Democratization Can Be Dark… And Other Lessons from WordCamp US

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Among other things, I am a blogger. This thing that you’re reading right now is in fact a blog post…on a real-life blog! Mind blown, right?

To create this mind-blowing blog, I use WordPress, free and easy-to-use software that powers about a quarter of the websites online. WordPress has a great community that gets together all over the world. Last year, I attended and wrote about their first annual U.S. conference, WordCamp US, in my hometown of Philadelphia. WordCamp US was back in Philly this year, attracting about 1,800 attendees and a gang of dinosaurs to the party.

#WCUS Party Crasher Rex
#WCUS Party Crasher Rex at the wordcamp after party

WordCamp was a blast, obviously. I only got to attend the second day (Day 1 was Friday and would have interfered with my day job), but I listened to a few great talks.

Dennis Hong did a hilarious and yet scary (hil-scare-ious?) talk on the dark side of democratization. The idea is that while the internet has enabled anyone to publish, this may not always be a good thing. The sheer amount of content now produced promotes skimming over thoughtful reading, he said. Also, thoughtful, well-reasoned analysis often loses out to cat pictures and emotion-based pieces that get us all riled up — and may not even be true.

While there are no easy answers, Dennis had some advice to make the internet a more friendly place. When something online angers you, take a deep breath before you share it to your friends. Be stoic like Yoda, he said, and decide if it’s worth sharing — because all you’re doing is helping the video go viral. If someone is being ridiculous online, don’t engage in a shouting match. It’s better to be patient, empathetic and take the conversation offline. If you’re creating content, it’s okay to grab a reader’s attention with a flashy headline, but make sure the content that follows is thoughtful and accurate. You can read more about all this on Dennis’s website.

I also learned a bunch of interesting facts from Maile Ohye from Google. Did you know that 65% of India — or about 864 million people — are not yet online? That’s a lot of people still to join the internet! Not only that, but 60% of the world’s traffic is still 2G. It’s important to keep these facts in mind when building a website, Maile said. Also, here’s something to look forward to next year — she said Google will be demoting mobile website that display pop-up ads blocking your view of the content! Woo! Those sites are way annoying!

Which brings me to another fun fact from Maile — 53% of visitors abandon mobile sites that take more than three seconds to load. Sounds a little impatient, but thinking about my own behavior I probably do this as well. I guess with all that democratization of content, we just don’t have time to wait around.

For more possible dark directions for society, read my novels We, The Watched and Divided We Fall.

Video: What does the 2016 election mean for telecom?

That was some election, huh? Last week at the NARUC annual meeting in La Quinta, California, I attempted to break down what President-elect Donald Trump means for telecom and broadband issues, at least from my perspective as as a reporter for Communications Daily. Spoiler alert: there’s still a lot of uncertainty!

Special thanks to my Comm Daily colleagues, who put together an excellent election issue… from which I stole liberally for the purposes of this panel! Also, thanks to Montana PSC Commissioner Travis Kavulla for skillful moderating and to my fellow panelists Ray Gifford, Bill Ritter and Devin Hartman for the great insights about what Trump means for energy issues.

A journey through India with Project Fi (and other recent clips)

I’ve been blogging a lot about my creative writing lately, so I thought it was time to highlight a few recent news and feature articles I’ve had published since moving to Philadelphia. I’ve been contributing to Technical.ly Philly, Generocity.org, ASTM Standardization News, among other freelance projects.


Full bars but 2G speeds in an auto-rickshaw in Bangalore.
Full bars but 2G speeds in an auto-rickshaw in Bangalore.

Here’s a neat story I wrote for Technical.ly about staying connected during a recent trip to India. I was looking for a way to use my cellphone while abroad — without breaking the bank — so I signed up for the new Google wireless service, Project Fi.

While I had to contend with India’s 2G networks, the service worked well and saved me a lot of cash. The article also includes my impressions after testing Project Fi back home in Philadelphia.


Credit: ASTM

The science of weights and measurements might sound like a dry topic at first, but I actually learned quite a lot speaking with Canada Chief Metrologist Alan Steele for this article in ASTM Standardization News.

For example, did you know that the kilogram is about to be redefined so that it will no longer be based on a small cylinder of platinum iridium metal? Did you even know it was based on a small cylinder of platinum iridium metal? These and other exciting facts inside!


WordCamp 2015 in Philly
WordCamp 2015 in Philly

Well, this is a WordPress blog, so I should probably include this one. In December, I attended the first national WordCamp US conference at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Not only did I enjoy the sessions, but I got to interview the organizers for this article in Technical.ly.

The conference was such a hit that City Council declared December 5 as WordPress Day!


Well, that was fun, but it’s just a sampling. For more, check out a selection of recent journalism clips on Evernote!

Book publishing to be ‘more mainstream than ever’ in 2016?

Indie publishing gurus gaze into their crystal balls.

Happy new year, everyone! As the proud indie author of two self-published books, I thought it’d be fun to see what people closely involved in supporting and promoting indie publishing predict for book publishing industry in 2016.

Here’s what they had to say!

Emmanual Nataf, co-founder of Reedsy

Photo of Reedsy co-founder Emmanuel Nataf
Credit: about.me/emmanuelnataf

“Most forms of publishing have dramatically changed in the past few years: it’s become incredibly easy to publish photos (Instagram), song tracks (Soundcloud), videos (YouTube), blog posts (WordPress), etc. In 2016, it’s book publishing that will become more mainstream than ever. Through books, more people will express who they are and communicate their vision of the world with others. With 2016 set to break all records with hundreds of thousands of titles pushed to the market, authors need to have a clear idea of what they can expect from publishing a book. In most cases, it will be a gratifying and enriching experience; but only those willing to work hard will find it lucrative.”


Jeffrey Bruner, founder of The Fussy LibrarianJeffrey Bruner, founder of The Fussy Librarian

“I predict that Barnes & Noble’s eBook division will either be sold or auctioned off through bankruptcy proceedings and acquired by a tech startup that will reinvigorate B&N’s website and database and create a little more competition for Amazon.”


Miral Sattar, CEO of Bibliocrunch

miral-sattar_headshot“Now that there are more and more quality books being published a day, largely due to self-publishing, you’ll see a rise of companies that provide marketing tools or services to help the best ones reach the top and get discovered.”

 


Meanwhile, Smashwords founder Mark Coker wrote an excellent post on his own 2016 predictions. I’ve quoted a few of his predictions below, but definitely read the full article!

Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords

Photo of Mark Coker, Smashwords

  1. Indie eBook authors will gain market share at expense of large publishers”
  2. “The overall market for ebooks will shrink in dollar terms, but unit volume will increase”
  3. Kindle Unlimited will gut single-copy sales and drive greater eBook commoditization”
  4. Print will remain steady, though those sales are the sole domain for authors of traditional publishers”
  5. Wattpad will be acquired

What are your predictions for 2016? Sound off in the comments below!

How motion saved the Steam Controller

Change! Innovation! Weirdness! These are all things that led me to buying a Steam Controller. My experience since then has been a mix of wonder, excitement and frustration.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Steam Controller ($49.99 at Amazon) looks like this:

The Steam controller with included batteries, USB wireless dongle and PC attachment.
The Steam controller with included batteries, USB wireless dongle and PC attachment.

That might look kind of flipped when compared to this Xbox One controller, which you’re probably a little more familiar with:

An Xbox One controller
Credit: Microsoft

That’s because the front of the Steam Controller actually bends inward (concave for you geometry fans). This is to make it easier to access the signature feature of the Steam Controller — touch pads! Yes, touch pads have replaced traditional control sticks. (Except for that one stick they threw in at the last-minute when people freaked out … but it’s only one and most games use two.)

So do the touch pads they work for gaming? Yes … but it takes a lot of getting used to. I read in another review somewhere that this is like an “alternate universe” controller that decided against control sticks. Pads can work just as well, but the problem is our thumbs have become accustomed to the movements associated with pushing a stick.

As you might expect, then, the pads work best as a replacement for a mouse in games built for a keyboard/mouse setup. I found Valve’s flagship Portal 2 to work pretty darn well with this controller. However, in a game made for the Xbox controller–such as Batman: Arkham Knight–by default you have the pad simulating a control stick, and it’s kind of weird.

Also read: Steam Link: Great for console fans, but you might want to wait

See, when you simulate a mouse with the pad, as in Portal 2, it acts a lot like a trackball. Keep rolling it in the direction you want. It even feels good thanks to haptic feedback. But when it’s simulating a game pad, you’re “holding” an imaginary stick in the direction you want the camera to turn, and then returning your thumb to the center of the pad when you’re done moving it.

After about a week of play, I did find myself getting better at this. I could definitely play Arkham Knight and do well. However, I always felt handicapped anytime I needed to make small, accurate movements such as aiming the cannon of the Batmobile, or checking on the position of unsuspecting criminals before making a sneak attack.

Gyros and customization to the rescue!

After more time spent with the controller and hanging out in the Steam community, I found two solutions. One that made me feel a little better about the Steam Controller, and one that makes me think it might even work better than an Xbox controller.

The truly cool thing about the Steam Controller is that you can customize just about everything with the controller. This includes more than what the buttons do in a game. You can adjust sensitivity of inputs, turn the touch pads into a keypad and much more. And if that’s all too technical, you can simply apply control schemes uploaded by either the game developer or other people in the Steam community. Meanwhile, Valve itself continues to add more functions to the controller as users provide feedback.

The first thing I discovered that made Arkham Knight play more easily was the ability to change the behavior of the right touch pad (which stands in for the right control stick and controls the camera) to work as a “mouse-like joystick.” This mode, Valve says, is built for games that don’t let you play with a gamepad and mouse at the same time (actually I don’t understand how a two-handed person would do that anyway). Through magical engineering (or something), this just lets you use the pad as if it’s a rolling trackball.

That feels far more intuitive, at least, but it still does not feel super accurate, especially when you’re under fire in a Batmobile and a helicopter keeps dive-bombing you.

Get a free copy of the novel WE, THE WATCHED by Adam Bender

That’s when I discovered motion controls. Or, I should say, the Steam community discovered them. Turns out the Steam Controller has a gyro sensor, much like the Nintendo Wii controller, which allows it to track physical movements of the hands. Well, what happened is that some genius (not sarcasm) in the Steam community got the idea to turn this feature on in addition to the mouse-like joystick behavior.

When I switched to this control scheme, I kid you not — it was like removing a neck brace

To turn this on, go to the controller customization settings and select the gyro icon under the center of the controller diagram (it looks a bit like an atom). Set this up as a mouse joystick and you’re good to go!

The motion controls let you adjust the camera (or your cross-hairs) by moving the entire controller up, down, left or right. To ensure you don’t do this accidentally, it only detects movement while your thumb is on the right touch pad.

This would never work by itself, because you’d basically have to turn away from the TV if you ever wanted to do more than 45-degree turn. But for small movements–lining up the cross-hairs or taking a quick peek at something peripheral–it feels very natural. When you do want to make a bigger turn, you swipe the touch pad like before … and to be honest it’s fine for that.

When I switched to this control scheme, I kid you not — it was like removing a neck brace. In fact, now I really can’t imagine going back to the old way.

Worth the trouble?

You might be thinking to yourself: “That sounds cool, and it’s great that you got the Steam Controller to work for you … but the Xbox controller already works for me. Why bother?”

Yes, I would agree that is a fair point. If you’ve got an Xbox controller already, and it’s working for you, and you have no desire at all to try something new, there really is little reason to get a Steam Controller.

Besides the pads, the Steam Controller’s other big issue for me is the placement of the A, B, X & Y buttons. While in reach, the placement of this diamond arrangement feels a bit low and could lead to some wrong presses until you get used to it.

Also, I should caution that I’ve only tested the Steam Controller in console-like action games. I’ve not tried it for mouse-intensive genres like real-time strategy. I’ve written this article from the perspective of someone who wants a controller for games made for controllers.

However, if anything about the Steam Controller intrigues you — perhaps the customization, or maybe just the fact that it’s not made by Microsoft or Sony — I am here to say that it is in fact a solid controller that can do a lot now and has promise to do a lot more in the future. Buying a Steam Controller is not the equivalent of buying a knock-off Mad Catz Xbox controller (sorry, Mad Catz) to save $10 off of the official brand.

You do have to go in knowing that it’s not necessarily going to work perfectly from the moment you start up a game. There will be fiddling. In the future, there will be more community control schemes available that will make this fiddling easier. But you’ll still have to fiddle to make the Steam Controller work for you.

Also check out my impressions of the Steam Link!