2010-02-28

Should this be filed under "terrorism"?

You know you're a geek when you want one of these, for no reason in particular.

It's nice that they state, "To ensure the longest half-life possible, all isotopes are fabricated when your order is placed and shipped directly to you from our NRC licensed nuclear isotope manufacturer in Oak Ridge, TN."

But I wonder if it would have satisfied David Hahn.

2010-02-23

Preserving Digital Antiquity

In a recent comment thread, I started to discuss with Gary Frost how one might archive things for a long time—in essence, make sure that some bit of information we have now might survive for some time and be available to our descendents. (Here I want to append, "If there are any." Is that too cynical?)

I'm hoping that our little misunderstanding turned into an understanding. My main point was that digitised information can, if you maintain it, more cheaply survive local catastrophe than most more traditional forms.

That's not to say that's any sort of panacea. You have to do more work, more frequently, to make that happen. If someone happens to drop a book in a pit it wouldn't be a tragedy; someone else would take it out, more or less intact, somewhat later. (You would be surprised at how many centuries a book can survive in a pit. Possibly as long as a plastic bag.) But putting a floppy disk in your closet can be the kiss of death if, five years later, you have no living computer able to read it.

But, as I said, if you take advantage of the "copyability" of digital stuff, you can keep it for a long, long time, quite cheaply. The key point is that you have a limited amount of time during which you can copy it. In other words: get your stuff into the new format now, because it won't take long for it to become nearly (or entirely) irretreivable.

I'm not sure if this is really the tagline that digital archivists want, but it's the truth: sharks only live as long as they continue to swim.

2010-02-20

Don't comment unless you love me....

Here's an amusing comment policy.

While I think it's perfectly reasonable to reject comments from people who are raving, a couple of points about this seem designed to stifle any dissent. Not including links says that posters are not allowed to provide references to support their arguments, even though that's a cornerstone of any good analysis of a topic. And it's difficult to make a serious argument in one hundred words, not to mention that such a limit prizes quantity over quality.

Do you want to people to read reasoned argument against your posts? Or do you  want only comments saying, "Oh, you're so right"?

I managed to keep the last two paragraphs to one hundred words, and submitted them as a comment. Do you think they'll post it? I think it conforms to the letter of the rules, but not the spirit, so my bet is not.

2010-02-19

E-books...*sigh*

There have been three or four books I've quite wanted to read in the last month that weren't available in DRM-free electronic editions. (For various reasons, mainly to do with not owning the right operating systems, I can't read DRM'd books at all right now.) Tempting as it was to say "what the hell" and find pirate copies, I bought the paperbacks. This was in part because these were from authors that I particularly like and I wanted to signal the publishers to give them contracts for more books.

I've always got several books going at any one time on my Sony Reader (currently a PRS-505). It was interesting to compare the experience for things I could have been reading there rather than in paperback.

Perhaps there is something about the experience of a paper book: I find myself going to those rather than the many unfinished novels in the Reader. But at this moment I'm not entirely clear on whether it's because there really is something better there, or because the paper books I'm carting around with me at the moment are ones I am particularly desirous to read. Perhaps a bit of both.

I can certainly say that going back to paper books for a bit made it quickly clear what the problems are. They're not infrequently large and heavy, and inevitably your hand starts to hurt pretty quickly if you're holding them one-handed while reading. And when you're reading at the dinner table (which must be OK; I saw it in Brideshead Revisited ), they don't stay open as easily (or at all) on the table beside your plate. (And you can't just wipe off a bit of soup spilt upon them.)

The e-reader, though! The worst thing is the speed, or lack thereof. Page flips aren't instant, which I can usually live with, but my reader is currently taking considerably longer amounts of time to deal with chapter boundaries in technical books, if not in novels. Perhaps it needs a reboot. And when switching between books, well, ouch.

I also do seem to get slightly less material on the page when the typeface is as apparently readable as a paperback (it's hard to say, since I can't set the size exactly, and the leading always appears to be different).

And there may or may not be an indefinable thing that I'm not getting from it that I get from paper. It's hard to say. I may never know until I read the same book on both , alternating every few pages.

I suppose now I'm stuck always thinking of the advantages of one when I'm using the other.

Oh, yes, and I've also gone more than a week without a post. This isn't quite in violation of my New Year's resolution (which was to average at least one post per week), but it does a little bit miss the spirit of it, I think.

2010-02-11

Amazon vs. Macmillan: Something's Rotten in the State of E-book Pricing

The world (ok, really just a bunch of geek bloggers) errupted over the whole Amazon versus Macmillan spat, didn't it?  Some authors got particularly upset (see the TeleRead post below for links). Steven Pearlstein's Washington Post article is probably the best brief overview of the facts.

As far as analysis, the blogokatamari (am I allowed to translate that as, "blogoclod"?) has, as it so often does in matters best analyzed through economics, in most cases entirely missed the point. So far, of the dozens of posts I've read, only Chris Meadows at TeleRead and Lynne Kiesling at Knowlege Problem appear to have any real insight into the economic forces at work here. (And yes, Lynne, I love the word kerfuffle too. Didn't this one produce a brouhaha!)

Let's review the story so far, and please correct me if I've made an error here.

Macmillan has been "selling e-books" to Amazon. I put that in quotes because, of course, Macmillan sends over a single digital copy and allows Amazon to duplicate that copy as it sells it to a customer, modifying the copy to include the DRM specific to that customer.

Up to this point, as with hardcover books, Macmillan charged Amazon a fixed wholesale price for the e-book, which presumably they believed covered their costs. I understand that they also had a recommended retail price for the book, which I believe is also typically the price used when calculating authors' royalties (which are usually specified as a percentage of some price). It seems in this case that for many bestsellers Macmillian was charging a wholesale price of $12-14, and presumably the RRP was something like $24.99. Amazon, however, was selling the e-books for $9.99, and taking a loss on each one.

Macmillan, for whatever reasons (we can discuss that later), would prefer and has succeeded in pressing upon Amazon a replacement of this wholesale/retail system with an "agency model," whereby Macmillan sets the retail price, and Amazon pays 70% of that to Macmillan, keeping 30% for itself. Macmillian has stated that it will set its retail prices generally around the mid-teens, e.g., $15.95.

But wait a second. 70% of $15.95 is about $11, which is less than the $12-14 that the publisher was making before. And Lord help us if a book's retail price is set at only 30% more than the $9.99 Amazon was charging: now the publisher makes barely more than $9.

So a publisher is willing to butt heads with a retailer in order not only to have the retailer make more money on each item than it used to be losing, but is also pushing to take a cut in how much money it makes to do so?

I don't know about you, but this strikes me as odd. In fact, it makes certain castles in Denmark start to smell rather sweet.

So what's going on? Macmillan is obviously trying to introduce resale price maintenance here. (And they appear to have successfully done so. Other publishers are following along.) I'm not definitively against that, either; I actually have rather mixed feelings about where and when this can be helpful or harmful to consumers, the market and the economy in general. (Here you might find some interesting insight into the advantages of resale price maintenance.)

But here's where I have some sympathy for Amazon. Macmillan must have known what they were doing. You don't, as a company, blithely give up revenue because you feel it will make the world a better place and unicorns will pop out of rainbows and nuzzle you. You need a reasonably sophisticated analysis, good foresight and a fair amount of guts to give up immediate revenue in order to take a larger market later. I was amazed that a public company could even do this, until I found out that Macmillan is privately held. (Poor Amazon. Being public, they stand little chance. Bezos must be fuming right now.)

And if Macmillan knew what they were doing, they knew that by trying to move to the agency model they were quite directly attacking Amazon itself.

Amazon, not surprisingly, is a company in which information technology weighs heavily. If you think about it, one of the main things they do is replace floorspace, shelves and sales clerks with automation. If they do this well, they can do better than their competitors at giving a shopper a happy experience at minimal cost (to Amazon), which means that they can also sell the item for a little less money than their competitors and still make a profit. Replacing expensive people with cheap robots is a well-known route to making consumers happy (via lower prices), certain company stockholders happy (they own stock in the company that did this), and improving the economy. (Well, that last one is a long and complex argument, so either take my word for it or drop it.)

So when Macmillan tries to fix Amazon's margin, they're directly attacking one of the main things Amazon does. They're saying, "even if you can do the same thing for less money, you may not pass the savings on to your customers." What's gotten into their heads?

Not to mention the heads of the authors supporting Macmillan. Do they not realize that Macmillan is pushing to make less money from the books they're selling to Amazon? Surely the authors don't seriously believe that, when Macmillian is bringing in less revenue for a book, they're going to give the author more  money.

At any rate, if there's some truly brilliant business strategy behind this move, it seems that Random House isn't seeing it.

2010-02-10

O'Reilly's E-book Deal of the Day

I'm quite well disposed towards the technical book publisher O'Reilly. I've been a customer of theirs for almost two decades now due to the high quality of their books.

They've always been quite "geek-friendly," too, so it was not particularly surprising (though of course very pleasant) to find that when they started selling e-books, they chose a strict no-DRM policy. That took some of the sting out of the prices; somehow it feels as if, for a $45 paper book, paying $35 for the e-book is too much, though the manufacture and shipping of the paper book probably do cost less than $10.

I received a marketing e-mail from O'Reilly recently with a new, apparently on-going promotion: their e-book Deal of the Day RSS feed. Every weekday they discount one of their e-books to $10. For the more expensive $30 and $40 e-books, that works out to a substantial discount.

Whether they'll be able to make money from this, I don't know. But in my case, at any rate, it's certainly generating sales they would probably not otherwise make.

$10 or less is about my "worth taking a chance" price point. At that price, if the book looks moderately interesting and appears to be more or less relevant to my needs, I'll probably just buy it on the spot, even if I don't intend to read it immediately. For books costing much more than that I need to have a reasonably serious need for the book, and I also need to look through it (and perhaps check out some reviews) to investigate its quality. I may do this right away or, if I don't have an urgent need for the book, I'll likely put it on my "things to look at later" list, especially since in the fast-moving field of computer books a new edition or better alternative might appear at any time.

As I've mentioned previously, Skip's comment here is important. Even if the book is one I would later buy after doing the research, that's only going to happen if it comes to my attention again at the appropriate time. And even when I try to make sure that this happens, it often doesn't. I have a long list of interesting-looking books spread across various to-do lists, calendar entries and other files that fell into that "not ready to buy yet" category and remain unbought, some of them years later.

So what has O'Reilly's program sold me so far? Beautiful Testing (RRP $40) fell into the "check it out first" category and would have gone on to my to-look-at-later list if it hadn't been $10. I still don't have any idea when I'll have time to read it, but it's there whenever I care to get to it, and even if I never read it, I'm not out a huge amount of money. Apprenticeship Patterns (RRP $24) is a book I don't need now, but might need in the future. It too would have gone my to-look-at-later list, and might never have gotten off it, but it's worth $10 now just because I might need it later, or just get even a few good ideas out of it for myself. The Art of Concurrency is not worth the RRP of $36 to me (I'm already quite familiar with the subject matter), but might have $10 worth of useful new information. The New How (RRP $20) is a book which I probably would not have bought at all for more than $10 (and it just barely scraped in at that price). The topic matter is interesting to me, but not something I'm likely to use any time in the next few years, and I have no idea if the book is any good at all.

So O'Reilly's come out with $40 in revenue from me this year so far, as opposed to some possibility of $40 and a lesser possibility of $24 at some indeterminate points in the future. That's certainly left them ahead in this case.

But I'm only one person. The real questions here are, does this marketing strategy have the same effect on other people, and how much will O'Reilly lose from people who delay a full-price purchase they'd otherwise make on the chance that the book may come up on the daily discount list soon?

2010-02-05

kulula.com's New Livery

kulula.com is a South African low-fare airline known for their sometimes whimsical livery. These new Boeing 737s are particularly cute, I think. And won't Patrick Smith be pleased that they don't use the term "co-pilot"!

Flash and the iPad

The release of the iPad, which is essentially a large iPhone without the phone (or iPod Touch, if you prefer that terminology) has re-ignited the blogosphere brouhaha about the battle between Apple, which refuses to have a Flash player on the iPhone and iPad, and Adobe, the current owner of the Flash technology.

Adobe is starting to deal with this: they now have the ability to take things authored in their Flash developer tools and compile them into iPhone apps. This just seems to provide further proof that Adobe's revenue model is to make money from the authoring tools, not the Flash player, which they give away for free for the highest-volume platforms. (Adobe does make some revenue from selling ports of the player to other platforms, such as some mobile devices, but they also do incur development costs for this. I have no idea if that side of things makes or loses money.)

Given that, why keep the player proprietary? They've already changed their SWF specification license to allow using the specification to create players, which they previously did not allow. The next obvious step is to open source the code to the player (at least as much of it as possible—they may have licensed some technology from others they they cannot open) to try to damp down even further the complaints that Flash is a proprietary format.

Opening up the player is not likely to bring in any more competition for authoring tools; they already have had that for years. (I wrote and sold one myself.) This doesn't even have to kill their business of porting the player, if that's profitable; not every vendor that wants Flash will want to do the port himself. Nor would it stop them from continuing to offer their own plugin (which could include technologies that they can't open) for the best and most consistent Flash experience.

It's true, this could well make for a sub-optimal Flash experience on some platforms where a third party did the port. Still, it's better than not playing on those platforms at all, isn't it?

In hindsight, Adobe probably should have tried to take SWF to a standards track years ago, preempting competition from HTML5 and its associated technologies. Had they done that, they might now be in the position of being the largest provider of authoring tools for the iPhone and iPad. As it is, they're playing catch-up, and as standards grow in functionality, we may see them start taking over the market that previously belonged entirely to Flash.

2010-02-02

We Win Against the Terrorists?

Gosh, darnit, I'm a day late on my pledge[1] to let no more than a week go between posts. You should see what I have saved up (and you will, if you're unfortunate enough), though that doesn't count for much when there's still a huge editing job to be done on the backlog.

But to continue a theme, yet in a happier vein: without the overreaction of the U.S. government to the "terrorist threat," we wouldn't have Achmed the Dead Terrorist. (Let's not skimp on the kudos, either. The terrorists themselves made some small contribution; let's give them a credit as, oh, I don't know, "production assistant.")

Anyhoo, right indeed: this is happy in the way that some Beckett plays could be considered happier than others. And it's also no news to anyone, given the number of views this video has had on YouTube[2]. But still, if we can laugh at our enemies, that's only a step away from being able to laugh at ourselves.
Jeff: So you guys have any kind of motto?
Achmed: Like what?
Jeff: You know, like, "We're looking for a few good men"?
Achmed: We're looking for some idiots who have no future.
Jeff: Where do you get your recruits?
Achmed: The suicide hotline!
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[1]: Not an Official New Year's Resolution. No Warranties, Express or Implied, will be honoured. This material is Expressly not Fit for Your Implied purpose.

[2]: In casual browsing, I've never run into anything on YouTube with anywhere near a hundred million views.  (Achmed has about 106 million views at the time of writing.) Looking for the most popular YouTube videos ever, I came across the Evolution of Dance, with some 136 million views. Despite no reference to Boy George, he's good (even better than Napoleon Dynamite) but still....