Tales from the jar side: My book in Beta, Substack woes, and Charl

No technical content this time. But it does have Charl, so at least it has that going for it. Which is nice.

Welcome to Tales from the jar side, the Kousen IT newsletter, for the week of March 14 - 21, 2021. This week I taught a Spring and Spring Boot class on the O’Reilly Learning Platform, then taught a similar private class based on the same overall topic.

To start off, I want to mention a couple of personal items.

It’s Alive!

At long last, the beta version of Help Your Boss Help You is available!

I’ll be honest: I’m still not happy about the title, but the content is good. Eight of the planned ten chapters are available, and they’re mostly ready for prime time. The biggest change I’m planning (other than adding the last two chapters) is to eliminate the topic duplication in the text. While writing, if a topic occurred to me, I just wrote about it even if I’d covered it before, figuring it was relevant in that location so I might as well mention it. The book is too long for me to keep all the topics in my head, so I wasn’t sure exactly where each part was going to go and I couldn’t remember how many times I’d already said something. So in order to keep from breaking the flow, I just added it again.

(I hope you enjoyed that deep insight into the vagaries of the writing process, at least for me. Since this book is unlike the technical topics I normally write about, I don’t have a formal plan to follow. It’s all just “whatever feels right,” which is also a bit nerve-wracking, but I’ll stop now and keep the rest of my own insecurities to myself. You’re welcome. :)

Anyway, that’s why I’ll need to clean up the duplicates. So if you notice them, feel free to comment on them, but know that I’m (mostly) aware of them and will remove as many as I can in the next iteration.

If you scroll down on that page, you’ll see a link called “Errors, typos, and suggestions”, which takes you to this site at Devtalk. That’s where people can make comments or suggestions, or point out typos or other errata. There’s a single thread there at the moment, but I hope to post there on a somewhat irregular basis. I think that if you register there, you can get a 35% discount on the book, but I can no longer see that offer so I can’t confirm it.

In case it’s not there, or if you don’t want to register, you can use MANAGE15 at the regular Pragmatic Bookshelf site for a 15% discount. Enjoy. :)

Since I mentioned typos in that last paragraph, let me add a joke I found on Twitter:

I’ve been telling people a few different variations of that joke this week, but they’re all pretty similar. I didn’t used to care about so-called “dad jokes,” but now I really enjoy passing them along to my son and other young relatives. :)

Speaking of humor, when I announced the availability of my book, I got this reply:

To which I had to reply:

Ha ha indeed. TBH, there’s much less humor in the book than I intended, but that’s partly because the topics are rather serious and partly because the style guide doesn’t let me use footnotes for anything other than links, and I prefer to confine attempts at humor to footnotes if possible. When the text is finished, I’ll go through it again looking for places where I can squeeze in a few gags. We’ll see.

Believe it or not, I had another, different personal event happen this week, and while it won’t affect any of my readers in any significant way, I’m still reeling from it.

It’s Pronounced Kousen

I’m the first to admit that my last name is unusual, and even rather odd. When I explain it, I often refer to it as an Ellis Island job, meaning that it was changed when my paternal grandfather emigrated to this country. That, too, was supposedly quite a story, but I’ll save that for another time.

This week I spoke with a remote family member who approached me because of some complicated, borderline unethical behavior currently happening between some other remote family members I’ve never met. None of that surprised me — not that there are several family members I’ve never met, nor that one of them was involved in some potentially shady maneuvering. Family, you know?

The person I talked to had tracked down every living descendant of my grandfather’s family. My paternal grandfather, Phillip Kousen, had four siblings, and this person was contacting them all. As she started listing the names, she said my last name as though it was spelled “koozin.”

My wife and I, in unison, corrected her.

“It’s pronounced cousin,” we said, “like the relative.”

“Really? The rest of the family pronounces it koozin.”

What? No! That can’t be. I’ve been correcting people’s mispronunciation of my name my entire life. Further discussions revealed that apparently my grandfather picked one way to say my last name, and the rest of his siblings went the other way.

Unfortunately, there’s nobody left I can ask about this. Why pick one over the other? Were there arguments as a result? Who made the decisions? Everyone who could tell me the story is gone, and my father never talked about it. It’s possible he didn’t even know about it, but that’s hard for me to believe. The bottom line is that I have no idea why my grandfather went with one pronunciation and everybody else use the wrong one.

I’ve decided, however, that it’s too late to change now. After all, if I did, the company name Kousen IT wouldn’t make any sense. I mean, take a look at my company logo:

Recognize that figure? I asked the designer to add the glasses, the mortar board, and the smile. I was tempted to add a pocket protector, too, but he said it wouldn’t scan. Maybe I should have tried harder to persuade him.

I guess now, though, if the Addams Family people ever do come calling, I can say my name is completely unrelated to their character. I’ll let you know how that works out.

Substack Breaks Into The Mainstream

… but not the way they wanted to.

If you don’t have a newsletter hosted by Substack (like this one), you might have missed the controversy that broke out this week over the Substack Pro program. The program is discussed in the Substack blog here. I got an email about the blog post before I realized it was the company’s reaction to a real problem.

The basic issue is that Substack (the company) gives a handful of writers a lot of money for their first year, which acts like an advance in the publishing world. The author pays for the advance by giving up the vast majority of their income that year as they grow their subscription base, but after that they’re on their own (or rather, things go back to normal, which is that Substack takes 10% of revenue).

The trouble arose when a handful of Substack Pro writers banded together and publicly trashed trans people — the current popular choice of a vulnerable population that bullies like to harass — in their newsletters, which you can interpret as sponsored by Substack and therefore arguably policy. As some people have written, paying writers that way turns Substack from a hosting environment into a publication, with editorial policies and moderation responsibilities, so they are effectively responsible for that content, and the rest of us who work with Substack are indirectly supporting bad people doing bad things. For their part, Substack denied all responsibility, but refused to say who they were sponsoring. Nor were they willing to do any content moderation.

(If you’re looking for a good summary, Vox has one here.)

I’ve now read several articles / tweet streams / blog posts about the issue, and the situation is still evolving. Sure, Substack would like to act like they have no control over anything, so they can take their profits with no responsibilities. Some writers are going so far as to call the whole operation a scam, but I’m not sure I believe that. Some are saying that since the supported authors have huge followings, in effect they’re helping to fund the rest of us rather than the other way around. That, too, feels a bit too convenient a rationalization.

For the time being, I’ll go with this:

  1. I’m not one of those Substack Pro people, partly because I’m not nearly a big enough name and partly because this newsletter is free and always will be.

  2. I’m happy to support trans people. In fact, I help fund on Patreon three of them: Contrapoints (Natalie Wynn), Jessie Gender, and PhilosophyTube (Abi Thorne). More properly I should say I support three trans people that I know of — there may be more that are not out or not obvious to me, and that too is fine.

  3. I’ll be here for the time being, mostly because this newsletter is free and their editor gives me an easy way to add images, tweets, and YouTube videos.

  4. I’ll keep revisiting this as the situation changes.

I’m aware of the controversy. I’m sure the Substack people will do something about all the criticism they’re getting, just like every other tech startup does when they find out they might not actually be the good guys.

As they say, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. More to come as events warrant.

As an aside, I know this is a little thing, but in the introduction to my book I point out that I have adopted the singular they as they pronoun I use when referring to managers. That’s an attempt to avoid gendering anyone by default. It took me a little time to get used to it, but it truly is the least I can do.

Finally, Charl

Speaking of Patreon, another person I support there is a YouTuber named Patrick Willems. During the lockdown he created an imaginary character named Charl, who is basically a coconut with googly eyes.

Charl turned out to be staggeringly popular, and is now a running character in Willems’s videos. Not only that, but late last year Willems decided to offer a plush Charl in his merchandise store, and I couldn’t possibly resist something like that.

So here, fresh from yesterday’s mail and helping me with my morning coffee, is Charl:

You can’t tell from the picture, but he’s soft (not like a coconut at all) and he squeaks when you squeeze him. So, yeah.


You might have noticed there’s no technical content this week. I was going to add a few discussions about Spring-related topics, but the newsletter was already getting long and I don’t have anything terribly new or profound to say.

That won’t last, of course. I’m a developer, and therefore opinionated, but enjoy the break while it lasts.

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As a reminder, you can see all my upcoming training courses on the O’Reilly Learning Platform here and all the upcoming NFJS Virtual Workshops here.

Last week:

  • Spring and Spring Boot, on the O’Reilly Learning Platform

  • Spring, private class

  • Debut of the beta edition of Help Your Boss Help You

This week: