June’s Jerryrigged Sausage

(This post went to Patronizers at the beginning of June, and the public at the beginning of July.)

Hi folks!

BSDCan dominated this month. It was good. It wasn’t the biggest con we’ve had, but for the first year back it was nice. A handful of folks said they wouldn’t attend because the pandemic is still raging, and that while we would be masked the rest of the world isn’t. I can’t blame them. A couple of random folks on the Internet complained to me that they wouldn’t attend because we had a mask policy, but I didn’t recognize the names as attendees so who cares? If you didn’t know, I’m taking over coordinating BSDCan next year. I plan to do as little as possible, shoving everything off onto a team of volunteers.

That leads into my next change:

My writing business is hiring help. Part-time help, but help.

Every title I publish adds administrative overhead. That overhead usually isn’t terrible, except when something changes and I must touch every title. The Mastery books have been $25 since 2011, and I can’t absorb any more inflation and meet my bills. My printers have increased their prices again, so I spent four days going through Amazon and Ingram’s web interfaces to increase retail prices. I spent a few days last week fighting a bot network registering useless accounts on my web store. It’s not that those accounts could do anything, but the constant registrations slow everything down. Then there’s the improvements I want to make to the web site, and the corrections to what’s already there. This time adds up, keeping me from achieving the flow state so critical to creative work.

I can do everything in my publishing business. That’s why it’s part of my publishing business, because I can do it. I forced myself to sit down and take a good hard look at the things I spend my time on, in order of importance.

Writing
Publishing
Business and money
Marketing
Dealing with retailers
Web site

Of those tasks, which do I hate the most? Obviously, the money. I have everything set up so that I can handle paying my bills and reconciling my receipts in a couple hours a month, provided I do so every single month without fail, so the pain is minimized. Dealing with money is the last task a business owner can outsource, however. Can’t ditch that.

Publishing? I can hire help for that, sure. It’s expensive for what you get. I know perfectly well that transforming a correctly formatted tech book manuscript into an ebook is an hour’s work. I allocate two hours to it, because ebook formatting exposes every formatting flaw in the source manuscript. I don’t do that kind of work that often. The work I do more often resembles the price changes, where I log into retailer portals and make adjustments. Most retailers offer small publishers a single account with all privileges. I have no problem sharing that access with someone I completely trust, but that trust has to be earned. I’m not going onto fiverr and picking up a random publishing assistant. That’s like hiring the itinerant laborers loitering in front of the home improvement store to polish your diamond collection.

Marketing? I loathe marketing. Marketing is about voice, a combination of attitudes and opinions and word choice and syntax. While any number of people can and do use my “I loathe marketing” approach to marketing, they can’t do it exactly as I do. I must be involved in marketing. Outsourced marketing assistants can reuse and repackage marketing content I’ve previously created, but can’t reliably generate new content without extensive coaching and interaction.

Writing? That’s why I’m in this business. ChatGPT can bite my nearly-nonexistent butt.

That leaves the web site.

Outsourcing web site maintenance feels wrong. I’m a techie. I can maintain a web site, especially on WordPress. WordPress is the easiest possible way to maintain the technical parts of a web site. But my web site has an entry for each of my dozens and dozens of books, and each entry has a dozen links to various retailers. There’s my web store, which is an entirely separate site. The technology now exists for me to offer touchless print/ebook bundles, but it requires I once again touch every single title and configure plugins.

The thing is, I bring nothing special to the web site. Sure, I write the blog posts and the jacket copy for the books. But as far as fixing the front page cover image gallery and updating plugins and figuring out how to block all registrations from spam domains (Ban Hammer is the bomb, by the way), I bring nothing special.

Will I lose geek cred by handing my web site off to an hourly aide? Nah. I am not known as a web site designer, and I still run the underlying operating system. I’m not outsourcing mail or DNS or even httpd.conf; just the WordPress pointy-clicky-linky stuff. My new flunky, Soma, actually likes running web sites. (I don’t get it, but there’s folks out there who like durian so he’s basically normal.)

Hiring people is like everything else: the first time it’s a Big Deal, but eventually it becomes routine. I have hired and fired while working for a company, but never on my own. This is unnerving. While we have a written contractor agreement and have agreed on a scope of work, I’m proceeding slowly. Many of the links on my web site are incorrect or flat-out missing, so he’s starting with those. If he survives that tedium, I’ll get him to fix up the rest of the site, then tune up the ecommerce site. That would let me do things like making my short stories exclusive to my site.

For an employee to work in the long term, it has to work for both myself and him. Here in the US, I can pay someone $599 before filing tax paperwork in their name. We’re going to meet just before we hit that limit and talk things through. I would rather let him go at $599 and remain friendly than pay him $650, let him go, and screw him on taxes. That would be not merely rude but downright uncivilized. (Yes, taxes are civilization. So is minimizing them.)

If Soma works out the way I hope he does, I might start a daily one-minute podcast containing whatever I’ve written that day. I’d post the recording on my blog, and feed it to the various aggregators. But that’s a future possibility. Right now, I’m fiercely protecting every writing minute.

The plus side to all of this? Hiring someone is a new business experience. I’m making notes on it. In a few years, they’ll feed into a second edition of Cash Flow for Creators. I deliberately wrote that book to be evergreen, blissfully ignoring the fact that I would foolishly continue to learn business.

If I really wanted to jump deep into this business: many universities offer degrees in publishing. Starting pay in publishing in Detroit is somewhere around $40k, which would cost me about $50k including taxes and insurance and all that. It would be a serious hit for me, but doable. I could spend the next year polishing some bright young thing into my personal publisher, turn the whole mess over to them, and focus on writing. I’d eventually give us both a raise. I’m not that ambitious yet. Mind you—if I have to transform some bring young thing into being a publisher, I’m not sure them having a degree in publishing would be a prerequisite?

Other news? Going to BSDCan has knocked some things loose on my current writing projects. There’s nothing for contemplation like a long drive across the Ontario beautiful desolation. The mail book has gained extra clarity, and I’ve figured out why I’m having such trouble starting $ git merge murder. A crime novel is not the same as a mystery novel, and I want this to be a particular kind of mystery, which means I get to practice a new skill. Woo hoo! It’ll take me some time to prep that practice, though, so I’m switching back to Skybreach for a bit. That monstrosity is halfway done, I might just buckle down and pound through it this year.

But first, I gotta get the mail book rolling. I have no more conferences this year, so that should help.

Sixty Seconds of WIP, 21 June 2023

Welcome to a new intermittent feature, to be posted whenever it amuses me to do so. Here’s me, reading sixty seconds of the current work-in-progress. In this case, it’s Run Your Own Mail Server.

You should blame Allan Jude for this terrible idea. I know I do.

I considered posting these on Tiktok like the cool kids do, but you can’t complete signing up for an account in a web browser so that’s a hard no without a disposable tablet.

New BSDNow interview

BSDNow episode 507 has an interview with me.

We talked about OpenBSD Mastery: Filesystems, Run Your Own Mail Server, the writing business, ChatGPT, and detritus. At least, that’s the topic list Benedict sent me before the interview. I have no idea how far astray this talk went. It’s not like I pay attention to anything I say.

If you’re at BSDCan, do say hello.

April’s Ablated Sausage

Each month, I write a blog post for my Patronizers. I want to say it provides unique insight into my process and business, but “See the Sausage Being Made” has turned into more of a monthly summary combined with my usual on-brand ranting. With my Patronizers’ kind permission, a month after they see the posts I’ll be sharing them here. When I remember. Looking back at this post, I was clearly still reeling from covid, but I’m resisting the urge to put Compound W on the warts.

Our home has radiator heat. The air does not move unless I move it. Fortunately there’s enough seepage around the windows to prevent anoxia, but after all these months the house has picked up a certain aroma that can only be described as “The Lucases have been inside for too long.” The office window is now open for the first time since October. Fresh air is rolling in, but neighbors walking down the sidewalk cough and stagger when the fug hits them. It’s a glorious annual tradition of hope, at least from my perspective.

So, the bad news? Last month during the Patronizer video hangout, folks told me I looked tired and let me go early. I didn’t think I was that worn out, but it turns out they knew better than I did. I woke up the next morning at 3AM with a 104F fever. After defying covid for longer than the Axis fought off the Allies, I had covid. The strategy of “wait to catch the plague until treatments exist” paid off, though. I had pavloxid later that day, and the fever broke after the second dose. The brutal fatigue still lingers, though. Yesterday was the first day I worked a full day, and by five PM I was exhausted.

Prevention eventually fails, but I plan to avoid reinfection for another Second World War.

My goal of “write lots of books this year” continues its streak of failure. My goal of “get to the dojo 100 nights this year” has likewise received a gut punch. But the nice thing about these goals is that they’re fail-forward. If I only get to the dojo eighty nights, that’s still better than most people manage.

I’ll be teaching a four-hour OpenBSD storage tutorial at BSDCan, though, and the slides for that are finished. I’m also giving a fifty-minute talk about OpenBSD’s storage at Penguicon and semibug later this month, and mug.org over the summer. Those slides will be trimmed down from the tutorial. Hoping to knock those off today.

I’ll also be talking about Rat Operated Vehicles at Penguicon, which will be fun. That talk almost demands a live studio audience.

Yes, I’m doing two conferences in two months. I expect that they’ll be my last ones for the year. One bout of covid has redoubled my determination to avoid flying. Yes, attending EuroBSDCon in Portugal would be way cool, but–no.

The good news is: once the slides are done, my outstanding commitments are complete. No fulfillment lingers for either sponsorships or Kickstarter. Yes, I have to write my baseball orc tale, but I’ll do that in June when I can attend a historical-rules baseball game at Greenfield Village. I don’t want to jinx myself and say “nothing stands between me and writing,” so I’ll just say: whatever stands between me and writing will come as a nasty surprise.

As an aside: as part of the Devotion & Corrosion Kickstarter, I’m having an online book release party on 29 April, at 10 AM EDT. Any of y’all that want to attend are welcome.

Thank you for your support. I’m gonna go make some slides so I can make some words.

I Have A Dream

If someone demanded I summarily declare why I have achieved my modest success where so many other writers haven’t, I would have to say it’s because I mercilessly separate dreams and goals and only act upon the latter.

What’s the difference?

A goal is something I control. “I will write four books this year” is a goal. I might succeed, I might fail, but it’s within my control. If I write three I fail in my goal, but hey–I’ve written three more books!

A dream is something I don’t control. Generally, dreams require other people take action on my behalf. “I will coauthor a thriller with James Patterson” is a dream, because while I might reach out to Patterson I don’t control how he reacts. Chances are he would throw me off his front porch and unleash the hounds.

I work on goals. Never on dreams.

Do this long enough, and dreams fade. It’s not that you lose the capacity for dreaming, but if you remain goal-oriented your idle fantasies start feeding into your goals instead.

Today, I fear I’ve caught a dream. XKCD’s latest interactive comic includes a Murderbot reference.

I can’t really call this “author goals,” because I don’t control it. But it’s certainly “author dreams.”

Stupid dreams. Get out of here with that lame non-actionable tripe. Dammit.

Ten Years of Penguicon Pop Tarts

In 2013, I was a Guest of Honor at Penguicon.

No con had ever treated me better. My room was handled. My assigned flunky made sure I got fed (or, in my case, made sure I ate). There was a green room with sandwich fixings and snacks and the most ridiculously oversized heap of Pop Tarts I have ever witnessed. Not that I should be eating Pop Tarts, or even particularly like Pop Tarts, but I am always compelled to admire spectacle.

At the closing ceremony, the con chair asked the GoHs if anything went wrong. I said something along the lines of “you were magnificent. the only thing I could possibly say is that there was no toaster for the Pop Tarts.”

Truly trivial. That con was run better than some multimillion-dollar IT launches I’ve been part of.

But Hospitality Czar Cylithria Dubois got a look of absolute horror on her face. She took her job seriously, and had FAILED. Less than perfect! Dishonor, dismay, disaster!

It was okay, of course. We had a laugh afterwards.

I’ve come back most years since. Every year, there have been Pop Tarts in the con suite. Every year, the con suite has lacked sufficient power to plug in a toaster without blowing out the circuit breakers. It’s become a running joke.

This year, ten years after my GoH stint? When I walked up to the hotel check-in desk I saw an assortment of bags behind the counter. I thought “Oh, the ConCom is up to their usual tricks of giving GoHs welcome gifts. It’s nice to see the old ways being kept. Them folks are in for a treat.”

I gave my name, and the receptionist said “We have a package for you!”

Lithie had left me…

…a toaster. With a lovely thank-you note, promising to remember the Pop Tarts in another ten years. I nearly burst an aneurysm laughing.

But in the con suite?

Not one Pop Tart.

Am I saying that after a decade of con suite Pop Tarts, Lithie leveraged her influence to make sure there would be none on the year she gave me a toaster? No. Lithie operates on the highest standards of ethics and probity. I’m certain it’s mere convenient coincidence.

But my long-suffering missus scurried out to a grocery store, so that Sunday I could offer Lithie a toasty-warm Pop Tart.

Not that either of us like Pop Tarts, mind you. That’s not the point.

I’m already planning for next year. Yes, for talks. And… other things.

Lithie says that in ten years, she’ll bring the Pop Tarts. Most twenty-year-old food would transcend staleness, but come on. They’re Pop Tarts. They’ll be as fresh as the day they were excreted.

Updated Penguicon 2023 schedule and references

Turns out I have additional Penguicon events. I also need a place to list the books I’ll refer to in my talk. Rather than rewrite the old blog post, I’m starting over. First, the references.

OpenBSD Mastery: Filesystems
The Copyright Handbook
LLC or Corporation?
Tax Savvy for Small Business
Cash Flow for Creators
Domesticate Your Badgers: Become a Better Writer through Deliberate Practice

I’ll have some of my books in the bookstore, room 317. They told me I can bring as many titles as I want, which seems foolish but oh well. I’ll have a handful of Networknomicons, some fiction, several recent tech books, Letters to ed(1), and assorted other detritus. While the con is having folks buy books by sending Paypal direct to the authors, I plan to find my Square reader. If you show up during one of the three hours I’m in the store, I’ll take your credit card myself. (Or charge your card myself. Whichever you prefer.)

And now, the schedule. There’s full details on the con’s Sched, including any room updates.

Friday, 21 April
5PM: AI, Writers, and Artists (panel), Charlevoix C
7PM: Writer’s Block Bookstore, suite 317

Saturday, 22 April
11AM: OpenBSD Filesystems (talk), Algonquin A
Noon: Reading (talk), Portage Auditorium — somehow, they put the readings in this room. It bears a close resemblance to one of the rooms where someone dies in $ git sync murder. $GSM does not take place at this hotel, and the $GSM con is most assuredly not Penguicon, I admit to feeling somewhat leery. I might read from that book, though.
1PM: Rat Operated Vehicles (talk), Algonquin B (Big Top) — contains no actual rat
2PM: Writer’s Block Bookstore, suite 317
3PM: LN2 ice cream (consuite) — this is not part of my official schedule, but come on, you know I’ll be there
4PM: Terry Pratchett: The Man, the Myth, the Reading Order (Charlevoix C)
6PM: Crowdfunding for Creatives (Charlevoix C)

Sunday, 23 April
11AM: Writer’s Block Bookstore, suite 317
noon: One Man Publishing Army (Algonquin C)

Penguicon 2023 Schedule

Penguicon 2023 starts in ten days. As usual, I’ll be presenting talks and serving on panels. Repeatedly.

It’s a light year for me, though. Only six events. The rest of the time, I’ll either be wandering around or heckling other presenters, like you do.

Friday
5PM: AI, Writers, and Artists (panel)

Saturday
11AM: OpenBSD Filesystems
1PM: Rat Operated Vehicles
4PM: Terry Pratchett: The Man, the Myth, the Reading Order (panel)
6PM: Crowdfunding for Creatives (panel)

Sunday
12PM: One Man Publishing Army

Somewhere in here, I’ll also be doing a reading. That isn’t scheduled yet, but I’m told it’s happening. Check the final schedule when you show up.

One reason I’m attending? Their solid mask policy is enforced by an ex-marine with an attitude like a badger with bad bowels. Yes, a real ex-marine. I had covid in March. Not only am I still recovering, the experience has made me twice as determined to not catch it again.

April Fool’s Collection

I believe that April Fools’ pranks should be benign violations of expectations, and that they are best when they have a physical reality. If they don’t have a physical reality, they should be targeted to amuse a small group of peolpe. While I had thoughts about one for this year, they fell apart under the pressure of fulfilling Kickstarters. But for my own reference and perhaps your minor amusement, here are the Internet-relevant pranks I’ve pulled in the past.

2021: I know that people read my tech books for the footnotes, so I released a collectible hardcover collection of them.

Smart books have footnotes. Smarter books are only footnotes.

Only Footnotes

2020: The Networknomicon.

Abdul Alhazred’s infamously rumored Networknomicon, or SNMP Mastery, has long been blamed for the Spanish Inquisition, the Second World War, and Cleveland. While nuclear “testing” was thought to have eradicated all copies of the manuscript, an astute student with a baggy shirt and considerable mob debts recently liberated one tattered survivor from the Miskatonic University Library of Computer Science.

The Networknomicon, or SNMP Mastery

2018: I took sponsorships on a book, but refused to say what the book was. 1 April, I released Ed Mastery. The Standard Text Editor. “ed Mastery.” It has a blurb from Ken Thompson himself.

Let me be perfectly clear: ed(1) is the standard Unix text editor. If you don’t know ed, you’re not a sysadmin. You’re a mere dabbler. A dilettante. Deficient.

Ed Mastery cover

Ed Mastery also comes in the Manly McManface edition, because some men can’t handle feminine pronouns in their tech books. Part of each sale goes to the Soroptimists, because screw you, that’s why.

Any third-person singular pronouns that appear in the standard edition, for normal people, are female. Those who believe that women don’t belong in tech books may purchase this special “Manly McManface” edition, where all third-party singular pronouns are masculine.

To compensate for this edition’s much smaller market, though, the Manly edition is unfortunately pricier than the standard edition. That’s basic economics.

Ed Manly cover

For added “what the heck” I also wrote a scathing review of Ed Mastery, personally attacking the author, which Dan Langille generously published on his blog. I stand 100% behind this review, by the way.

Before that? Joke blog posts, aimed at the BSD audience. Basically intended to give a small group of folks a chuckle.

2014: Dan Langille and I coordinated on Oracle buys BSDCon and me responding by starting DetroitBSDCon. For the record, I think DetroitBSDCon would be amazing but, you know, pandemic.

2011: The Great Committer was to honor John Baldwin in the most embarrassing way possible.Apparently some of his cow-orkers started calling him the Great Committer and genuflecting when he approached, so that’s a plus. I still think that the BSD community adopting the pinky-and-forefinger-horns salute would rock.

2003: Dan Langille and I posted on how the UN was forcibly merging the BSD projects under the FretBSD banner. The OpenBSD paragraph still makes me giggle.

Theo de Raadt could not be reached for comment. While Theo’s home has been surrounded, UN peacekeeper troops have yet to storm the building and heavy casualties have been reported in the surrounding countryside. UN spokesmen insist that the siege is going according to plan, however, and Theo is expected to be available for integration in the new combined BSD at some date in late 2023. Of the two hundred eighty-nine casualties suffered by the UN troops at this time, the commanding officer insists that they were caused by a rampaging Canadian moose. Daniel Hartmeier, previously of the OpenBSD Project, insists that OpenBSD has no weapons of moose destruction.

Also: we caught a news reporter. That was fun. Sadly, my more substantial pranks of later years failed to catch… anyone. Apparently I have everyone’s expectations. If I want my next prank book to attract attention, I’ll need to bind it in penguin hide.