Bibliofaction short story website needs a new home

Free to a good home
Free to a good home

Would you like to run Bibliofaction.com?

Despite our best efforts, Andrew and I are no longer finding the time to properly look after the Bibliofaction website and community. So it’s time to find someone new to take care of it.

It’s going free to a good home (though it has some costs involved and would benefit from some technical work).

We’d like the website to be run by someone who supports the original goals of the site – to encourage everyone to have a go at writing a short story. It should be a welcoming, inclusive and inspiring place – but we won’t have ongoing involvement in the site, so really it’s your call!

Here are some top-level facts that might be useful to you:

  • 3,500+ published stories
  • ~10,000 visits per month (it was a bit higher when we were actively running competitions etc) – see stats screenshot below.
  • The Bibliobucks virtual currency system doesn’t make us any money (but did a good job encouraging conversations when it was launched)

Beyond that, have a look around the site to see how it works. If you can’t spare the time to look at the site now, you won’t have the time to run the site in the long run. I say this from experience.

Technical bits:

  • The website is a bespoke platform, developed in ASP.NET, in C# with a MSSQL database.
  • It was written for ASP.NET 2.0
  • It’s a 3-tier application (Website, BLC, DALC) so has a pretty solid code structure
  • It was best-of-breed in 2007 – you wouldn’t write it quite like this today, but it won’t cause a new developer too much panic to look at it now.

What’s included:

  1. Transferring ownership of current Easyspace VPS hosting to you (including billing)
  2. All source-code and database files
  3. Google Analytics account including 7+ years of historic stats
  4. The bibliofaction.com domain name – it’s an old domain name now, so good for search engines
  5. Social media accounts (@bibliofaction, Facebook, G+)
  6. Any artwork files I have (logos, PSDs etc)
  7. Transfer of any copyright (logo, brand, code etc)

What’s not included:

  • Tech support. I wish I had time to spend on this, but if I did, we wouldn’t be looking for a new owner. You will need access to the appropriate development skills (whether you are them, know them or buy them).
  • Existing email provider (only because this is tied up with some other services I use). You’ll have to set something new up and point the DNS records.
  • Any form of guarantee, warranty, liability etc ad infinitum

Some immediate opportunities to improve the site:

  1. Integration with social media
  2. Short story apps for tablet and phone
  3. Build on the existing platform, or migrate data to another platform
  4. Anything else you can think of!

I’m interested! What now?

  • Send us your proposal, in any format you like to press [at] bibliofaction.com
    • In an ideal world, we’d like to see someone who can offer ongoing community management, and the technical investment to bring the site up to scratch.
    • The closing date for applications is 31 May 2013
  • Post  questions in the comments below, as we won’t be providing feedback on the proposals or replying to individual questions by email (too little time, sorry).

Thanks and good luck!

Stats for Bibliofaction.com
Stats for Bibliofaction.com

Why removing evolution from science textbooks might not really matter

This needs more thought, but writing this has helped me to join up a few ideas I was stewing over with my coffee yesterday morning while my son was napping. So I’ll publish this as is, and your thoughts are welcome.

Question the Answers
Question the Answers

While it’s useful to teach the fundamentals of physics, chemistry and biology in schools, I think what we need to start with and to prioritize is teaching the scientific method, the importance of curiosity and the need to question the answers. As an aside: Question the Answers is also the name of my favourite Bosstones album.

Rather than teaching the latest and best hypotheses, we should be showing kids how science as a whole works. How a community of disparate researchers come to agreement on an idea, and how people continue to challenge that idea as best as possible even when it looks like we’ve answered the question well. The value of a published scientific paper is more than just the text it contains; it’s the fact that it has been offered up for critique by the rest of the world, and it has passed this initial test, at least for now. Until people understand the differing value of the words in a newspaper opinion column and the words in a scientific publication, we will struggle as a society to make sound decisions.

This doesn’t mean everyone has to be a scientist, but ideally everyone would know enough to understand what “scientific consensus” means, and not to be surprised when every other day their favourite newspaper is giving them the latest contradicting health advice from “scientists”. Rather than complaining that “scientists keep changing their mind”, we would instead hear people praising scientists for never really making up their mind (which is much more difficult to do). And in this ideal world, people would know enough to understand what a double-blind controlled clinical trial is before they spend money on alternative medicine (though they should of course be free to take whatever medication they want).

The information people need today to research important issues is widely available online. But without an understanding and appreciation of the value of the real scientific process, it’s easy to get lost in a world of pseudo-science websites trying to sell you fifty shades of crap. It’s also worth noting that the the pseudo-scientists and propagators of urban myths spin a fine yarn, and the scientific world can definitely learn from their methods.

It’s good to see that people are bridging the communication gap between the world of science and the general public, without compromising the integrity of the information provided. And in this world of multi-directional communication, the communication itself gets a form of peer-review if the publisher is doing things properly. Rigorous science can be served up perfectly well alongside animated GIFs and cats in space, though I’m going a bit off track with my thoughts here.

What I was thinking about over coffee was that the future of scientific journals will surely require an open-access model to replace the currently prohibitive subscription models and, as an aside, that covering the cost of publishing these journals would be an amazingly good use of public funds given the value it would offer to society in relation to the cost. It would be interesting to compare what Wikipedia has done in terms of access to information versus the public funds spent on distributing educational content in recent years; especially on a global level.

Even if the scientific journals that exist today don’t change their business/access model, it only needs one challenging system to make the open-access model work, and in turn to make the existing publishers obsolete. Again, think of Wikipedia, and then Encarta and then Encyclopedia Britannica.

I’d like to think the future of peer-reviewed science will look something like Stack Overflow does today, where consensus on best-practice programming (including chunks of computer science) bubble up from constructive public debate, and it becomes easy for a member of the public with a small amount of knowledge and an understanding of the process to find a tried-and-tested answer to their given question. And if the answer fails for them in practice, to feedback into the process.

stacks_image_733
This is a consensus, not a debate.

When people understand the scientific method, we can stop using silly phrases like “climate change debate”, and the media will struggle to profit from their deliberate distortion of scientific discoveries. When the scientific method is understood, it doesn’t really matter if some people want to remove a topic like evolution from their local school syllabus. All the evidence, debate and research children need to read in order to understand why evolution makes so much sense is available online right now. They just have to be curious, connected and aware of how science (as a whole) works. And while children have always been curious, today they are more connected than ever.

If the Stack Overflow of science emerges, peer-review and the scientific process can move from being an abstract concept (which is all they are to most people) into something laypeople can witness, interact with and review first-hand. It may not even need specific teaching in schools. Today, if you want to learn how to program or build websites, you don’t need to enrol in a class, you can just start doing. And the people who do, very quickly find themselves reviewing the discussions and conclusions on Stack Overflow.

So maybe we don’t need to worry about the specific topics on the science syllabus any more, so long as we teach the principles of science. After all, it’s the job of the next generation to prove our theories wrong anyway.

On the future of publising, today

I’ve had a couple of interactions with non-traditional publishing of traditional books in the last week, so thought I’d make a note of them as a way to digest the experience.

First, I wanted to learn Backbone.js, as it (or something like it) will likely be the basis of front-end web based software interaction for the next few years at least. My usual method for learning a new web technology/language/process is a to get a decent book with functional examples and read it quickly cover to cover. This is how I survey the landscape; like taking a helicopter ride over a national park before setting out to explore it on foot. The real learning happens on foot, but it’s useful to know where the lakes, rivers and mountains are before you head into the jungle.

You know you’re exploring the edge of current tech when the only book on the subject listed on Amazon won’t be published for another four months. So I dug around the Internet and came across a long and decent looking article ‘Developing Backbone.js Applications‘.

Using Instapaper, with one click on my bookmarks bar, and one click in my Instapaper account page I had the web-page converted into a Kindle friendly .MOBI formatted file. I emailed that to my secret Kindle email address and within a few seconds I was ready to start reading this article in book format on a screen designed specifically for this kind of job.

The process of getting this article to my Kindle is so easy that I didn’t actually spend any time reading the article before deciding if the effort was worthwhile. So when I started reading, I was pleasantly surprised with what I found. This ‘article’ was in fact a book; the very same book that won’t be published in a traditional format and available on Amazon for another four months. It’s shared under a Creative Commons license on the source code repository and social coding website, GitHub. An environment where if I find errors in the book, I can edit the text directly and post the update back to the original author, and if my changes are accepted, my contribution is attributed precisely to my GitHub account.

The second example was The Moneyless Manifesto, also shared freely online under a Creative Commons license. In this case the online version of the book has been split into chapters and subsections so it’s not quite a single click to get the book into Instapaper. Not one to be deterred, or to miss a chance to learn something, I knocked up a Python script to fetch each of the pages, pick out the relevant content and stitch this together as a single web page. Which I then sent through Instapaper and on to my Kindle, and my wife’s Kindle.

All of the above is perfectly legit. This isn’t like people who download music illegally, but it’s a challenge to publishers all the same. Most end users won’t be writing Python scripts to format online books in such a convenient way, or using Instapaper as a document converter, but in time more and more will and all of the processes will get easier.

The two publishers involved here are embracing the new world, but that doesn’t make it easy for them. I’m only a couple of chapters in, but The Moneyless Manifesto is full of interesting and challenging questions, and may have some ideas related to this future publishing conundrum.

The best online page turning book/magazine

I’ve seen a lot a shiny, fancy and useless online page turner book things, and typically hate them for their reliance on flash, the difficulty of reading them and the fact that we’re combining the worst of digital and non-digital technologies mainly to impress the people responsible for publishing the content rather than the people who are meant to read it.

This one was great though:

http://opim.wharton.upenn.edu/~ulrich/designbook.html

The key difference being the link on the left: “Download the MOBI file directly”.

I can flick through the book as I would at a shop, get a feel for the content, and then if it’s worth it, email the file straight to my Kindle for a proper reading experience.

That’s more like it now.

On 3D printing, and a world unready

With the recent release of the Makerbot Replicator 2, 3D printing tipped into the real world. It moved from a conceptual idea that geeks and tinkerers would try and explain to their doubtful loved ones into something you can have delivered to your door in a matter of working days.

It changes everything, and I think the world will be caught off guard.

Even now, the ~$2,000 price tag isn’t crazy. It’s more than I would pay, but plenty can afford it. And this time next year the price will halve, the resolution will double and it will print slightly bigger things. Same again the following year. In four or five years’ time, almost anyone who wants one will be able to justify the cost of a 3D printer to themselves.

I always imagined playing with Lego with my son when he’s older, but it might be we’re printing our own Lego-esque blocks too.

I can only begin to imagine what this will do to a business like Lego. Sure, it costs you more to print a block than it costs Lego to print a block, but when you pay £10 for a box of 25 Lego pieces you’re not paying for material; you’re paying for branding, marketing, packaging, tax, distribution and their profit. Printing your own blocks will definitely be cheaper for the end consumer and anyone could learn to model a number of Lego blocks in a 3D modelling tool like Sketchup in less than 4 hours.

I had a quick think about the kinds of businesses who sell cheap-to-make, but expensive-to-sell plastic products whose profit margin is primarily the relationship between their business running costs and the perceived value of the end product. I’m not saying there is no merit to the price we pay for these products today, but we’re definitely not paying manufacturing cost plus ~20%.

3D printing changes everything for businesses like these:

  • Lego
  • Tupperware
  • Airfix
  • People who sell spare parts for things like old washing machines
  • Games Workshop
  • People like Shapeways who sell 3D printing as a service (they’ll soon start to look like photocopying shops do today)
  • And there will be many more

Broke your ladle while cooking? Don’t worry, you can print a new one before you need to serve dinner.

It will almost always be cheaper to ship a solid reel of plastic in it’s compact form than the same amount of plastic in its final product form full of holes and empty spaces.

 

Gorilla Pod and Similar MakerBot tripod

In a few years time, will you buy a Gorilla Pod and wait the tedious ~18hrs for Amazon Prime next day delivery (how slow and old fashioned!) or will you print one out right then and there?

While business is a start, a lens through which we think about the future, 3D printing has implications everywhere in this world.

There’s already been plenty of coverage about the ability to print your own weapons. While you can take the plans off of public websites, the digital files are so easy to share that you can’t take them out of circulation. Weapons may well become less regulated (and regulate-able) then they are today.

In politics, what good are trade sanctions when you can move goods digitally across borders for production locally? Hyper-locally even. This is now impossible to stop. We have to re-think international trade.

In development, what does this mean for people who live in rural Kenya. Do aid organizations deliver end products they think will be useful, or spools of printing plastic to people in need?

Maybe we’ll print our own artificial limbs?

So what skills do we need to be developing? 

I don’t think we all need to be taking a course in CAD, because it’s so easy to share 3D files. They’re smaller than MP3s and much smaller than videos and we don’t seem to have any trouble moving these around the world. A few thousand skilled contributors will produce the bulk of the designs used by the billions of people around the planet. Look at all things you can already download and print today.

What’s the future for the businesses affected?


If I ran Lego, I’d be thinking about how to phase out manufacturing while retaining brand and thought leadership. Not immediately, but probably within five years, ten at most. I’d focus on selling amazing plans for kits and give up on trying to own the right to the blocks themselves. The overall size of the business would shrink, but it might be possible to maintain the profits. Selling plans digitally would hugely cut costs and by embracing this new world, Lego can be a relevant and meaningful part of it. Most likely though, they’ll unleash a team of lawyers on any website that offers 3D models of anything that looks like Lego. People will print their own blocks anyway, sales will decline and there will be plenty of negative press coverage about the company who tries to sue the 10 year old girl who made her own Lego-like designs for her friends birthday. I don’t say this because I think that’s a Lego like trait, but because it’s the way all large corporations today tend to behave when they come under threat.

In many ways, the future will be more different than we can possibly imagine.

On ‘We, the Web Kids’

Intel inside

I thoroughly enjoyed reading We, the Web Kids, and could probably have picked a quote from any paragraph to highlight it’s quality. But I’ve picked one in particular as it connects with one of the themes I’ve been writing around here for the last couple of weeks. That is: paying the artist. Like Piotr, I’m happy to pay for the art I love. And whether it’s a painting, sculpture, performance or book, I’d like to pay the artist as directly as possible. In this extract, he captures some of the motivations excellently:

“Why should we pay for the distribution of information that can be easily and perfectly copied without any loss of the original quality? If we are only getting the information alone, we want the price to be proportional to it. We are willing to pay more, but then we expect to receive some added value: an interesting packaging, a gadget, a higher quality, the option of watching here and now, without waiting for the file to download. We are capable of showing appreciation and we do want to reward the artist (since money stopped being paper notes and became a string of numbers on the screen, paying has become a somewhat symbolic act of exchange that is supposed to benefit both parties), but the sales goals of corporations are of no interest to us whatsoever. It is not our fault that their business has ceased to make sense in its traditional form, and that instead of accepting the challenge and trying to reach us with something more than we can get for free they have decided to defend their obsolete ways.”

Piotr Czerski (translated by Marta Szreder)

However, while the whole text resonates with me, if it were read as a manifesto, there’s one section I’d caveat before offering my support:

“To us, the Web is a sort of shared external memory. We do not have to remember unnecessary details: dates, sums, formulas, clauses, street names, detailed definitions. It is enough for us to have an abstract, the essence that is needed to process the information and relate it to others.”

That’s true; but it’s a blessing and a curse, and the subtle implications are important. The web offers us instant everything, and as with all new technologies, like clocks and cars and computers, it changes the way we use our brains. And the way we use our brains shapes the people we become. The example from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows that always sticks with me (probably because it supports what I want to believe anyway!) is that the part of our brain used to imagine, follow and remember a complex idea in detail, say when reading a novel or studying a topic in great detail, is the same part of our brain used to feel compassion.

And it is up to us how we exercise our brain.

Hat tip to Ade for flagging up We, the Web Kids.

Punk rock (self) publishing

Digging through Google Reader this evening I found a mention of Open Site Explorer (posting link here for my own reference). Did a quick search to see who was linking to Bibliofaction and found an old article titled: This is Why Self-Publishing isn’t Taken Seriously.

I was worried I’d find a critique of what we’re trying to do with Bibliofaction, but was pleased to find an article that pretty much agrees with what we think is important in self-publishing.

I loved this note on Punk rock publishing:

“The ethic of: anyone can do it.  Just learn two chords and you can start a rock band.  It was revolutionary.  Self-publishing most certainly has the potential to have that same kind of attitude and purpose, and until that happens it’s going to be perceived as a self-released slush pile, rather than a place where innovative writers use the new, innovative technology because traditional publishers are too timid to take a chance.”




Everybody smash up your seats and rock to this brand new beat…