Tag Archives: pdf files

How to encrypt PDF files for free

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of encrypting documents before you send them via e-mail. But what if you don’t have a PDF creator, other than Microsoft Office or Open/Libre Office?

It turns out you can encrypt PDF documents, including those you create with office software, for free–with caveats.

Continue reading How to encrypt PDF files for free

Certifications are a scam! A rebuttal

I overheard a couple of people talking a few weeks ago, and one said, flat out, “Certifications are a scam!”

As one who has two security certifications (Security+ and CISSP), I disagree. Now that I’ve had my first post-CISSP professional review, I disagree even more strongly.

Continue reading Certifications are a scam! A rebuttal

End of the innocence for Mac security

Antivirus vendor Kapersky has identified a new trojan horse targetting Macintoshes.  It spreads a botnet based somewhere in China via an infected Microsoft Word document, typically sent as an e-mail attachment.

The spin is that if you don’t use Word on your Mac, you’re safe. That’s true–this week. But going forward, it’s going to take more than that. Continue reading End of the innocence for Mac security

There’s a 61% chance the Adobe software you run at work is out of date

I read this week that 61% of Adobe Reader installations in workplaces is out of date.

That’s very bad. Very, very bad. Because Adobe Reader is trivially easy to exploit, and there’s more sensitive information to steal on corporate PCs than there is on home PCs.

Continue reading There’s a 61% chance the Adobe software you run at work is out of date

Pipe output straight to the clipboard in Vista and Windows 7

Besides all the changes to the GUI that happened post-Windows XP, they also made one useful change to the command prompt. It’s now possible to copy the output of a command to the clipboard.

If you’re like me and write a lot of documentation, or you just take a lot of notes while doing computer maintenance, it’s a big boon.

Continue reading Pipe output straight to the clipboard in Vista and Windows 7

Happy Patch Tuesday, September 2011

Microsoft has five updates and Adobe has two for us on this fine Patch Tuesday, in addition to a patch Mozilla pushed out for Firefox last week.

Don’t get too complacent if you run something other than Windows. If you run Microsoft Office on a Mac, or Adobe Reader or Acrobat on a Mac, or Adobe Reader on Unix or Linux, you’re vulnerable. The vulnerabilities in those affected products are more serious than the vulnerabilities for Windows. So keep that in mind. Don’t be smug about security. It’ll bite you.

Continue reading Happy Patch Tuesday, September 2011

How to view questionable PDFs safely

I said Tuesday that it’s a bad idea to download and view PDF (Adobe Acrobat/Adobe Reader) documents from questionable sources, but I didn’t really elaborate on why.

The reason is that pretty much anybody with a little bit of determination and the ability to follow a recipe can plant a trap in a PDF file and use it to gain access to your computer. Adobe Reader is extremely prone to these kinds of attacks, and don’t think you’re safe if you don’t run Windows. There are toolkits that will inject traps that work on Macintoshes and Linux too.

Yes, your antivirus software should catch it. But most antivirus software doesn’t dig deeply enough into PDF files to find it.

Scared yet? You should be. You do have some options.
Continue reading How to view questionable PDFs safely

Fide et fortitudine

Fide et fortitudine. That’s the motto on my family crest. It seems appropriate. If I didn’t have fidelity and fortitude, I wouldn’t be making this post, because I wouldn’t care. I’d talk about how to use Samba and Ghostscript and your favorite free Unix to set up a print server that spits out Acrobat-compatible PDF files or something.
I guess it’s an indication of how my readership has changed over the past year that I only got one e-mail message like this. A year ago I wouldn’t have dared write on the subject I wrote about Friday, for fear of alienating readership. Well, I alienated them anyway, somehow, some way, and in the process picked up a bunch more, so who cares, right?

I’ve had three days (or is it four?) to formulate a careful response. I didn’t take that much time. That says something. Obviously I’m still OK with what I wrote.

Anyway… I never know how to present reader mail, which is why I prefer people use the comments system here–I’ll call attention to the comments when there’s something good there. Speaking of which, be sure to check out yesterday’s comments. There’s some good stuff there, and I managed to change the subject just slightly by telling a story of how I gained some popularity for my writings in high school.

Back to the subject at hand. I guess I’ll turn this into a dialogue, even though it wasn’t a dialogue. Daynoter Matt Beland took issue with Friday’s post. So he wrote me.

MB: Hi Dave,

Like you, I get asked about religion a lot, mostly by family members. They don’t seem to understand how I can work in “that industry” where so many of the workers are not Christian (or an acceptable variation, such as Muslim or Jewish.) I personally am not particularly religious, of any flavor, despite having been raised Roman Catholic. I do, however, have a number of friends who are religious of all types, and I have to say you’re being extremely unfair in your comparisons. I mean no criticism of Christianity or you personally, but it’s not a good idea to be critical of other religions without more information.

DF: Now you’re painting with awfully broad strokes to call Islam or Judaism an “acceptable variation” of Christianity. Neither of them would appreciate that label. I’m sure you already know this, but for the benefit of those who may not, here goes.

Christianity is derived from Judaism (Jesus was, after all, a Jewish rabbi). Islam is the newest of the three but it, like Judaism, traces its origin back to the patriarch Abraham. Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Isaac gave rise to Israel and Judaism; Ishmael gave rise to the Arabic nations and ultimately to Islam. Yes, the figure that Christianity calls “God the Father” is Judaism’s Yahweh and Islam’s Allah. Islam regards Jesus Christ as a prophet, but not the Great Prophet (that title belongs to Muhammed), while Judaism regards Jesus as little more than another heretic.

But your point wasn’t to write a broad explanation of Judaism/Islam/Christianity, just as mine wasn’t to write a broad explanation of pagan religions and the occult.

MB: The first thing I usually show those members of my family who ask is from the Jargon File, if you’ve not seen it before. In Appendix B, “A Portrait of J. Random Hacker”, there’s a section on religion. This is what it says:


Agnostic. Atheist. Non-observant Jewish. Neo-pagan. Very commonly, three or more of these are combined in the same person. Conventional faith-holding Christianity is rare though not unknown.

Even hackers who identify with a religious affiliation tend to be relaxed about it, hostile to organized religion in general and all forms of religious bigotry in particular. Many enjoy `parody’ religions such as Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius.

Also, many hackers are influenced to varying degrees by Zen Buddhism or (less commonly) Taoism, and blend them easily with their `native’ religions.

DF: Eastern religions blend nicely with one another and with Middle Eastern and Western religions, almost by design. There are neo-Christian sects (such as the Moonies and Hare Krishna) that do the same thing and have been doing so for longer than computers have been available to the masses.

MB: There is a definite strain of mystical, almost Gnostic sensibility that shows up even among those hackers not actively involved with neo-paganism, Discordianism, or Zen. Hacker folklore that pays homage to `wizards’ and speaks of incantations and demons has too much psychological truthfulness about it to be entirely a joke.”

DF: Indeed. And some Christians do take offense, rightly or wrongly. I know of Christians who pick Linux over one of the BSD Unixes strictly because of the Chuck the Daemon mascot, even though FreeBSD is the demonstrably superior OS under many circumstances. Personally, I could live without the pentagram on the Sorcerer Linux logo, but I don’t throw a fit about it because Gentoo Linux is a lot better anyway.

With computers, people can, and do, try anything. I have seen people resort to witchcraft to get things working. And in one case I’ve seen it work.

People will also tend to explain away something that’s hard to understand by drawing parallels to something else that’s hard to understand.

MB: First, let’s look at this part: (quoting Friday’s piece).

> Someone sent me a nice explanation for it. It’s a little longwinded, so
>I’ll summarize and paraphrase. It said we’ve been telling God we don’t want
>Him. And God’s a perfect gentleman, so when He’s told He’s not wanted, He
>butts out. We’ve told God we don’t want Him in our schools. We’ve told Him
>we don’t want Him in our courts. We don’t want Him in our government. We
>don’t want Him in our business. We don’t want Him in our streets. We don’t
>want Him on our televisions and movie screens. And each time we’ve told Him
>to get lost, he’s sorrowfully complied.

No, we don’t want your God in our schools. We don’t want Him in our movies, books, newspapers, streets, or most especially our government. That’s not because we’re all evil, it’s not because we don’t have faith, and it’s not because we don’t necessarily believe. It’s because we don’t all believe in the same things. No matter who you choose to represent as “God” in schools, in government, in any public forum, you’ll be leaving someone out.

I’ve fought hard to keep “God” out of schools. I’ve not fought to prevent schools from holding non-lead “Periods of Reflection” where students may pray or meditate as they like. What’s the difference? The students have the choice. If you as a parent have raised your child to be a true Christian, then they will probably pray and make you proud. However, the child in the next row who’s Buddist or neo-pagan should have the right to make *their* parents proud, too. No one has asked you to keep God out of your life, or your home, or your family. We encourage that. But your God is your choice. My God is not your choice. It’s very easy for the christians to say “but we just want everyone to share in the glory of our God” – the problem is, the rest of the world remembers that christians have not always offered others a choice. And the current refrain of “you’ve pushed God from our lives” sounds remarkably the same – you don’t want to offer others a choice.

DF: We’ve gone to the extreme of teaching relative morality where there no longer is any right and wrong, only what works for you. The end result? A couple dozen evil men hijacked planes and crashed them into buildings (or tried) because it worked for them and they could use a twisted form of Islam to justify it. So now we’re finally starting to think about right and wrong.

Should we teach Christianity in the schools? Not necessarily. Should a Christian group be allowed to assemble just like a model train club could? Absolutely. Unfortunately that hasn’t always been permitted, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly be damned.

I never said no one else should have a choice. I talked about my personal choice and gave my justification for it. And yes, it bothers me that some of the 17-year-olds I know who would like to start up a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter in their school cannot, on grounds of Church and State.

And I disagree that we can’t teach morality. You can boil the world religions down to a set of moral principles that won’t offend anyone, except possibly those who refuse to keep them. Then again, Benjamin Franklin wanted them taught, even though he wasn’t willing to keep them in their entirety.

I would also think that if you don’t want God in the movies or on TV, if you have no problems with Harry Potter, then you’re practicing a double standard.

MB: Love your God. Rejoice in your God. But love your neighbor, as well, and allow them to worship the God of their choice.

DF: Again: I never said no one else should have a choice. I talked about my personal choice and gave my justification for it. And you seem to have missed the biggest point: Anyone who follows Christianity ends up inadvertently fulfilling the requirements, as far as is humanly possible, of any other religion. And, unlike any other interpretation of God, this one doesn’t leave you to your own devices to fulfill what’s required of you. So tell me who has the kinder God? But He doesn’t force Himself on anyone, and neither do I believe in forcing Him on anyone. Indeed, you can trace many of Christianity’s problems to it (or a different form of it) being forced on people who don’t want it (or who wanted a different form).

MB: Next: (again, quoting Friday)
>And I believe in the Holy Spirit. I can’t explain the Holy Spirit. But I’ve
>seen His work, I’ve felt His presence, and yeah, it’s weird. But powerful. I
>know some of the appeal of Satanism and of pagan religions like Wicca–most
>of the appeal–is power. They don’t compare to Holy Spirit power. And
>personally, I’d much rather go to a God who’s willing to look bad by saying
>no when He knows what I’m asking for is bad for me or someone else, rather
>than going to a god who’ll give me whatever I ask for to ensure I come back
>for more. God’s a whole lot smarter than me, and has a much better
>perspective than me. I’m better off when I defer to Him.

No. None of this is correct. It’s what most Christians belive, but unfortunately that doesn’t make it true. Many of my friends and coworkers are neo-pagan, Satanist, and so on. “Neo-pagan” is a very broad term, including Wicca, Druidism, Animism, Witchcraft (which is NOT Wicca), and other variations. I personally know members of each of the above religions, and my own curiosity has lead me to investigate all of those and many others as well. Please note that Satanism is not considered a Pagan religion, either by the pagans or by the satanists.

DF: I didn’t state that paganism and Satanism were related, other than that they have similar appeal. That’s what the extra “and of” is there for. Had I said, “appeal of pagan religions like Wicca and Satanism,” then you’d have a case. That doesn’t mean the same thing as “appeal of Satanism and of pagan religions like Wicca.”

MB: Let’s tackle the hardest one first. Satanism. Please note that Satanism is not considered a Pagan religion, either by the pagans or by the satanists. Christians have absolutely no doubt about this one – they’re evil. Worshipping Satan!

The first thing the followers of this religion will explain is that it’s simply not true. Christians believe in Satan, the fallen angel who defied God. They are not Christian, they do not believe in hell or heaven, and they do not worship the christian Satan – despite movies and what they consider christian propaganda to the contrary.

Here are some basic facts:
* They do not worship a living deity.
* Major emphasis is placed on the power and authority of the individual
Satanist, rather than on a god or goddess.
* They believe that “no redeemer liveth” – that each person is their own
redeemer, fully responsible for the direction of their own life.
* “Satanism respects and exalts life. Children and animals are the purest
expressions of that life force, and as such are held sacred and precious…”

The founder of the Church of Satan is a very controversial figure; his primary motivation appeared to be financial, and as such many followers of the church and of the religion do not regard him to be a true Satanist. They use the church, however, since it provides a legal framework and foundation for their beliefs and legal (if not social) protection from persecution.

DF: There are at least two forms of Satanism. The Satanism of Anton LaVey (The Church of Satan) has more to do with hedonism than the Biblical figure of Satan. That’s the Satanism you describe, and the Satanism that is best-known. Supposedly LaVey once stated he wrote the Satanic Bible as a joke but it caught on. I don’t know if that was ever verified, and I remember he died back in 1997 or 1998 so he’s not around to answer any questions anymore. I am aware that they state their Satan isn’t the same as the Judeo-Christian Satan.

There’s also another, darker religion that calls itself Satanism. Most people think it only exists in the movies, but in the small town in Southeastern Missouri I lived in for five years, they wish the Satanists practiced LaVey’s religion. These people don’t hold life in particularly high regard, either animals or humans. They drink blood, systematically break the Biblical Ten Commandments, and practice sacrifice. Sometimes they attempt human sacrifice. This dates back almost 15 years, but a Satanic group in that town had a hit list and at least two of my former classmates were on it. One of them opened her locker one day and found a cat skull in it along with a note that stated, simply, “You’re next.”

This was not Christian propaganda. I knew these girls. I went to school with them and to church with them. To my knowledge it was never publicized aside from their families asking people they knew to pray for them.

Maybe there are similar stories in Christian propaganda. I don’t go looking for that kind of stuff so I don’t know. Most of the Christians I know, sadly, are too busy beating each other up to pay attention to that sort of thing.

If Anton LaVey didn’t want to be associated with this subculture, he should have called his movement something else. If today’s Church of Satan doesn’t want to be associated with this subculture, it can always do what the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints did in order to differentiate itself from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka the Mormons): Change its name.

LaVey also didn’t do anyone any favors by portraying the Christian Satan in movies, but that just adds fuel to the argument that his motivation was money, or a joke, or both.

MB: The most common Pagan religion today is Witchcraft, including the subset of Wicca. I know many witches, including some who identify themselves as Wiccans. They do not ride brooms, they do not wear black (other than as a fashion choice – most actually wear Earth-toned clothing, brown, grey, green, etc.) They don’t fly, light candles with their breath, or anything else you may have seen in the movies.

They do, however, believe in limits.

DF: I’ve known a number of wiccans, and at times considered them friends. I even built a computer for one a few years ago. We’ve lost contact but I don’t hold anything against them. They dressed more or less like I do, hung out at a lot of the same places I did, could only fly in an airplane, and at least one of them didn’t even own a broom.

MB: (Again, quoting Friday):
>personally, I’d much rather go to a God who’s willing to look bad by saying
>no when He knows what I’m asking for is bad for me or someone else, rather
>than going to a god who’ll give me whatever I ask for to ensure I come back
>for more.

Um. No. The first rule (as was explained to me by the first witch friend I aquired when I expressed interest in the matter) is the Threefold Law:

“Ever mind the Rule of Three
Three times what thou givest returns to thee
This lesson well, thou must learn
Thee only gets what thou dost earn!”

This is interpreted that any spell, any action of any kind, which affects anyone, will return to you three times. This eliminates any possibility of “black magic”, because the results of the spell will supposedly return to you with three times the power of the original spell. It’s also the belief that any spell you cast with positive effects for others will be returned threefold – so it’s better to give, for by giving, you will receive.

Also, spells and requests do *not* always work. You only receive what you request from a Deity (usually “the Goddess”, but there are others) if it meets the following basic conditions:

1. It is truly your heart’s desire, rather than a simple “I want this” – you
have to want it badly enough to accept the cost, because everything has a
2. It has to be something which is beneficial to you and to those around you.
3. The second law – “And it harm none, do what ye will”. It cannot be
something which would harm anyone or anything.

True, Witchcraft (and pagan religions in general, so far as I’ve seen) place more of an onus on the practitioner for their decisions and for life in general. No pagan would ever say “How could God/Goddess/the Gods allow this to happen”, because they don’t believe it works that way. The works of Man are the works of Man, for good or for ill, and preventing evil from the works of Man is also the responsibility of Man. They believe that there is no deity who will make things right – they believe that is their job as human beings. I recently gave one of my team members permission to take a day off so she could attend a Coven meeting to try to repair some of the spiritual damage done by the September 11 attacks. A prayer meeting, if you will, except that instead of asking God to help those who need it, they believe that a part of themselves goes out to all those who need it – and that if enough of them give enough of themselves, they can repair the damage to people’s hearts as much as is good or possible. (I didn’t understand that at first. She explained that they do not want to take away the pain entirely – it should hurt when you lose a loved one, because you’ve truly lost something. If it didn’t hurt, if there was no pain, then there would be no appreciation of the loss. However, they do believe it is also the responsibility of the loved ones who remain to help soften the blow as much as possible.)

Is the appeal power? I don’t know about that. It seems to me, from what I’ve seen and what I’ve read, that the power they believe themselves to have is balanced and more by the responsibility they’re given. They can’t just DO things. They have to accept costs. They have to accept pain. They have to accept that they are responsible for their own actions, and they have a near-contempt for the christian practice of Reconciliation. It’s not any God’s place, they say, to forgive them for their since. Only the people or things they’ve sinned against can do that, and it requires more than a prayer or two – you have to earn it.

DF: What you just described is power. And the forgiveness you just described isn’t much different from Judeo-Christian forgiveness. Unfortunately most Christians don’t celebrate Yom Kippur anymore, but human-to-human reconciliation is what Yom Kippur (Judaism’s Day of Atonement) is all about. Jesus Himself once said that if you’re in the temple offering a sacrifice and you realize your brother (and “your brother” means anyone and everyone) has something against you, leave your sacrifice there and go reconcile with your brother. Reconciliation is more important to God than worship! That’s something not many people seem to know. Merely asking God for forgiveness is only half of it. Some would argue that asking God without asking the other person isn’t true repentance–true repentance is turning from the sin, hating it, and wanting to make it right. Often we only go two for three on that front.

But that does bring up the other big attraction to either Satanism (especially LaVey’s Satanism) and paganism, and one they share with atheism and agnosticism: lack of a central moral authority. You’re accountable to yourself, and to the people you want to be close to, but that’s it.

I also remember reading in a philosophy class an essay titled, “Why Women Need The Goddess.” It was written by a feminist who argued that no woman should practice any religion that used male pronouns in conjunction with a deity. So maybe there are people who worship “The Goddess,” for purely feminist reasons, but there again, the motivation is partly power, although in this case it would be political power more than spiritual power.

MB: There’s more, there’s a lot more. Most christians don’t bother to look. For all the preaching about God’s love and preventing evil in the world, the most common trait I see among christians (unfortunately) is intolerance, followed closely by hatred and fear. That team member who wanted to attend a coven? She was afraid to approach me because she didn’t know if I was christian or not. She was afraid that if I was, I might do something – fire her, maybe, or just make life so hellish she had no choice but to quit.

DF: A lot of Christians don’t bother to look at their own religion, but Christians don’t have a monopoly on that. Any religion that isn’t being persecuted has plenty of complacent practitioners. Persecution tends to weed those out, which is why persecution tends to make a religion grow, rather than stomping it out. If you want to destroy a religion, subsidize it. It worked splendidly in Europe. First it twisted Christianity beyond recognition, leading to atrocities like the Crusades, then it eventually reduced it to a government-subsidized subculture. Today there are more Christians in Africa than there are in Europe.

You also see plenty of hatred, intolerance, and fear in many Muslim sects. You see it in Orthodox Judaism as well. If the tables were turned, you’d see it in the pagan religions too. It’s called human nature.

Am I being intolerant here? Some might see it that way. But I didn’t set out to tell people why they should be what I am. I set out to tell people why I am what I am. If they want what I’ve got, great, I’ll answer any question, any time of the day. If they want to leave it, that’s their choice.

MB: At first, I thought she was being paranoid. The only reason she felt comfortable talking to me about it was that I commented on a piece of jewelry she wore which signified witchcraft, and I did so favorably and in a way which showed I knew what it meant. Then I noticed a few things:

“I don’t think witchcraft is a religion. I would hope the military officials would take a second look at the decision they made.” Who said that? Gearge W. Bush, while still Governor of Texas, in regards to a decision by the military to allow soldiers to practice Witchcraft as their religion.

The second was a quote on the http://www.religioustolerance.org/ website. They’re a Canadian group who have essays and information on every religion, lined up equally. They’re no more critical of christianity than they are of any other. Apparently, this makes them unpopular with christians for some

DF: Insecure people in any group tend to lash out when they feel attacked, whether the attack is justified or not. Christianity as it’s been practiced through the centuries has problems, yes. It always did. The bulk of the New Testament is St. Paul’s criticisms of Christianity as the churches of his day, many of which he founded himself, practiced it. Even when Jesus was alive there were problems. He had a lot of harsh words for the Scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, but He had plenty of harsh words for His own disciples too.

Don’t project the ravings of a vocal minority on the entire group.

MB: “Neopagan faiths are modern-day reconstructions of ancient Pagan religions from various countries and eras. They experience a high level of discrimination and persecution in North America. They are rarely practiced in public for reasons of safety.”

Who’s doing the persecuting? Simple statistics says it’s not other pagans –

“About Christian Faith Groups We treat Christianity in greater detail than other religions, simply because about 88% of North Americans identify themselves with that religion. Christians outnumber the next largest organized religions by about 40 to 1 in the U.S. and Canada. We are not in any way implying that Christianity is superior or inferior to other religions.”

Please. Worship whomever you like. Write about whatever you like. But label fiction as fiction, or else write the truth when you talk about religion.

DF: Disagreement with or misinterpretation of something doesn’t make it fiction. As far as I can tell, you objected to my statement that paganism’s appeal is power (then you went on to describe power as I definie it), and you misread a clause so you thought that I was calling Satanism a pagan religion, which I was not. I glossed over a few things that you would have preferred I talk about in more detail. Neither does that make it fiction, or false.

Or maybe you just misread my intentions. Hopefully this explanation clears that up.

I can’t tell if you want me to come out and say that any other religion is OK to practice. I won’t come out and say that–that would make me a Unitarian Universalist, which I am not. I won’t try to stop anyone from practicing something else. That’s all I ask of anyone else, and that’s all the Constitution asks, so that’s all I’m going to give or ask for.

Memoirs of writing a book

Book memoirs. I got e-mail yesterday asking me to reflect back on dealing with a publisher while writing a book. I’ll never talk publicly about specifics, and I’m not even positive how much I’ve told my closest friends, for that matter. But it got me thinking.
And, as it turns out, it was two years ago this month that I sent my manuscript off to O’Reilly, and it was in late October that I got a set of PDF files to read and correct. In hindsight, I should have asked for a hardcopy, because I would have found more mistakes. But in hindsight, I’d do a lot of things differently.

First, I’d ask for more money. That’s not as much about greed as it is about raising the stakes. Supposedly, my advance on my first book was on the high side for first books in the computer field. Whether that’s true or whether that was my agent trying to stroke my ego after the fact, I’m not sure. Fact is, I took their first offer, and I’m pretty sure I took it the same day. Big mistake. I was staying up nights wondering if O’Reilly was interested in me. Nothing a first-time author can do will make an editor do the same thing, but the author needs to give the publisher a little time to wonder. I’m sure if I’d been sitting at my desk when the offer came in, I’d have responded immediately.

Don’t do that. Sleep on it. Then, I’m inclined to suggest you should make a counter-offer. What are they going to do, withdraw the offer if they don’t like your counter-offer? Get real. If they offer you an $8,000 advance and you demand $120,000, they’ll be insulted, yes. They’ll probably tell you you’re being unrealistic. Me, I hate haggling as much as I hate schmoozing, so I can’t give you any meaningful advice on how to dicker. It’s like asking a girl out. You go with your instincts and hope you don’t send off unwelcome I-want-you-to-have-my-children signals. Just as I wouldn’t trust anyone who claimed to have a sure-fire way of asking girls out, I wouldn’t trust anyone who claimed to have bulletproof negotiating technique.

I wondered if any publisher would be interested in me, and that was why I bit so quickly. Once again, a dating analogy helps. If one girl seems semi-interested in you, chances are there’s another girl somewhere who’d be semi-interested in you. Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but having O’Reilly interested in me was like having a Prom Queen candidate come sit down at my lunch table. Any overconfident and annoying stud knows when that happens, he’s got a chance with any unattached pretty girl in the room. And there are a lot of pretty girls who were never a candidate for Prom Queen. Likewise, there are a lot of good publishers who aren’t O’Reilly.

I found that out after publishing the first book. Macmillan wouldn’t give me the time of day before then. They were an early candidate for my second. IDG wanted to do my third book, but they wanted it to be a Dummies book and I wanted it to be a standalone, so that one never got beyond proposal stage. No Starch and Sybex also expressed interest in my work at one time or another. That experience made me realize that I didn’t have to marry O’Reilly. Just one date was enough to bring plenty of other suitors.

The issue of representation comes up. I had authors tell me I was a fool for writing my first book without an agent. That makes sense. An agent is better-equipped to play hardball than you are. He knows what his other clients get. He knows what else the publisher is working on. He knows what the publisher’s competition is working on. He’s emotionally detached from the work, so he can afford to make an editor sweat a little. And he knows what risks are worth taking and what he has to do beforehand. (I just realized I implied there are no female literary agents. There are. Every agent I’ve worked with happens to be male.)

But there’s something to remember about agents. Your agent doesn’t just work for you. Your agent has to maintain a good working relationship with every publisher in the business in order to stay in business. So when things get really ugly, your agent might not stand beside you the way you’d like. And no, I’d really rather not elaborate on that, other than to say I worked with an agency, but recently I’ve negotiated all of my magazine contracts myself, sealed deals my agent never would have, and I feel like I got a fair deal on them considering the amount of work required on my part.

I guess the other mistake I made was not talking about the book enough. Sure, all my friends knew about it. Pastor announced it in front of the congregation a couple of times (and he still introduces me as “Author Dave Farquhar” sometimes but not as often now that there’s another author in our congregation who’s published a lot more books than I have), so it seemed like the whole church knew about it. That was the problem. Everyone knew what I thought of the book and its prospects, except my publisher. Yeah, my editor and I talked about the prospective market, and we argued about the title. I backed down way too quickly–I still hate that title, and it takes an awful lot for me to hate something enough to put it in blinky text. Sorry Netscape users.

My editor and I should have talked a lot more about it. We talked some during the negotiating period. We talked briefly about the title once the ink was dry on the contract. I wrongly spent the majority of my non-asleep time just working on it. The result was a critically acclaimed book that sold about as many copies as it would have if I’d hawked it myself on a streetcorner. I should have sat down for three hours, written down every possible title that came to mind, and e-mailed it to my editor. I should have had the courage to suggest that hey, I know it’s not The O’Reilly Way, but this book is targetting consumers, not sysadmins, so why not do a more consumer-oriented cover? Sure, sysadmins will buy it based on the publisher, but there are a lot of consumers out there, and they don’t know Tim O’Reilly from Adam Osborne (sorry, that was bad).

A guy who’ll post every bizarre idea that’s ever crept into his head on his web site should have been willing to send a few bizarre ideas to Cambridge and Sebastopol and be shot down. The idea isn’t so much to get your way as it is to make everyone else think. There’s a fine line between insanity and genius, and it doesn’t matter much which side of the line you’re on, as long as someone involved in the project ends up on the right side.

So yeah. I should have been talking to my editor about the book. I should have found out who the marketing director was and talked to him or her once or twice a month, so that each of us knew what the other was thinking. I still don’t know who the marketing director for Optimizing Windows was. I never did.

Once the thing was on the shelves, I made another mistake. One of the marketing gals got me a gig on a talk radio show. I don’t remember which one anymore. The host flaked out–dropped off the face of the earth the week before my scheduled appearance. He wouldn’t return my calls or hers. As soon as the possibility of being on the show arose, I should have asked for a phone number. That’s fine if she wants to make the arrangements, but I should have talked to the guy–or at least someone with the show–at least once. That way he knows I’m serious, and he’d better be serious.

A little while later, ZDTV’s The Screen Savers came calling. They wanted me to appear, but they wanted me to pay all my own expenses. Well, flying to San Francisco from St. Louis on short notice isn’t cheap. Neither are the other accomodations. I asked her if the appearance would sell enough books to justify the expenses. She talked it over with the rest of her cohorts and said it’d be a ton of fun and I’d get to meet a bunch of interesting people and my Web site counter would go ballistic, but I’d be lucky to sell a couple hundred books based on the appearance.

I turned them down, and rightly so. They had nothing to lose if they bumped me, and then I’d be out the money and everything else. But in retrospect, once again, I should have talked to someone at ZDTV. That way, we’d have at least gotten a feel for how serious the other was.

It seems to me that authors who sell lots of books spend an awful lot more time on the phone than I did. I assumed that if I put my time and effort into making a quality product, it’d sell itself. I underestimated how many titles it was competing with. There are plenty of mediocre (or worse) books that outsold mine, and by a landslide. And it’s pretty obvious why. Their authors were more serious about selling books than I was.

I guess there’s one other question worth answering. What publishers should you work with? I’m hesitant about big publishers. They tend to pay less, and they market whatever they feel like marketing. For every Dan Gookin (DOS for Dummies) and Andy Rathbone (Windows for Dummies), there are plenty of authors who sold fewer books than I did. The stakes aren’t high enough. When you publish hundreds of books a year, only a few of them can be bestsellers, and the potential blockbusters seem to get all of the marketing effort. They can afford to take a chance on a long shot, and you might get your hopes too high. Or they can afford to pick up a book just to keep a competitor from getting it, which is what I suspect happened with my second ill-fated book. That’s not to say I wouldn’t work with a big publisher, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.

Unfortunately, I think O’Reilly’s gotten too big. The stakes weren’t high enough with Optimizing Windows. A company like No Starch publishes a dozen titles a year. Realistically, every title, or nearly every title, has to make money when you publish in those quantities. I think that’s part of the reason why O’Reilly doesn’t release nearly as many new titles now as they did two or three years ago, and why they’ve pulled out of certain markets. Too many titles were losing money, and the big sellers weren’t making up the difference.

If I had it to do all over again, I’d probably still go with O’Reilly on my first title, for the same reason that everyone wants one date with the prom queen. Everyone craves prestige, and the sooner you get it, the better off you think you are. For the second book that never happened? Lots of possibilities, but No Starch seems attractive. No Starch is a cool company, and they’re smaller. Presumably, they’re nicer because they have to be. And while it was cool to be seen with the beauty queen, when there’s another girl who seems nicer, the smart guy will go see what spending time with that nice girl is like.

So when will I write another book and do it right this time? Keep in mind writing a book is like a bad relationship. It has a lot of high points, but nothing feels better than the moment it’s over. And keep in mind that after one bad relationship, I waited four years before starting my next one.