The eli4d Gazette – Issue 034

Tech Pick

This is somewhat of an ‘anti-pick’.

When it comes to technical book publishers, O’Reilly used to be at the top of my list. Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore. I wrote a post about O’Reilly’s abandonment of DRM Free technical books and using other alternatives.

Media Pick

While listening to a recent Security Now podcast, I heard Steve Gibson rave about Ryk Brown’s Frontier’s Saga series. I found that it was available via the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library so I started reading book #1…and I was hooked. I’m on book #6, and it continues to be fantastic science fiction series. I highly recommend this series to any fan of space opera type of science fiction. So if you like Star Trek you’re very likely to really (really) like this series.

Drobo Blues

My Drobo 5N saga/sadness continues. I got a replacement, and it still doesn’t work. I’m in another round of back/forth with Drobo support. Even if I get it working, I’m not sure how much faith/trust I can have in their NAS.

Knowing what I know now I would try Synology rather than Drobo. Synology’s SHR technology seems quite comparable to Drobo’s Beyondraid, so Drobo’s previous multi-size hard disk advantage (i.e. being able to use different sized hard disks) seems moot.


Thoughts? Feedback? Let me know: @eli4d on Twitter


Reflecting on O’reilly’s Departure from DRM Free Technical Books and Finding Alternatives

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been so disturbed by Oreilly Media’s closure of their online bookstore. It feels like I’ve lost an old reliable friend.

The long and short of it is that they are no longer selling DRM-free versions of their technical books (i.e. in epub, mobi aka Kindle format, and PDF formats). Instead they have gone down the path of forcing customers to either have a Safari Books Online subscription ($399/year for individuals) or to purchase individual physical/electronic books through Amazon where the electronic version would be the Kindle format (i.e. a DRM mobi file that could be removed by Amazon at any time). Both of these options do away with the ownership of electronic books1.

Note 1: I have nothing against Amazon’s DRM protected Kindle books, and I have purchased many such books with the understanding that my purchases are a sort of perpetual lease that can be revoked at any time. I feel that this sort of arrangement is bad for technical books besides the significant format issues of the Kindle format (discussed below).

It is easy to be outraged by this change, and my peers at Hacker News have done a commendable job in expressing this justifiable outrage. Like my technical peers, I am rarely prone to emotional outbursts instead resorting to the sweet logical song of rationality. And yet, I can’t help but feel that I’ve lost an old friend. Why is that? It truly does not “make sense” to me.

In 2010 I attended a Drupal conference where Tim O’Reilly spoke about “Open Source in the Cloud Era.” I recall Tim speaking of his company’s core mission which included, front and center, DRM free books. And here we are seven years later with an evisceration of this core mission in the name of a “reinvention”. It’s funny how Tim O’Reilly has said nothing of this change beyond a tweet whose responses have been anything but supportive.

Out of all O’Reilly’s books, I will dearly miss the “Head First” series. But such is life, and I hope that this change will bring new publishers into the fray as well as inspire old publishers to avoid O’Reilly’s path.

Three aspects make me fairly certain that I will not be buying O’Reilly books in the future (which includes steering students away from such books for my online and on campus classes):

(a) As a reader of technical books:

As a reader of technical books, I have learned long ago that the Kindle and ePub version are inferior to PDF. While I love my Kindle Voyage for fiction books, the Kindle format is terrible for technical books. It is bad both from a formatting issue, in addition to the issue that Amazon published Kindle technical books are rarely updated as new revisions of a book are published (see Andy Hunt’s comment by searching for ‘AndyHunt’ in the previously mentioned Hacker News thread about this very issue). Check out any great technical book on Amazon, and you’ll see that more often than not the 1-star reviews refer to the Kindle edition. Here’s an example for “Head First JavaScript”:

The content is great, but the ebook formatting is some of the …
By … March 23, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
> Note – this is about the kindle edition. The content is great, but the ebook formatting is some of the worst I’ve seen.
>
> Terrible, terrible, terrible. The formatting is some of the worst I’ve seen, with parts frequently unreadable and cut off. Want to read the code examples? Good luck, they were scanned in unchanged as images, so you can’t zoom in by changing the font size. Instead you get to squint!
>
> Seriously, did they just hire an intern to hold the book up to a flat bed scanner?
>
> The content is great, but the ebook formatting is some of the worst I’ve seen. DO NOT BUY
>
> Buy the physical version. Save yourself some headache. If you want an appropriately formatted Javascript e-book, Javascript: The Good Parts is very readable.

The only format that stands to the content rigor of technical books is PDF. Sure PDF is far from perfect, but for this sort of book, anything else is pretty awful.

The Safari online option is somewhat questionable in that the mobile and web reading experience is less than ideal (Hacker News has much information about this). If reading on O’Reilly book is a poor experience on the Kindle app and iBooks app, then how much better can O’Reilly’s Android/iPhone reading app be for Safari Online Books?

(b) As a teacher

As a teacher of technical/programming courses, I have always recommended the DRM free versions of any required textbooks including O’Reilly books. I heavily use the PDF version of such books to create my course materials (so lectures can be in sync with the particular text book for the course), and I steer my students from the Kindle version to the PDF version in a DRM free format. An example for this is the “Head First JavaScript” book. This book has various exercises and puzzles that should be solved by hand (i.e. “pencil the answers in the book” type of work). If you’re using the physical book then it isn’t a problem. But what if you want the electronic version of the book? The only easily printable version (i.e. maintains exact format and pagination of the physical book) is the PDF version of this book.

While I will continue with any current courses that utilize O’Reilly books, I cannot do so for any future courses. Without question, I will resort to non-O’Reilly books for any new courses, and I will only books from publishers that provide DRM free epub, mobi, and PDF.

(c) For future authors of technical books:

If you’re a someone who is considering writing a technical book – why would you write for O’Reilly? Outside of the name, what is the possible advantage? (and no – there is no editorial advantage)

Since O’Reilly’s new electronic version of their books comes only from Amazon – why bother? Why not publish directly with Amazon if you want to go that way? Obviously, you’ll distance technical readers that want PDF but that’s a conscious choice that you would be making. Alternatively, you could publish on Amazon and have a DRM free ePub/mobi/PDF versions that you sell on your site.

If you do want to publish PDF versions of your book(s) and DRM free epub/mobi versions on one platform then there are plenty of publishing options:

  • self publishing via Gumroad or Leanpub
  • more traditional publishing via:
    • Pragmmatic Bookshelf: From a publisher perspective, I would say that this publisher is the closest to being of the old O’Reilly quality while providing DRM free electronic books including PDF.
    • No Starch Press: A large and quirky publisher that allows for parallel Creative Commons publication (see books by Al Sweigart for examples of a hybrid approach)
    • Apress: Yet another one with lots of technical books
    • Pearson’s Informit: Another traditional technical publisher with DRM free epub/mobi/pdf options

Of course, some of these publishers may follow O’Reilly’s path so you might consider having a contractual clause that lets you move your book to another publisher if the DRM free options go away.


In conclusion, the “books as a service” is not a surprising business goal. Recurring monthly subscriptions seems to be the current holy grail for many companies. After all, if Adobe, Netflix, and Spotify can do it why can’t anyone else do so? Whether the company is small or large. But like everything in life the true answer is ‘it depends’:

  • Is the subscription service providing a better product for the customer? (For technical books – O’Reilly media is not providing a better product)
  • Can the customer get the product without a subscription? (Customers cannot get O’Reilly books without subscription (and no – the Amazon Kindle version does not count because of the poor formatting and content update experience for technical books))
  • Can the customer find equivalent products from competing vendors? (fortunately, there are plenty of other technical book publishers)

O’Reilly Media Inc. has every right to choose its business model. My hope is that readers, teachers, and authors will vote with their dollars and feet by moving to other publishers. I know that in my case, O’Reilly’s website will be the last place I will look for a new technical book instead of being the first.


Thoughts? Feedback? Let me know: @eli4d on Twitter


The eli4d Gazette – Issue 033

Tech Pick

I’ve been making slow glacial progress (due to everything else in my life) in learning Laravel while working on a side project. As part of this, I’ve been listening to lots of PHP and Laravel podcasts. Twenty Percent Time is a new-ish podcast where two developers from Tighten (Caleb Porzio and Daniel Coulbourne) discuss various programming topics that typically revolve around Laravel. On the latest episode, Caleb verbalized something that I’ve fundamentally believed in for a long time though I didn’t have the words for it. Here is what he said:

“You can be an unbelievable super successful super smart great Laravel developer and know nothing but the Laravel docs and use nothing but the built-in Laravel things. You don’t have to learn design patterns…you don’t have to learn the internals of how everything works…it’s kind of crazy, but that is the path to mastery. The path to mastery is knowing how to use the tools really well, just using the tools that are in the docs.

Beyond learning Laravel, I think that Caleb’s quote is significant for those of us that get super-involved in learning about the latest ‘shiny’ thing, rather than learn a few tools well to create something.

Media Pick

I can’t recall a time in my life when political polarization was greater than it is now. I’ve recently come across a constructive podcast (“What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law”) covering our president in the context of constitutional law. It fits my ‘learn by example’ style, and it is a fantastic study of our country’s constitution.

Random

  • I bought a Drobo 5N last November during a black Friday sale. I didn’t get to unbox it until a month ago (lesson learned – test hardware as soon as possible; I knew this, but life has been busy). Within a few days, I found that my Drobo was a dud. Fortunately, Drobo’s diagnostics in combination with Drobo support has been excellent so far, and I have a replacement coming. Hopefully, I’ll experience the Drobo difference soon :-).
  • I’ve had lots of emails with OmniFocus support about the last corruption. This infrequent/intermittent bug got even escalated to an OmniFocus engineer. Their support has continued to be stellar.

Thoughts? Feedback? Let me know: @eli4d on Twitter


The eli4d Gazette – Issue 032

Tech Pick

I’ve had Python on my brain lately due to heavy duty preparation for my upcoming online Python course. So coming across Instagram’s Python technology stack was interesting. The article begins with:

Each day, over 95 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram. The unstoppable photo-centric social media platform has over 600 million registered users — 400 million of whom are active every day. Talk about operating at scale: Instagram kills it at levels most companies can barely even dream about.

Even more impressive, though, is the fact that Instagram serves this incredible amount of traffic, reliably and steadily so, by running Python (with a little help from Django) under the hood. Yes, that Python — the easy to learn, jack-of-all-trades general purpose programming language. The one everybody in the industry dismisses as, “Yeah, Python is great in so many ways, too bad it’s not really scalable.”

I thought that this was a great example to mention to my students – “well if Instagram uses Python at their scale, Python must be a good thing to learn.” And yet this didn’t sit right with me, and I remembered reading an excellent article that clarified my unease: “You Are Not Google”.

Python is a great language for many reasons (easy to learn, lots of built in libraries, great scientific/numeric support (SciPy, Pandas, iPython, NumPy), etc..) but Instagram’s use of it is not one of them. I’m not Instagram, and it’s very likely the case that you aren’t either.

Media Pick

I’ve had “American Gods”aal on my Kindle for what seems like forever. It was recommended by a friend back in 2004 and I got the Kindle version on sale a few months ago (via Bookbub).

Where to begin? The story is like a fractal of a pick-up stick game. You think “really Neal – a pick-up stick game?” And there’s Gaiman laughing manically. So you play the game and read the book 1 bit at a time…and just when you think you understand, repeating themes and whispers of previous chapters slap you across the face.

My Kindle highlights are filled with too many sentences from this book, and I can hardly pick a favorite. Here’s an example:

“The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.”

aal = Amazon affiliate link

Random

I’m a big OmniFocus, but recent (XML) corruptions have been worrisome (on the positive side OmniFocus support is top notch). One database corruption happened in March, and another just happened about a week ago. My favorite data format is plain text. But I haven’t come across a plain text task management system that implements GTD and spans mobile and Mac OS X as seamlessly as OmniFocus.


Thoughts? Feedback? Let me know: @eli4d on Twitter


The eli4d Gazette – Issue 031

Tech Pick

Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference is currently running in San Jose. Two interesting points from Monday’s keynote:

For those looking for a summary of the keynote:

Media Pick

I really enjoy the Imaginary Worlds podcast but the latest episode (Do the Voice) was really different. It was an episode that came from The Truth Podcast. The Truth podcast is about:

THE TRUTH makes movies for your ears: short stories that are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, and always intriguing. Each story is different, and usually 10 to 20 minutes long. We take you to unexpected places using only sound. For best results, use headphones!

I’ve started listening to it, and it’s quite a nice short audio trip that is weirdly worthed.


Thoughts? Feedback? Let me know: @eli4d on Twitter


The eli4d Gazette – Issue 030


Issue 030: 2017-05-24

Tech Pick

Last week an article sparked quite a bit of (justifiable) backlash against a SaaS company called Firebase. While Firebase did eventually respond to Home Automation’s protest about a %7,000 cost increase, this incident serves as an important reminder of the dangers of tying one’s business to any SaaS provider.

A few points from the article best summarize these dangers:

  1. They changed how they report their bandwidth usage, increasing our bill by 7,000% without any change to our actual usage. After years of using the service.
  2. No warning or message was sent out that this was being done — we only got notified once they were planning to shut down our app completely.
  3. Their profiling tools do not show the increased usage. You can only see it by looking at your massively increased bill.

So please, I beg of you…learn from our embarrassing and now dooming mistake:

  • Always build your architecture in a way that will avoid becoming trapped into a specific service. Build your application in a way that swapping one service for another is as simple as possible.
  • Always keep in mind that the services you use can change at any moment and put you in a situation where you don’t have options if you aren’t careful.
  • Whenever possible, rely on your own infrastructure. The SaaS model seems attractive to both Startups and Service Providers…. but in the end, its the Startup that gets bitten by it and the providers that make the real money.
  • Always heavily consider open source alternatives (something which didn’t exist for Firebase at the time but now alternatives like Horizon and Backendless exist, for example).

Media Pick

The Changelog podcast had an excellent episode covering the origin and usage of Kubernetes. I notated the interesting spots of this episode.


Thoughts? Feedback? Let me know: @eli4d on Twitter


The eli4d Gazette – Issue 029

Tech Pick

Two topics related to “making the Internet a better place”:

Net Neutrality is at jeopardy once again – please make your voice heard

Net Neutrality is at risk once again. The EFF summarizes the issue best with:

Network neutrality—the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data that travels over their networks fairly, without improper discrimination in favor of particular apps, sites or services—is a principle that must be upheld to protect the future of our open Internet. It’s a principle that’s faced many threats over the years, such as ISPs forging packets to tamper with certain kinds of traffic or slowing down or even outright blocking protocols or applications.

The FCC is seeking to dismantle Net Neutrality, and this is the time to state your objection to this attempt. The EFF has created a very easy form to fill out to comment on the FCC’s proposal.

You can find it here: https://dearfcc.org/

The open Internet is critical for our current and future generations. Please take 2 minutes to fill out and submit the above form.

Cloudflare Seems to Help Serve Hate on the Web

I’ve always thought of CloudFlare as a company that is out to make the internet a better place by protecting websites against a variety of attacks. However, I came across a disturbing article about Cloudflare that gives me significant pause (note that ProPublica has had an update regarding this issue, but Cloudflare has not really changed its stance). It seems that Cloudflare is a proxy for both infrastructure security solutions and hate groups.

I have much to say about Cloudflare’s actions and its discounting of both corporate values/responsibility by hiding behind a “we support free speech” flag. But this will have to wait for another (potential) post.

Neither you nor I can control Cloudflare’s actions. If your values align with Cloudflare’s current mode of operation, then Cloudflare should be your go-to company for infrastructure security.

If your values are on the opposite side of Cloudfare’s actions and decisions, then you may choose to:

  1. Recommend alternate technical solutions such as Fastly
  2. Contact Cloudflare’s investors and ask them if their values align with Cloudflare’s actions

I sincerely hope that Cloudflare will make active positive choices regarding its corporate responsibility and values.

Media Pick

I recently finished watching Haven through Netflix. The show is part X-Files and part Supernatural. I had originally chosen it because it had good ratings on Netflix in combination of being a series that had 3 or more seasons. It turned out to have really good character development and sufficient sci-fi/horror elements to keep me watching. Furthermore, the series had a decent closing story arc that tied everything together (and it even had a certain over-acting Star Trek character at the end 😉 ).

I was surprised that Haven was produced by the SyFy channel. I’ve always felt that when this channel changed its name from “Sci Fi” to “SyFy”, it went down hill moving from fantastic scifi shows like Battlestar Galactica to less than exciting works like Ghost Hunters. Of course, SyFy may be coming around to the monetary realization that the original fan base is more valuable than they thought.


Thoughts? Feedback? Let me know: @eli4d on Twitter