Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Farewell to Feed140, now tend to your evergreens

Evergreen content is a boon for social media. If you write a blog post that is interesting or useful for your target audience in perpetuity (or at least for a good while) then it is sensible and reasonable to reuse that content. Like a plant that doesn't shed its leaves during winter (e.g. laurel, holly, most conifers), such content can be called evergreen. I have several writing and social media posts on this blog that have generated a lot of traffic over the last few years and, in the main, they're of the evergreen variety. So it makes sense to nudge a potential audience towards those posts with e.g. Twitter. One tweet a day helps point people in the right direction and, if the tweets are numerous enough and carefully worded, why not recycle them?
I have a list of around sixty tweets which I run sequentially out of my @Ruby_Barnes Twitter account. Or at least I did, until recently. I used an app called Feed140 which allowed me to upload a playlist of tweets and schedule them for release. I loved Feed140 for its simplicity but, alas, it is no more. Kudos to Doug Hudiberg for his work with Feed140. I'm sorry it didn't work out and I wish you all the best for the future. Now I'm going to have to delve into another app for scheduling my evergreen content tweets. I liked Feed140 so much as it was an app rather than a program. Now looking for a suitable replacement.

Friday, 1 June 2018

GDPR for Authors and Publishers - the Greatly Disproportionate Paranoid Reaction

So, it's 1st June 2018 and the sky hasn't fallen down. On 25th May 2018 the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force. If you haven't heard about it then lucky you. But you're probably in the same boat as I am. A subscriber to just about everything, my mailbox has been chock full of messages from all kinds of organisations requiring me to take action because of GDPR. Some require me to update my details on their list and give consent to continue receiving communications from them. Others just advise me that they have updated their privacy policy and given me a link to it or even included the long, long privacy policy in their message. Squirrel that I am, I file away all these missives under "GDPR". But not just for posterity. The content of these messages, combined with a large number of articles and podcasts on the subject, has been my reference library for how the real world has handled GDPR and allowed me to form my own opinion and strategy on the subject.

A quick word on all those GDPR mails that I received from publishers, authors, vendors, associations etc. I didn't get enough of them. I should have received something like 400 mails. Because that's how many unique logins and passwords I have saved in my browser privacy & security section. So 350+ individuals / organisations have failed to comply with GDPR, because I'm a European Union citizen and they hold my data. But I won't hold it against them. Let them sweat. I'm cool about it.

Now, the disclaimer. I'm not a GDPR expert and I'm not a lawyer, so what you decide to do for yourself is entirely up to you, no liability accepted by Ruby. But I have nearly half an idea what I'm talking about. As Compliance Manager (up until recently) for a national data operation, I've had the great pleasure of meeting with data protection officials and trudging through a data protection policy for the organisation. It's dry stuff and we drank a lot of tea. I knew GDPR was coming and I suppose it was and wasn't a surprise how things turned out. Some people panicked. Some people saw a chance to make money. But there are a lot of very useful resources online which will help those who need help. A real lot of resources. Free resources, you don't need to spend hundreds of notes on a "GDPR pack". So, do you need help? Should you have done something? Have you got your head in the sand?

If you are an independent author or a small publisher (there are of course other interested parties but those two categories are the ones I'm talking about here), then you probably handle customer data. I'm talking specifically about mail lists. If any of those customers reside in the European Union then you are affected by GDPR. If you / your publishing outfit is located in the European Union then you are affected by GDPR. If you have a non-EU location and you have no EU customers then you can stop reading and go pick up a free copy of Zombies v. Ninjas: Origin. (Read that and you will understand how we in the EU are feeling about GDPR.)

At the risk of repetition, let's make this simple:
  • if you're an independent author or a small publisher with a mail list which includes EU citizens, then you need to observe the GDPR; 
  • if you're an independent author or a small publisher based in the EU, then you need to observe the GDPR.
Continuing with the simple theme, you need to be able to demonstrate where you obtained the contact data from and what consent that individual gave for use of their data. You need to look at your mail list(s) and decide if you can demonstrate the provenance of the contacts and their data in that list. Should the GDPR police descend upon your darkened room (unlikely event but who knows. The Handmaid's Tale and all that...), will you be able to explain through the splutter of tear gas to the intruders just why you think you have the right to retain and use the data of individual humans?
  • If your contact has bought your product and joined your list then happy days. They have demonstrated their interest in your product by flashing their wallet and signed up to receive your newsletter etc. You should inform them of your privacy policy (you do have a privacy policy, right?) and the option to unsubscribe in all future communications.
  • If your contact hasn't (or you can be sure if they have) bought your product, but has joined your list ("enter your email here to join our list and receive..." etc) then also happy days. They have given consent to be mailed your newsletter etc. Again, you should inform them of your privacy policy (you do have a privacy policy, right?) and the option to unsubscribe in all future communications.
  • If you don't really know where you sourced the contact information, if you can't demonstrate that your sign-up form made it clear that they were giving consent to future communication, then you need to ask them to reconfirm their consent to future communication.
  • If you know that the contact information was manually uploaded by yourself or your organisation, and there is no real record of their consent to future communication, then you need to ask them toreconfirm their consent to future communication.
In my own case, I run four mail lists and can clearly demonstrate consent for three of them. The fourth was obtained as part of a joint initiative with other authors wherein readers expressed their interest and agreed to be added to the mail list of the author whose book they liked. But I can't say that the small print was adequate for GDPR. The open and click rate for that list is very low. So I've had to reconfirm consent with the readers on that list and yes, I've lost a fair chunk of it. But a good number have confirmed.

Now finally, to mention again your privacy policy. You do have a privacy policy, don't you? And it's clearly displayed on your blog / website? If GDPR affects you then you need a privacy policy. It doesn't have to be twenty pages long but it does need to be relevant. You can't just copy paste someone else's privacy policy, but you can use them to inform your own. Take a look at author and publisher websites and track down their privacy policies. Study the privacy policies in GDPR emails sent to you by organisations similar to yours. Then formulate your own and get it out there as soon as.

The GDPR police are probably not going to storm your building. They have bigger fish to fry. But better safe than sorry.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The United States of America as a Dictatorship?

Ruby reviews American Values by Jim Williams

American Values - an alternative history of the United States

Alternative histories are a tempting canvas for historical fiction writers. The “What if?” question might be, for example, a different outcome to a major battle or war, the survival of a key figure who died relatively young or the early demise of a stabilising character. Sometimes the novel places another perspective on a famous historical event that is shrouded in some mystery, offering an explanation where conspiracy theories hold sway. 

American Values by Jim Williams uses both of these devices and places the reader in a 1963 which has already seen three decades of Presidential rule by a charismatic individual who has turned democracy into a dictatorship, founded upon his nationalistic American Values policy. The figurehead, “Big A”, is a despicably familiar character who rose to power during a time of American crisis, survived attempts to depose him and built a formidable police state around his personality cult. But no one lives forever and the natural end of his reign is approaching. 

“Big A” is not, however, the main figure in American Values so much as a key component explaining the context of how America could have become an authoritarian country ravaged by decades of large-scale wars fought on foreign soils. The Old Man is expected to depart soon and the life or death race for succession is on. Harry Bennet, a foreign correspondent, is the main character in this historical thriller and we see through his eyes how thirty years of “Big A” has resulted in a society where no one trusts anyone, colleagues, friends and family are encouraged to denounce each other, and multiple security forces compete for primacy. (The characters fronting these forces will be familiar to the reader.)

Harry starts out with good intentions but becomes tangled in the General State Police web when he falls in love with Maria, whose racial ancestry might not stand up to American Values’ scrutiny. Harry’s first favour for the regime results in a bullet in the brain for a government operative and Harry is left holding the smoking gun. He and Maria go on the run and begin to discover too much about American Values.

Some might say that a country like the United States could never become an authoritarian society; that institutionalized racial persecution would not be tolerated by the free-thinking populace; that the USA would never send all of its young men abroad to defend and secure the nation’s interests and conquer the enemy. But the country has arguably never had a dominant charismatic leader in a time of crisis. Lenin and Stalin’s impact upon the USSR was profound and their legacy endured long after the characters departed. As for the key actor in 1930s Germany…what if? 

Jim Williams takes dark aspects of human nature from other parts of history and transplants them into the fertile soil of American Values. The result is a gripping and harrowing tale from which no one emerges covered in glory, but at least some survive.

American Values by Jim Williams is available on Amazon in paperback and ebook.

Friday, 19 January 2018

The Collector

We Brethren have an ancient accord with the bipeds. It's a symbiotic relationship and benefits both species. I like to compare it with the ants and aphids dynamic. The ants protect and the aphids feed them.

Historically, the Brethren had no need of the bipeds. We were perfectly capable of hunting our own food and we're natural predators, so we had no need of protection. But at some point, long ago forgotten, a pale, hairless species with only two legs bartered their food for the sharp teeth, tough claws, snapping jaws and swift legs of the Brethren, and we took the bipeds under our wing. That's a metaphorical wing, obviously.

In modern times, things have become very domesticated. The bipeds have developed their shelters and provide themselves with an endless variety of toys to while away their long hours of sedentary life. They've lost the hunting and foraging skills that first attracted the Brethren to the accord and they no longer take their food from the land. Instead, they mimic foraging in a controlled environment where the food and drink items are displayed (barely concealed) in a single structure. The feeble enthusiasm with which the younger bipeds greet the elders, when they return from fake-foraging, is a pale echo of the past.

However, bipeds still need our protection, and so the Brethren maintains the bargain. We keep them safe from predators (some of whom are bipeds) and provide them with continuous reassurance that the perimeter is secure. If a member of another biped pack attempts an incursion on our joint territory, then we repel them until our own bipeds show signs that they feel safe with the intruders. Bipeds are naturally nervous. Anything from a knock on the door, a bell ringing, the rattle of a fence panel or any unfamiliar noise will cause them to raise their heads from their toys and throw a worried glance at us. It's expected that we will launch a show of aggression against the threat and, to do so, we maintain constant vigilance. All this for two meals a day and a bowl of water. I sometimes wonder if the accord is stacked against the Brethren, but this is the accord and we keep it.

My particular pack of bipeds are typical of those in the area. Pale-skinned and virtually hairless, constantly chattering nonsense, teeth and claws that are useless for defending themselves. Slow, awkward and unbalanced, they are easy meat for any carnivore and so they travel around mostly within protective metal structures that can move faster than any biped.

I've been with this pack now for five sun circles. The behaviour of bipeds, from what I understand from my forefathers, has degenerated in recent generations. My biped pack leader, well I assume he's the alpha-male although the dynamic in the pack seems somewhat fluid at times, is particularly slow and stiff. He needs exercise at least once a day but is reluctant to venture out if the weather is bad. I can understand this to some extent - if my skin was bare to the elements, except for a grey fuzz around the snout, then would I be bothered with the ritual of cladding myself in layers of material just for twenty minutes of shuffling around the external environment? Probably not.

The lead biped - the other pack members call him Dad or sometimes Bark (they can't pronounce the B and it comes out sounding like Mmmark) - is easily led. Now and then he will stop during the walk to look at his toy or chatter to the ground, sky or another biped if they appear non-threatening. If the area is secure then I will let him disconnect and wander freely. I maintain a perimeter patrol while he ambles along and it's never difficult to find him as he always follows the same route. If he's in distress then he emits a weird, high-pitched sound which means he needs my protection. I'll come running to his aid, although if there's no visible threat then I might take my time about it.

The strange behaviour that has led me to assign a nick-name to my biped pack leader is his fascination with excrement. Bipeds are notoriously secretive with their own bodily waste and seem to store it under the dwelling, which is bad enough. Any sane living thing knows that the elements are the way to treat natural waste, but I have never seen an adult biped defecate in public. Dad or Bark has extended this strange obsession with my own doings and goes through a bizarre ritual whenever I perform my toilet during his walk. He huffs and puffs, rummages within the layers of material covering his pale and hairless body, and produces his right hand - always his right - covered in some thin and crinkly unnatural sheeting. Then he strides purposefully - the only time he moves in this way during the entire walk - to my delivery site and painfully bends his knees to examine my faeces. There are usually some mutterings which sometimes put a smile on his face, and then he scoops up my waste and twirls it around in the crinkly sheeting. About half way through the walk, he places the package in a green receptacle. From the smell in passing this receptacle, I can tell this is a communal collection. I once saw a man in a small vehicle empty the green receptacle, presumably to take the contents off to a larger collection point. I imagine that is a place of worship.

The Dad or Bark character now goes by the name of The Collector when I think of him or discuss him with other Brethren. On days that the weather is too bad for The Collector to venture out for his exercise, I naturally take care of my business on the patch of grass at the rear of the pack dwelling. This poses no problem that I know of, as the pack never uses that grass and nature's elements will dispose of things within a few spins of the planet. But no, The Collector doesn't want to miss an opportunity and every few days he will spend some quality time shuffling around the dwelling grass and collecting my deposits in a bucket. The Collector is very methodical in this, appearing to cover the area in quadrants, although he often misses something. I try to be creative in my locations, so as to make the experience more fulfilling for The Collector. When he thinks he has collected all, he ambles down to the end of the dwelling grass, where he has created a kind of shrine, and there he piles his collection. He mutters a few ritual sounds, grabs a handful of leaves or grass, sprinkles them on top and nods his head before returning to the safety of the dwelling. Then he resumes to play with his toys.

This is the modern biped world of fake-foraging and turd worship. I think it's just a passing phase. I hope so.

Alfie of the Brethren