2010-03-28

Indignation

David Brin has an interesting hypothesis: indignation is addictive.

We know that the same chemical and other pleasure triggers and reinforcement processes that lead us to crave food, sex, and other things we need to survive, are often mislead by things we neither need nor really want to surive (such as heroin, cocane, cigarettes, alcohol, and similar drugs), and in fact these triggers can be self-induced through purely mental activities, such as meditation, prayer, and other religious activities.

Brin proposes that we look to see if indignation can provoke this sort of response as well. Having been involved in many an Internet flamewar, I find this quite plausible myself. It's ridiculous, I know, but I do somehow enjoy getting upset with people and flaming them. (I'm hoping that I now better recognise just what might be going on in my brain with this behaviour that I'll be able to control it better.) The beauty of this hypothesis is that, if true, it well explains so much of what goes on on Fox News. Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, as they twist facts to upset themselves, are no different from the crack addict who will do almost anything to get another fix.

An interesting thing about this idea is, as with drug additions, how far it might lead you into behaviours that, given your background, you really ought to revile. The behaviour of Gretchen Carlson could be an example of this. That she would claim to have to look up the words "ignoramous," "double-dip recession" and "czar" is astonishing enough, but that someone with an academic background that includes an honors degree in sociology from Stanford University and studies at Cambridge is otherwise almost beyond comprehension.

But damn does it make for amusing television.

2010-03-24

"I'm not listening!"

Yes, it's been a while. I'm in NYC, travelling. The United States is perhaps not as bad as you'd expect from reading about it, but I still did view what was apparently an American citizen (he was in the US-passports line at immigration) get fingerprinted and photographed coming into the country. It sends a little chill down your spine when you see that sort of thing; it feels a bit like you're going into East Germany or something.

But reading about this I can only say, "wow." I'm not even big on the whole "huge amount of respect for the President" thing, but you'd think it would seem reasonable that students would be allowed to see and evaluate a statement from the leader of the country that they live in. This is the most shocking thing to me: I'd not really realised until this point how certain groups are really trying to shut down discussion more than anything else. Ironically enough, I've not seen anything like this since totalitarian communism was a major idea in the world.

Were I leading the White House press-release folks, I'd just put out a statement saying that it's very sad that certain parents don't want their children to hear a "work hard and stay in school" message. It seems so simple. But I suppose that that's why I'm not a publicist.

2010-03-07

Hold Onto Your Underwear

Hold Onto Your Underwear is a fantastic essay by Tom Engelhardt. I only wish I could have written that so well.

2010-03-06

Why Students Still Prefer Paper Textbooks

Over at Wharton's blog there's an article called "E-textbooks: The New Best-sellers". The title's a bit misleading, since at this time e-textbooks are not at all bestsellers:
Indeed, approximately 88% of college students own laptops, according to a study by EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, a Boulder, Co., think tank. But so far, few of them download electronic textbooks, even though they could save money. The National Association of College Stores estimates that less than 3% of textbook sales today are digital versions....
Looking at the pricing example they give next, it's easy to see why.
Students get a 180-day license for the book rather than permanent ownership -- which means there is no used-book market for CourseSmart titles.

CourseSmart prices are typically half the list price of a textbook. For example, Harvard professor Gregory Mankiw's introductory Principles of Economics, which has a list price of $220.95, costs $110.49 for the electronic version at CourseSmart. Amazon.com sells the paper version for $168.01 and an electronic Kindle version for $141.56
What they don't mention here is that Amazon sells used copies of the book for anywhere between $100 and $140. That means that there's a market for used copies, and this needs to be factored into the total price. If a student can sell a used copy for 25% of the suggested retail price of the new book (and I suspect he could get more than this), that brings the total cost of a paper copy for one semester to $168.01 - ($220.95 * 0.25) = $112.77, or $2.28 more than the electronic version. It's quite possible, depending on the price a student can get for the used textbook, that this "rental" of the paper version could come out to be less than the cost of the electronic version.

Additionally, when you buy a 180-day rental of the electronic version of the book you lose the option to keep the book if you like it. It's hard to price this option, since there's no real market available for it alone, but it probably has some value. Even if that value to a student is only a few dollars, that again brings the cost of one semester's use of the paper edition down below that of the e-textbook.

It's clear that the publisher's made a mistake in the pricing of the e-textbook here, which is why it's not selling. Looking narrowly at just this particular instance, the publisher would be better off with a price lower than the common discounted retail price minus the typical resale price of a once-used copy. This would encourage more students to rent the electronic edition, and thus reduce the number of used copies available over time.

Publishers are certainly aware of the used book market and how it affects them. So the open question here is, why did they chose to make this pricing decision?

2010-03-03

Reading in the Bathtub

People are always talking about e-books over on Charlie Stross' blog, and occasionally the subject of reading in the bathtub arises. I'm rather a fan of this practice myself and, having switched much of my reading over to an e-book reader, yes, I read mine in the tub.

Everybody worries about dropping the darn thing in, of course. But this is also a worry for a paper book; the real difference is that it costs you a lot more if you drop the reader in. But I think that the risk of dropping an e-reader is less, so from an economist's point of view it more or less evens out. I've dropped paper books in the tub only a couple of times, and the reader is easier to hold, lighter than some books, and, because it's expensive, I tend to be a lot more careful with it. That's not to say if I'm feeling tired I won't hold it over the edge and outside the tub, anyway.

And the nice thing about it is that it's a lot easier to hold and use one-handed (especially when it comes to turning pages) than a paper book. Not only does this avoid the inevitable cramp I get in my hand when reading a paper book unidexterously, but also leaves a hand free to play with my rubber duck.

Alas, we don't yet have a waterproof reader (wouldn't that be prefect for onsen!), though I've heard that some people use plastic bags.

But it occurs to me, we already have radios, televisions and DVD players designed for the tub. Why not an e-reader, too? In fact, what's put me off the tub-DVD-players has really been the low resolution more than anything else: I want a full-HD BluRay system with surround sound for my tub! I've also wanted a computer in my tub for a long time. This would be Douglas Adams' dream bath.

I'm doubting we'll see a waterproof reader in 2010, but I wouldn't be surprised to see one in 2011, and I'd be surprised if we didn't have one by 2012.

The Pirate Experience

Are you the sort of person who buys DVDs? Pays for all your media? Has never, ever downloaded and watched a video?

Well, if you'd like to know what the experience is like, here's a comparsion chart.


(Hat tip to O'Reilly Radar's Nat Torkington on Four Short Links for 2010-02-23.)