to buy books you can read whenever?)

You can get more details from the Smashwords blog.

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Thursday, 19 December 2013

2014 - Downturn for Apple?

Apple have had it all their own way for the last seven years or so, and justifiably so given they gave the mobile phone market a massive kick in the rear and created the tablet market.  And did they dominate? You bet.

Then along came Google with Android, playing a long game on the apps and the OS.  Now they have the lion's share of the mobile phone market if not the revenue.  Apple have maintained their traditional pricing structure, positioning themselves as the premium product and for a while that was certainly true.  However their reputation is wearing thin, their products are not as diverse as the competition and critically they are failing to win market share in developing regions.

While mobile phone growth has remained steady in the western markets the effects of the credit crunch on disposable income has slowed down discretionary spending, although the queues around the Apple stores seem to belie this.  Android phones are seen as more versatile in the developing regions - it has a similar number of apps to Apple now and there is a wide variety of products at virtually every price point available.

Google aren't getting it all their own way, though.  In these critical markets Microsoft are seeing major growth.  They're late to the party, but in these regions they're catching up. Their alliance with Nokia means that there are some competitive phones in the developing regions and Microsoft are expected to see serious growth and market share in 2014.  They'll not get anywhere Android, but they could equal or better Apple worldwide.  Apple may have a certain cache with discerning customers, but their product line is looking limited and not at all diverse.  If you want a larger screen, better consider an iPad mini, because the mobile phones are all pretty much the size they were when they were launched many years ago.

But it is in the app sales that the war will really hot up.  Google are recompensing app developers pretty much the same the same amount as Apple do, an area they haven't previously competed well in.  Given the larger market share of Android this may affect development choices, which have traditionally favoured Apple.  Microsoft's app store, although only one fifth of the size of Apple's and Android's, is growing at a faster rate than either, possibly through developers cashing in on existing code as they get used to Windows 8 programming requirements.

Apple may have to consider expanding its range of products to retain its market share in both hardware and apps, but due to its long established principle of only developing in-house it will struggle to compete with the range of Android and Windows 8 mobile phones coming out.  Consequently it will have to change its model or see itself side-lined in 2014.

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Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Smashwords Dashboard Overhaul Update

Sometime yesterday afternoon the Smashwords dashboard, and indeed the whole site, ported over to the new look as promised by CEO Mark Coker.  The good news is that the update seemed to go seamlessly.

So what's new? Well what isn't new is the practical interface for authors - there is a new fresh look to the site, more open space, less colour - there does seem to be a move towards web interfaces that are predominantly white based. I've noticed the same approach on Microsoft Office 365, for example, plus some proprietary web based software packages I use in work that have been updated.  It may be because I'm in the 8% of males who are colour blinds, but I find this approach bland (colour blandness flattens your view of the world anyway) and more difficult to pick menu items out.  But this isn't about me, it's about the new interface.

Anyway, on the dashboard page you have exactly the same information as before, some of it moved from the side to the top but still the same, just new clothes.  There does still seem to be the same latency I've noticed creeping in over the last few months, which is irritating when looking to see if there's been any activity on individual books, and the new screen layout means, for me, that I have to constantly scroll down the screen each time I come out of a graph as only the first two of my books are visible.

Now it may seem churlish to complain about this feature because at least Smashwords provides some information regarding interest in my books - Amazon, Apple, B&N etc provide no indication, just a sales report months after the event.  I take the view that if people are finding my books on Smashwords, viewing pages or downloading 20% to read, then statistically that should translate to the other vendors, however that is unproven.  Anyway, the information provided by Smashwords is a useful guide but is laborious in execution - adding the need to scroll down each time I come out of a book graph page just adds to the irritation.

The other side of Smashwords is the book discovery and sales side - I don't sell many books through them but they claim to have over 1 million unique visitors every month.  That's not to be sniffed at if you are publishing through them.  They've made some changes - the same cosmetic change as for the dashboard plus they've doubled the number of books viewable per page from ten to twenty.  More importantly they have improved the way the site looks on mobile devices.  This shouldn't surprise anyone used to Smashwords - they are always thinking of the various media your customers may use and consequently they make you jump through many more hoops than Amazon does to get published, for all the right reasons. 

They've also added some more metadata to the site to help classify books better - I haven't looked at this in detail but will as discovery is the biggest problem for book buyers - so many books, how do you find the ones that suit your preferences.  Metadata is part of the solution, but I think there needs a better way of searching that doesn't exist right now - not very helpful I know, but I'm working on it.

Mark states that there are a lot of background improvements that are in place to roll out as yet unspecified changes.  Obviously I can't comment on these, but take it at face value - they're doing a lot of work to make it better and that's a positive thing.  I'm at best ambivalent on the new look, but I'll get used to it I guess.  I'd like to see the dashboard functionality improved, not just dressed up differently and I'd like to see better information about sales and visits - perhaps if they could indicate which countries were visiting my books I could do some targeted promotion work.  And if they could persuade their partners in publishing - the Apples and Kobos of this world - to share visit information too, that would be great.

Overall, a guarded thumbs up to Mark and his team.  I look forward to further enhancements.

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Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Changes At Amazon Direct Publishing and Smashwords

Smashwords has announced a change to its dashboard, which it admits it hasn't tinkered with since it was launched several years ago.  Mark Coker has flagged that this overhaul is long overdue for some months and he has been building up his software team and deploying them on the new dashboard design recently.  Apparently it is going live sometime today (17 December 2013 for those reading this blog entry on Dave).

The existing dashboard has been sluggish in recent months, probably due to the increase in authors self publishing - if we're all pinging the server constantly to see how we did or didn't do in the last week, day, hour (inversely proportional activities based on how long you've been self publishing - once the reality sets in most make it at most a daily routine and I'm contemplating just diarising a monthly check).

The old dashboard is clunky, it takes a while to gather stats and always feels like one click too many, so hopefully the new dashboard is an improvement.  When it goes live, if it works (too many years involved in software launches, unfortunately) I'll update on it.

Amazon, not to be outdone, have announced that they're changing their payment methods for authors who have elected for electronic funds transfer.  Up until now authors had to accrue a minimum amount of royalties ($10, £10, Euros10 etc) before payment was made.  Now, apart from Brazil royalties, which retain a threshold, all royalties will be paid 60 days after the month the royalties were earned in.  The email suggests that any accrued royalties will have been transferred on the 16 December however I haven't checked my bank account.  What with Christmas around the corner I can't take much more excitement.

It may present a small problem for UK authors who have small amounts lodged with Amazon in their US region as the royalties will be paid less US tax unless they've jumped through the myriad hoops the US tax authorities make us jump through to take advantage of the tax arrangements between our countries - if that's how they treat friends, I'd hate to be on the wrong side of them generally.  The paperwork is so tortuous I've deferred all my payments from Smashwords for the time being as they treat all sales, regardless of where they occur, as being in the US.  One day I'll file that return, because I expect the UK government will expect me to pay tax on that income when I get it.

So if you publish on Amazon and Snashwords (which you should to gain access to Apple store sales) then check your dashboard and your bank account sometime today.  Hopefully they'll both make you smile.

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Sunday, 15 December 2013

Sim Universe - The Ultimate Sim City Yet

The first time I played Sim City I was sucked in big time. The game was fairly new and relatively uncomplicated back then in the mid 90s. I upgraded to a faster computer (Pentium - wow) and picked up a copy of Sim City 2000 sometime in the early days of this Millennium and realised how much the game had developed and how little time I had for frittering my life away. Plus the game designers clearly were targetting a new audience with The Sims turning up, allowing you to custom build people. Consequently I haven't touched Sim City in any form for a decade, however I do have fond memories of building my first metropolis or two. I'm still a little miffed by the appearance of Godzilla who randomly destroyed what was my best city ever. I still feel that was uncalled for.

There's something about building a simulation that is satisfying, although if you dig a little you start to realise how difficult it is to model the real world with any accuracy. If it was easy then there would be no need for surprises in life and we'd be able to predict earthquakes, for example, with some accuracy. It would also negate the need to engage in pointless discussions regarding the probability of snow on Christmas Day, which would be a boon. It won't here, in case you're up for a debate. That would be pointless. But back to simulations.

In 2003 a philosopher named Nick Bostrop mooted the idea that we might potentially be part of a master computer simulation, a la Matrix, and challenged whether we would know if we were. It is a fair metaphysical question, up there with the one about trees falling in the forest with nobody to witness the event - did it make sound? The real question is, who cares? As is the way with philosophers that was about as far as Nick got to answering his question, but it probably generated a fair old discussion in college philosophy classes afterwards. One person who took the question seriously, though, was Professor Martin Savage, a physics researcher at the University of Washington.

Martin has used the metaphysical question to ask the real question - how could we tell? It doesn't mean he believes there is a real possibility that we are actually part of a computer simulation, but more of how the task could be tackled and what compromises would need to be taken in the process. You see, our planet and universe is an extraordinarily complex system, from the detail you see around you to the red shift of the big bang. Some parts of the known universe require literally the use of infinite parameters. Difficult for us lay people to get a handle on, even trickier for a computer given their distinctly finite resources. I've had the pleasure recently of reading a book, Quantum by Manjit Kumar, that took me through the discovery and development of quantum mechanics from Planck's Constant, Einstein's solution to Brownian Motion and Special Relativity, through to the developments and debates that ripped classical mechanics apart and established quantum mechanics as the current best interpretation of how the universe ticks. It didn't make me a physicist, nor did it bamboozle me with arcane descriptions and formulae, but instead placed me in the centre of the debates, with the many back stories that happened along the way. Well recommended for anyone with an interest in the subject that doesn't want to be daunted by the concepts.

Having had a recent primer, even one that didn't get as far as discussing lepton and quarks, helped me as I read through the lay presentation on Martin's team's work. Not essential, but extremely helpful as the presentation discusses lattice spaces, the likely computational capabilities over the next 50 years and the probabilistic qualities of quantum physics. As an example, quantum mechanics necessarily has to consider all the potential occurrences in a given spacetime frame before determining that the most likely outcome is the one that classical mechanics would generally determine, at least at a local level, but acknowledging that there is a remote but calculable probability that a different result may occur. That'll be Godzilla razing my city to the ground, then. The upshot is that a simulation could be constructed and a sentient race hell bent on annihilating itself sooner or later (sound like any sentient race you know of?) may well produce such a simulation, perhaps to perpetuate the race after doomsday. Or is that my SciFi plot generator working overtime again?

However the need to simulate infinite space, for example, means that some parts of the simulation will need to be fudged, made to look infinite using finite computational resources. It is the nature of this fudge, or signature as Martin puts it, that the research has looked at. I guess that if you can spot the signature behind what would be the most elaborate simulation possible, the spin off is likely to be a toolkit to analyse less comprehensive simulations, perhaps exposing their inherent weaknesses to allow better models to be constructed. So more warning about earthquakes, less chat about snow on Christmas Day and hopefully my next Sim City won't be trashed by Godzilla.

If you have the slightest interest in quantum mechanics you may want to look at Martin's presentation and read Manjit's book.

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Saturday, 14 December 2013

Amazon Sale - Stock Up On Your eBooks Now

Despite my frequent rants about Amazon I use them more and more each holiday season and the Kindle book store is my eBook store of choice for buying books. Probably because I own a Kindle eReader I've allowed myself to use Amazon as the supplier of books I read, if not for the books I sell. To be honest, I sell more books through Barnes and Noble these days, although some months I do experience the occasional flurry of activity on Amazon.

Part of me accepts that Amazon is likely to end up ruling the world, I just hate monopolies in any industry. But they must be doing something very right if they can undercut virtually everyone else online and provide free shipping as long as you're prepared to wait maybe three days. At least that seems to be the longest I've had to wait in recent weeks for any deliveries. So either they re doing something right or everybody else is ripping us off because Amazon do appear to be making a healthy profit regardless.

So, misgivings pushed aside, I have helped boost Amazon's retail element further than my conscience would like and I use them for buying eBooks. Now I have shouted out about their Deal of the Day for over a year now - I understand they run a promotion in most, if not all, of the regions they sell in.  Which pretty much means the globe, I guess.  Originally they pushed one book a day at £0.99, usually discounted by 70% - 90%, but recently they've been pushing three books a day.

Well I've noticed over the last few days they have stepped up the amount of books at £0.99 available and today there was 20 books at £0.99 plus four in the deal of the day.  I've added a link to today's deal - it's only valid until midnight GMT and is probably only valid for UK customers - but why not chance your arm if you're outside the UK anyway, just make sure the price is right before committing to any purchases.  Regardless, mosey on over to Amazon and hunt down the deal of the day - you'll make a few authors happy and you can stock up on books to read over the holidays.  Don't expect to find my books discounted on there, though, as they are all priced at £0.99 in the UK, $0.99 in the US at the moment (also on Apple, B&N, Sony, Kobe and, if they've got over themselves, WH Smith) - so you can try them for virtually free right now anyway.

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Nurturing Nature

It's a long established debate - are we born or made the person we are? The Nature versus Nurture argument has taxed the finest minds for generations and quite a few of the more modest intellects around, to put it politely.

The Nature argument supposes that genetics deals us our hand to deal with life. To be sure, there's a compelling view to the notion that the gene pool we were dipped in determines our potential. It certainly reinforces the views of some prejudiced individuals - who are quick to dismiss people because of their parents' achievements (or lack of). Conversely it can be used to provide certain offspring with opportunities based on a perception of the parental potential. It's probably true in many cases that the offspring of rocket scientists will be academically gifted, however it isn't a given. On the other hand the children of manual workers often percolate to the top of the academic pot. Of course, just because your parents were blue collar workers it doesn't necessarily follow that they didn't have academic potential, just fewer breaks.

Which brings us to the Nurture argument. This says that your background and environment determines your likelihood of succeeding in life. It certainly seems that some people get to the top regardless of ability. We've all worked for bosses that have lived what seems a charmed life and it just has to be that they are getting promoted above better, more talented contemporaries. If you've read The Journeymen and its sequel, Day of Reckoning, then you'll know I have explored this aspect in fiction in some detail. It may be fiction, but there's a lot of real life observation in there that just seems to feel like it fits.  Perhaps I'm just a born cynic - back to Nature, then.

But writing a Sci-Fi novel underpinned by an unproven conspiracy theory is no more scientific than any other lay opinion. Most people today believe that both Nature and Nurture play a part in our lives, especially the developmental part of it. The tricky part is working out the division of responsibility between Nature and Nurture. A major recent study has moved the argument forward.

Over two thousand pairs of twins have been evaluated to see whether the genetic mix they share or the environment they were raised influenced their eventual academic results. They came from diverse backgrounds, hence had a wide variety of environmental influences to help or maybe hinder their progress. There was also a mix of identical and non identical twins in the study. The variety of backgrounds has the effect of smoothing out the Nurture impact, leaving the results based on identical versus non-identical twins to compare the impact of Nature.

If Nurture is the predominant parameter in this study then the identical versus non-identical results shouldn't vary much. If nature is predominant, then there will be a difference between the two types of twins. The reason for this is that non-identical twins are like any other sibling pairs with perhaps one difference; their environmental influences should be more or less the same, no older brother gets more attention than younger sister situations. Identical twins should, in the main, share the same academic abilities and environmental opportunities. Given that both Nature and Nurture are expected to contribute to some degree there wouldn't be an absolute result, just potentially a bias or not.

So, what did the study find? Well, identical twins scored the same (give or take) 60% of the time in science, mathematical and language subjects but the non-identical twins scored about a 40% correlation. The split is less defined in artistic disciplines, apparently. This suggests that although the environment can hold back or propel individuals in a disproportionate way, the genetic mix we are born with is the predominant element. If we're dealt a weak hand, then that's our lot, by and large. But if we're dealt a reasonable hand, as long as we're not artificially held back we have the same chance to succeed as anyone else, in principle.

Of course this result, while a major indication that nature has the upper hand, demonstrates that Nurture, or society, has the potential to hold capable people back or push the wrong people forward.  So maybe The Journeymen might not be that far off the mark after all.  Or, if you take a look at another of my books, Digital Life Form, you'll learn that one of the only two rules in life that matter is that life ain't fair.

The other rule covers all other eventualities, for twins, identical or not and the rest of us.  Shit happens!

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