Leanpub: write a ‘lean book’

Ever wanted to write a book?  Me too!

Leanpub lets you write a book, but with a twist.  They’ve built a system where you can write portions of a book, and easily publish to the major ebook formats (PDF, .mobi, epub).  You write the book with Markdown, and can include code samples, images, tables, and sections.  Nothing really new there, though.

The revolutionary idea of Leanpub, and the reason it is ‘lean’, is that you can build your book piece by piece, and sell it whenever you have ‘minimum viable content’.  (You can also include sample content to let people see what they are buying.)  Once someone purchases your book, they receive all further updates.  This type of interaction with users can be very helpful–it spurs you on to finish your book (after all, someone paid for it) and also lets you know if your book idea has traction in the marketplace (did anyone buy the book), and builds an audience for your book slowly over time (going to a publisher with a list of people who’ve already bought your book is a lot stronger than going there with a first draft).

After you finish your book, you can submit it to all the other epublishing vendors (Amazon, B&N, etc) or a print on demand store.  (They also have support for building a book directly out of a blog, if you have written anything that structured.)

I have built 4 books on Leanpub.  Using CakePHP to generate Markdown, I was able to combine some articles about CSA I had written with a directory of relevant farms.  You can see the Denver guide.  I found the process fun, if not lucrative.

This is a great concept.  It really makes you, the author, focus on two areas of publishing that technology can’t help with: writing and marketing.  The best book in the world won’t have any sales if people don’t find it, and the most promoted book won’t sell if you don’t write it.

I did see some minor issues around footnoting, and not everyone will enjoy writing in plain text and ‘compiling’ the book to PDF (a process that takes around 30 seconds each time you do it), but the platform seems to be evolving (one of the founders is pretty active in the support google group).  All in all I think Leanpub is worth a look, especially if you are writing a book where a chapter or two will save people time in their job.

If you want to know more about lean publishing ideas, check out the manifesto.


“Thinking in Systems” by Donella H. Meadows

I recently finished “Thinking in Systems” by Donella H. Meadows.  A primer on systems theory, this book is a very accessible introduction to these structures that influence so much of our ecology, economy and lives.

The book is only seven chapters and around 200 pages long, but covers a lot of ground.  First, she covers the basics of systems, including stocks (the thing that changes over time, like water in a bathtub or money in a bank account), flows (the movement of stocks, like a drain in a bathtub or wages deposited into a bank account) and various kinds of feedback loops (the things that act on a stock, like a thermostat monitoring bathtub temperature–a balancing loop, or interest in a bank account–a reinforcing loop).  Then she spends some time examining the some members of the systems ‘zoo’, by varying the type and number of stocks and feedback loops, and observing behaviors that arise.

She then dives a bit deeper into this behavior, and examines why systems are stable, and at the same time what kind of surprises arise from them.  She also looks at some of the archetypes of problematic systems, like the tragedy of the commons, escalation and addiction, and proposes some ways to avoid these archetypes or how to withdraw from them.  She starts off each archetype with an example drawn from the newspaper headlines when she was writing (in the 1990s).

The next chapter enumerates change points–where can you or I intervene to most effectively use our time to modify systesm we find abhorrent or unfair or wrong.  The author discusses twelve different areas to apply energy, ranging in effectiveness from changing numbers or parameters in the system, like the tax rates and the level of the minimum wage (minimal effectiveness), to transcending paradigms (maximal effectiveness).  She calls the list order “slithery” and acknowledges that this is a first draft and that points of leverage can increase or decrease in effectiveness depending on many factors.  But even having such a list is extremely useful as a starting point to think about change.

The last chapter is all about lessons from systems, of which my favorite is “Stay Humble–Stay a Learner” where she quotes a psychologist taking about the difficulty of becoming an error-embracer; we don’t just have to accept that we make mistakes, we have to admit them.

After a slow start, I really enjoyed this book.  The examples were accessible and grounded in the real world.  And she explained complicated ideas in ways that made me wonder why I hadn’t thought of it like that before–always the hallmark of a challenging and worthwhile book.  The author wrote “Limits To Growth” in the 1970s, so there are definitely progressive undertones throughout the book, but nothing over the top.

This book is a great way to get a gentle introduction into systems thinking, which is a fundamental way of understanding the world.  It’s not going to give you any easy answers, but will give you one more tool in your mental toolbox to understand the problems of the world.  I wish she had had a small section of exercises at the end, because they would have offered a deeper understanding of systems with some hands on work, but other than that, I have no quibbles.


Two books of interest to freelancers

I recently read two finance books that might be of interest to freelancers.

The first is The Money Book For Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed by Joseph D’Agnese and Denise Kiernan.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a finance book aimed directly at people with sporadic income.  This book is written in an easy going style, with examples drawn from the author’s lives, as well as those of their friends.

The major takeaway is that you should pay yourself first–when a check comes in, allocate a percentage for taxes, a percentage for retirement, and a percentage for an emergency fund.  Do that first, so you aren’t even tempted to spend it.  I do this because of my corporate structure and SIMPLE IRA, but if you’re a new freelancer, or someone who is a schedule C worker, then it’s great advice.

Then, after a while, when you’re comfortable with the system, you can start to save for other goals.  One of the strongest parts of the book was when they encouraged you to sit down and write out your particular financial goals.  It’s tough to do, because when you do so, then you’re confronted with the hard work of trying to achieve them, but it’s great advice.

While this book was full of tips for dealing with the income side, I felt like the outgo side was covered as well.  They had advice about breaking up your expenses into required (taxes, retirement, emergency), overhead (rent/mortgage, food, insurance), and variable (eating out, classes).  Once you know your overhead and required expenses, if you get a windfall (that big client finally paid!) you can siphon that off into a separate account and use that for future months of expenses.  The authors also did a good job talking nuts and bolts, going down to the details of what type of bank accounts you need.

They didn’t really cover some things that are on the periphery of financial concerns–corporate structure, handling employees and contractors and types of insurance, for instance.  But doing so would probably have distracted from the main point of the book, so I understand.

If you’re a freelancer, and this strategy doesn’t work for you, you probably want to check this book out.

I also read Are you a Stock or a Bond by Moshe A. Milevsky.  This book is a fascinating look at the best way for modern savers with 401(k)s and IRAs to replicate what the WWII generation had–a pension.

The hook of the book is that savers should consider their lifetime earning potential and job prospects when planning a retirement asset allocation strategy.  Those who are in a more stable job (the author uses himself as an example–a tenured professor) should consider their earnings more bond-like and thus invest more in stocks (to the point of borrowing to buy stocks).  Those in a more tenuous job (farmer? I don’t remember his example) should do the opposite.

The hook, while thought provoking, is not really the focus of the book.  In fact, I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t spend more time telling you how to determine if your income stream was more stock like or more bond like.  Instead, he charges off into what you should do with your accumulated savings when you retire.

The short answer–buy an annuity.  The reason for this is that the guaranteed income from an annuity is impossible to replicate from the same amount of capital invested individually.  Why?  Because an annuity spreads payments across a population in which some will die before others.  Annuities essentially transfer wealth from those who die early to those who die later.  This asset class reduces your greatest financial risk at retirement–running out of money.  Just like a pension.

Definitely a thought provoking book, and one that would be especially useful to people approaching retirement.


On writing a book

I saw this great post on the nuts and bolts of writing a book on the BJUG mailing list. Well worth a read.

I have sympathy in particular with his ‘writing schedule’ comment. I started to put together a book with some friends, and it was hard to keep things moving. We ended up not moving forward with the book and placing the content on a blog (which has proven hard to update as well). The book was about software contracting.

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Book Review: Google Maps API V2

Seven months ago, I wrote about Google Maps Gotchas. I mentioned Scott Davis’ Google Maps API Pragmatic Friday article, published by the Pragmatic Programmer folks. Well, a few things have happened since then. In April, Google released version two of their maps API (though they still haven’t set a date when version one will no longer be supported), Scott revised his article and I spent a tax deductible $8.50 to give it a read. What you’ll find below is my take on his article.

The good: first, the ordering was easy, and I received my custom PDF (complete with “Prepared Exclusively for Daniel Scott Moore” as a footer on every page) in less than 20 minutes. Scott explains in a very easy to understand fashion how to create a map. He also covers each of the API’s javascript objects and how to use them. In particular, I thought the list of events and objects that fire them (in the ‘Events’ chapter) was a good reference. Now, Google provides a class reference, but Scott’s are a bit easier to understand here’s a comparison, for the Gmarker class:

Google API:

A GMarker marks a position on the map. It implements the GOverlay interface andthus is added to the map using the GMap2.addOverlay() method.A marker object has a point, which is the geographical position where the marker is anchored on the map, and an icon. If the icon is not set in the constructor, the default icon G_DEFAULT_ICON is used.

After it is added to a map, the info window of that map can be opened through the marker. The marker object will fire mouse events and infowindow events.

Davis’ Book:

In the Core Objects section, we introduced the GLatLng. A GLatLng stores a Latitude / Longitude coordinate, but it doesn’t offer you a way to visualize it on a map. A GMarker is the way to add GLatLngs GMarker to the map for display purposes. The GMarker constructor takes a GLatLng as the only required argument.Once we have the marker, we need to tell the map to display it; map.addOverlay(myMarker) should do the trick. (Objects that you superimpose over the map are called Overlays.) You can remove the Overlays marker using map.removeOverlay(myMarker). To remove all overlays, use map.clearOverlays( ).

var myPoint = new GLatLng(38.898748, -77.037684);
var myMarker = new GMarker(myPoint);
map.addOverlay(myMarker);

Theoretically a map can support an unlimited number of markers, but anecdotal evidence suggests that performance starts to slow down significantly after a hundred or so markers. (File under, “Doc, it hurts when I do this.”)

I liked the real world examples–the fact that you could click through and see the code Scott was writing about in action on his website is a real plus. In addition, he builds a decently complex example in Chapter 7 where the user can add and delete cities. He also gives a good warning about examples that use Gmap, rather than Gmap2.

However, there were some issues. Scott’s coverage of the upgrade to version two of the API is, unfortunately, rather spotty. In his blog, the June release of that feature, and the April revision of the book). He also doesn’t cover GDownloadURL, a convenience method for XMLHttpRequest processing, or the GUnload methods. I’ll freely admit that the maps API is a moving target, and some of the omissions above may be due to that.

However, there are other problems. Though billed as a beginner book, he omits what I consider to be one of the fundamental challenges of Google Maps development–the performance obstacles large numbers of database driven markers (other than the comment mentioned above in the GMarker reference). In addition, he doesn’t cover design options, nor cross browser issues (like the transparent PNG in IE issue).

In the last chapter, he mentions good examples of mapping websites, but Scott omits references to useful websites–something that even dead tree books do. In particular, he doesn’t mention mapki.com (a wiki full of useful user provided data) nor the Google Maps group (which some users consider a primary differentiator between Google and Yahoo Maps).

One final gripe is that the 75 pages of content that I expected were really only 45–text only filled about 60% of the column width. I expect that in articles I read for free on the web, but in books that I pay for, I like a bit higher content to page ratio.

In short, this ebook is a good choice for the first time Google Maps builder. This is due to the tutorial nature of much of the book, the examples, and the explanation of typical good javascript code, such as using anonymous functions for the event handlers. It is not entirely adequate in covering version 2 of the API, possibly due to API changes, and it ignored some of the more complex aspects of the API.

If you’re looking for a folksy introduction to Google Maps api, it’s worth the $8.50 to have a coherent guide. If you’ve muddled through one google maps project, piecing together things from the API docs and various blogs, it becomes less worthwhile. But if you want some kind of discussion about complex Google Maps issues this document is not the right place to look.

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Book Review: Fallout

This graphic novel, subtitled “J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb”, is a good quick read. It’s hard for my generation, raised with the fall of the Soviet Union, to appreciate how stupendous the atomic bomb really was. But this book does a great job of making the history of that period accessible. The book is not that short–around 200 pages–but, due to its graphic nature, is very easy to read.

Fallout is really divided into two major sections. The first is concerned with the idea and creation of the atomic bomb, starting from Szilard’s ideas in the 1930s and ending with the Trinity test in 1945. The second is concerned with the inquiry into Oppenheimer’s advisory position to the Atomic Energy Commission, which occured in the political climate of the 1950s. Both these are worth reading, but the second one, which has much more text–portions of letters are printed along with the graphics–is a chilling reminder of the craziness of that time.

With 6 different authors listed on the cover (and more in the back pages), the illustrations change often enough that you do have to pay attention to know who is speaking. Additional difficulties arise because there are so many characters. I think the book would be stronger if one author had been responsible for all of the graphic content because the characters would be easier to keep track of.

One very nice aspect of this book is the end notes. At the back of the book, extensive text outlines what parts are true and what parts are surmise. As the front of the book saysm “many of the quotes and incidents that you’ll think most likely to be made up are the best documented facts.” For example, Teller, one of the scientists, denies his similarity to Dr Strangelove, and another, Szilard, devises his own cancer treatment using radiation.

All in all, if you’re in for a light introduction to the history of one of the heaviest subjects, Fallout is a good choice.

“Fallout” at Amazon.

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Book Review: What Just Happened

I recently read ‘What Just Happened’, by James Gleick. I’m a big fan of his–I read ‘Chaos’ years ago. This book covered the history of chaos theory; I was engrossed by the fluid writing and deft handling of such a tough subject.

‘What Just Happened’ is not such a book–rather than a coherent look at recent history, this book is a collection of stories spanning that time (from 1992 to 2001). From spam to bugs to online pornography to passwords to email forwards, Mr Gleick covers a number of issues that are still relevant for us today. I will say that the number of forwards I’ve gotten since I left college has fallen dramatically, but the amount of spam has not. The internet still ‘makes it all too easy to fling random illiterate drivel across the planet’.

There are also a number of neat historic references. There is a five page article about Y2K, written in Jan of 1999, where Mr Gleick was already saying that we had nothing to worry about come 1/1/2000. Another suggests ways to ‘make Microsoft for capitalism’, written just around the release of Windows 95. Remember when we thought we could count on the US government to deal with monopolists?

On a personal note, I have to link to Zia Consulting, because one of their principals was mentioned in this book; you could apparently page Bindu Wavell over the Internet in December 1995.

The format of this book makes it a nice bus read. None of the articles are longer than forty pages and many are a good deal shorter. Whether you nod your head in agreement with some of the issues covered that are still present, or are wistfully transported back to the days when you were still interested in checking the status of a Coke machine over the Internet, this book has its moments. If you enjoy pop tech at all, or if you’ve been caught up in the wave the Internet has created over the past 15 years, chances are you’ll enjoy this book.

“What Just Happened” at Amazon.



“The Enthusiastic Employee” Author Interview

Here’s a very interesting interview with one of the authors of “The Enthusiastic Employee”. Updated 12/2/2006: Apparently you now have to sign up to view the interview. Here’s a tidbit of the interview to let you know if you want to sign up for a free account:

Knowledge@Wharton: Your research shows most workers are happy at a new job for about six months before the honeymoon ends. What goes wrong?

Sirota: We are often asked how to motivate employees. Our response is, that’s a silly question. The real question is: ‘How do you keep management from destroying motivation?’ When we look at the data we find that people coming to a new job are quite enthusiastic. Most of them are very happy to be there and looking forward to meeting their new coworkers. But as you study the data you find morale, or enthusiasm, declines precipitously after five or six months. One theory is that there is a natural honeymoon that is bound to end. And yet we find that in 10% of companies the honeymoon continues throughout a worker’s entire career. So there are organizations that are able to maintain enthusiasm.

As a general proposition it is hard to be enthusiastic about an organization that is not enthusiastic about you. Let’s look at a few specific things. One is job security. We expect employees to be enthusiastic, loyal and engaged in an organization, but with the slightest downturn or prospective downturn we get rid of them. They are expendable. They are treated like paperclips. How can you be loyal and committed to an organization that seems to have absolutely no concern about your job?

“The Enthusiastic Employee” at Amazon.


Book Review: Saving Capitalism From the Capitalists

If you’ve seen ‘Meet the Fockers,’ you probably remember the scene where Greg’s parents have constructed a shrine to him, full of 8th place medals and the odd 10th place ribbon. Greg apparently didn’t do too well in competition, but his parents loved him anyway. Not everyone is so forgiving, and most people had competition. To rephrase that, most people hate losing at competition–winning is just fine, thank you very much. In a free market system as well, most firms and people don’t like competition–it forces firms to respond to customers and people to work harder. However, the overall benefits to society are larger in a system where everything is competitive.

Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists, by Rashuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales, examines competition from an academic perspective, choosing to focus on financial markets. As you’d expect from two economics professors, they argue that markets are the most powerful economic invention of all time, and the solution to many problems facing us today is to make them more prevalent. However, the central thesis of their book is that markets depend on governments for vital infrastructure (rule of law, contracts, etc) and thus depend on politics. Because of the nature of politics the interests of a focused few can outweigh the interests of a diffuse many. This means that government regulation of markets can be easily hijacked by those with disliking competition to smother it.

The authors examine many cases where this hijacking occurred, from developed and developing countries and many different time periods. They focus on finance because free flow of capital has a magnifying effect on competition since upstart produces of goods often need capital. The focus is on incumbent firms, who are usually the party with the will and ability to influence the government to put the needs of the few over the needs of the many.

Other issues they tackle include the emergence of financial markets, whether finance benefits the rich disproportinately, and how the free markets of the early 20th century were rolled back in the 1930s and what replaced them.

Well written, if dense, this book would have been average had the last chapter, which proposes solutions to the political vulnerabilty of markets, been omitted. However, with their proposed solutions, which build on the foundation that they laid out in previous chapters, I feel that this book is a useful read for anyone interested in knowing how the world works and might work better. In addition, I think it’s wise and brave of them to trumpet that current markets aren’t really free but instead are usually hijacked by powerful incumbent firms. This is something that you don’t hear economists acknowledge often enough.

“Saving Capitalism From the Capitalists” at Amazon.



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