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September 30, 2005: Odd Lots

  • There's a new plugin for Skype that manages a video stream, so if you want to have an n-way video conference call on Skype, just install Festoon and a Webcam and you're good to go. Although I haven't tried it yet, I keep thinking of the nerd video conference in Galaxy Quest; it might be fun, if yet another way to kill time.
  • I got the dustjacket art for The Cunning Blood, and if you want to download it for a look, it's here.
  • Frank Glover sent me a couple of very nice images from Cassini, including close-ups of the surface of Tethys and little Hyperion. Hyperion is an odd one; note the way it looks like about half the visible face has settled as though something inside melted and ran off. This may be Hyperion's "death star crater" much like the one on Phobos. A number of minor bodies in the solar system have an enormous crater somewhere, and I've heard it speculated that most such bodies have taken a hit that was just below the energy needed to shatter them. Our own Moon has Mare Orientalis, though perhaps the best one of all is the one on Mimas.
  • The (very) long-awaited Firefly movie Serenity opens today, and in celebration (alas, I can't go until next week!) I'll cite a pretty damned sharp realization of the starship in Lego. The trailers were pretty compelling, as was a half-hour promo show on the Sci Fi channel a few nights ago. Here's hoping the film will allow Joss Wheadon to keep the Firefly franchise alive. It makes every Trek franchise TV show look pretty sick by comparison.

September 29, 2005: Was JFK a Jelly Doughnut?

Most people have heard about President John F. Kennedy's famous 1963 address in Berlin in which he stated (in German) "Ich bin ein Berliner." He was attempting to show solidarity with those living in Berlin while the Soviet Union was attempting to intimidate the West into handing over those parts of Berlin that the USSR didn't already control.

For some years I've heard that the statement was grammatically incorrect: He should have said "Ich bin Berliner," because the indefinite article "ein" is generally used with inanimate objects. In most of Germany, a "Berliner" is a sort of pastry, something like a bismarck with jelly inside. So saying "Ich bin ein Berliner" could be interpreted as "I am a jelly bismarck" or "I am a jelly doughnut." I always used the analogy that it was like saying "I am Danish" versus "I am a danish." (Topologically, a Berliner pastry is not a doughnut, though that's usually how it's characterized.)

Wikipedia's article on the speech declares that this is an urban legend, begun in Florida in the 1980s. Apparently no one in Berlin thought it peculiar enough to mention at the time. I asked Pete Albrecht about this, since he was born in Germany and probably has a clue. The truth is that the sentence swings both ways, and can mean either "I am from Berlin" or "I am a jelly bismarck." (One wonders what the Iron Chancellor would have thought of his name being applied to a pastry puff stuffed with jelly.) Proof that somebody somewhere got the joke is present in this item (in German, but you can babelfish it) which is a round rubber pastry that says "Ich bin ein Berliner" in JFK's voice when pressed. (Had I designed it, I would have had the rubber Berliner say, "I am John Kennedy.")

Apparently, Berliners don't call Berliners "Berliners," but rather Pfannkuchen (literally, pancake) which, alas, my Oxford German dictionary defines as "doughnut." Pete points out that it's a good thing he wasn't speaking in Hamburg or Frankfurt. ("Ich bin ein Hamburger!" "Ich bin ein Frankfurter!") Camelot might never have been taken seriously again.

September 28, 2005: Electronic Paper Developer Kits

I'm sure you're getting tired of hearing me say this: If ebooks have any future at all, it'll be with displays having the optical characteristics of paper. Such displays are being developed, but they're still a ways off from where they need to be. The big fly in the ointment is refresh time (the time to write a full-page image to the display), a parameter that is still so awful that electronic paper vendors are hesitant to publish it. The displays are actually mechanical in nature (tiny dye beads must be forced to rotate to switch a pixel from "on" to "off") and this means refresh times on the order of seconds, not milliseconds.

I'd be happy with an ebook display that flipped a page in a second or less, and supposedly these have been demonstrated in the labs. (Demonstrated to whom?) Actually, I'd be happy just having some crisp numbers on page refresh, but I haven't spotted any online.

Those who are really curious can find out from personal experience: E-Ink will be releasing electronic paper developer kits this fall. The kit includes a 6" portrait-mode 800 X 600 SVGA electronic paper display module, plus a GumStix X-Scale single-board controller running Linux. Driver software is written in gcc, and the kit includes an ebook reader as a demo application. Sounds like great fun, and you can put it in a box and have an ebook reader when you're finished messing with it...assuming you're willing to pay $3000 for the privilege. More pictures and some nice technical figures on LinuxDevices.

Still, it's encouraging that E-Ink is comfident enough in their technology to offer a commodity developer kit. It may take a couple of years, but we'll have electronic paper sooner or later.

September 27, 2005: Odd Lots (Some Very Odd)

  • If you've ever passed by an abandoned amusement park and wondered how it looked inside, Illicit Ohio can be engrossing, especially if you're from or currently living in Ohio. I used to walk Mr. Byte through the overgrown remains of Santa's Village in Scotts Valley, California, which was later razed and Borland's palatial HQ built on the site. Like a goof I took no pictures, but it was a profoundly weird place, complete with stoned squatters and feral chickens pecking in the dirt in and among the rusting kiddie rides.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that there is now so much public nudity in Germany that German nudist clubs—which invented the field back in the 1930s—are dying out.
  • Pete Albrecht wrote to tell me that he had learned a new word: presenteeism, which is the opposite of absenteeism, and describes the habit of some to stay at the office even when there's nothing to do. This is a problem in Japan, but is almost unheard of in Europe.
  • Also from Pete comes a pointer to a news item about a mad weatherman (why should scientists have a lock on the franchise?) who's convinced that the Japanese mafia is using secret Russian Cold War superweapons to hammer the US with killer hurricanes. Here's his page. You decide. (I already have, heh.)
  • Finally, both Bills Leininger and Higgins sent me an item (at right) that's the ultimate retro teen-geek gender-bender status symbol: A purse made out of a genuine copy of Tom Swift and His Giant Robot. I hate to be caught speechless...but sometimes it's hard to avoid.

September 26, 2005: How to Spam Jeff Duntemann

I've been receiving email spam since almost before there was email spam, and I've gotten pitches for it all: Sex, drugs, mortgages, used golf balls in bulk, and romantic accordion music. All in vain. I am uninterested in porn, I've already paid off my mortgage, I don't golf, and I tried playing the accordion when I was seven—and could barely stand with the huge damned thing strapped to my chest.

Nonetheless, a day or two ago I got a spam that made my heart race, at least a little. The pitch was conventional, but the graphics were arresting:

Hey, when was the last time you got spammed with a photo of an 813 power tube socket?

I'll be fair to the company in question, a Chinese exporter: They had apparently read my 12V tube page and somehow misconstrued me as a dealer in electronics parts. So calling them spammers may be a little harsh, even though I really don't like unsolicited commercial mail. I only mention it because they figured out how to get my attention to a degree that no other spammer ever has, and that's an accomplishment all by itself.

September 25, 2005: Ebook Anguish, Part 7: Speculations

It was back during my tenure at Xerox that I first heard the marketing expression, "Eating your own babies." Xerox had the problem that its newer copier generations were always better than their older ones, while also being cheaper. The cheaper machines drove those plodding old cash generators off the market. In some parts of the company, this was reason enough to want to slow down innovation.

Fear of "eating their own babies" is the reason that the big New York houses are charging the same for their ebooks as for their print books (while encumbering their ebooks with more and more aggressive DRM) and when only the geekiest among us shell out, the publishers shrug and say, "I guess there's no ebook market."

Meanwhile, in SF, fantasy, and other forms of genre fiction from middle and small press, $5 and $6 ebooks are thriving. A small company exhibiting across the aisle from Paraglyph at BEA 2003 told us that they would be selling ebooks shortly, and now it's a major part of their business. (I confess, it's a business I don't fully understand.) Could the New York houses succeed if they tried the same things the same ways? I'm not sure. I think that the genre fiction people do well for these reasons:

  • The most rabid genre devotees are people who read all the time and want a steady stream of new material that is familiar but not boringly identical. Series and authors are what sell; individual titles tend to rise, swim, and then sink, with only a vanishing handful becoming "classics." In a sense, the readers are buying the genre rather than individual books.
  • Genre fiction does not need technical figures, tables, or illustrations. This makes ebook files smaller and display presentation easier, especially on marginal devices like smartphones.
  • Genre devotees have their own word-of-mouth network consisting of chat rooms, fan sites, email lists, Web rings, and even meatspace conventions. I've been attending SF conventions for over thirty years and thought it was an SF fluke, but it's not. There are romance conventions, mystery conventions, and Westerns conventions. Promoting at these conventions is much more cost-effective than using conventional mass media, but outside the genres these word-of-mouth networks are pretty sparse.
  • Genre fiction has a better grasp of what sells than mainstream fiction and nonfiction. The big New York houses must therefore rely on blockbuster bestsellers to pay for all the books they publish that nobody wants.

Genre fiction seems made for ebooks. The business model pioneered by Jim Baen—co-opt the file-sharing process by using free ebooks as bait and brand-builders—may work because all of the books are built on a shared culture. Conventional nonfiction and literary fiction don't have that common ground. The people who read popular history are not necessarily the same people who read popular science, or political analysis, or biography. This makes it a lot tougher to "use the matrix to sell the matrix" because not all titles are part of the same matrix.

Publishers who can succeed with ebooks may be those fitting the following specs:

  • They allow themselves to be defined by their readership; in other words, they specialize in a single topic area of interest to an identifiable demographic. If you serve (and understand) the audience for popular history, don't try to sell cookbooks.
  • They earn respect from their readership by knowing their topic deeply, and in turn treating their readership with respect. Think Tim O'Reilly.
  • They keep their costs low by eschewing flashy infrastructure and refusing to bid up the big names to the point where author advances bankrupt them.
  • They keep ego out of their business plans.

I don't know about you, but this doesn't sound like New York to me. What this means, of couse, is that small and middle press will lead the way. The New York houses will embrace ebooks when doing so becomes a competitive necessity—like, when the smaller houses have already eaten their lunches and have begun to circle their dinners. We're still a few years off, but that's ok. We need to work on the readers and the file formats.

In the meantime, yee-hah! It's the Wild Wild West in the publishing world again!

September 23, 2005: Ebook Anguish, Part 6: The Tip Jar

Death attracts attention. So does giving stuff away. Back in the late 90's The Coriolis Group (my late and lamented publishing company) licensed a number of its staler titles to a startup that was trying to sell ebooks. I don't think we made much money on the deal, and the startup eventually croaked. The ebooks that they created are still freely kicking around the Web and Usenet, and every so often I get an email from some guy who lifted The Delphi Programming Explorer somewhere, and told me, "That was a really good book! What else have you got?" And so a very dead book published in 1995 still helps me sell my assembly book and Wi-Fi Guide in 2005. Wow.

I've seen people give ebooks away and make money two ways:

  1. Give away your old stuff to sell your new stuff; and
  2. Give away your new stuff and ask for voluntary contributions.

#2 is actually the ancient shareware concept applied to ebooks, and as dicey as it sounds, it has a peculiar logic when applied to absolutely unknown authors, especially if they're reasonably good writers. The logic is this: If nobody will publish your work, you lose very little by releasing it freely on the Net and asking for spare change. It's not earning any money on your hard drive, so any money you earn is gravy—and if it's not totally horrible, it will begin to generate a reputation for you, in a field where reputation is virtually everything.

Aspiring novelist Roger Williams tells the story on K5 about how he released his first SF novel for free distribution, and asked politely for donations in his electronic tip jar. (A Web "tip jar" is a button leading to a program operated by PayPal allowing small sums to be sent to the tip jar owner. Amazon has something similar.) It's a long, detailed discussion, and worth reading closely, including the (many) comments. In three months he collected $760 and (more significantly) was mentioned favorably on both K5 and Slashdot. This isn't bad for an unknown, and I should point out that $760 is $760 more than I've made on my SF novel. (This should change in coming months. I hope.)

However, the real master at monetarizing free ebooks is SF's own Jim Baen of Baen Books. Some years back (when ebooks were still pretty exotic) Baen Books established the Baen Free Library, with Eric Flint as coordinator. Go back and read that link; Eric explains it far better than I could. But in short, turning older titles loose helps sell newer titles. It gets people hooked on series. It makes people loyal to your line. It gets attention.

Baen Books does other interesting things with SF, like their Webscriptions system, through which enthusiasts can buy (in serialized form) SF novels a chunk at a time, before they appear in print. But I think it's their use of free ebooks to generate interest (and therefore sales) in print titles that will have the most influence on the future.

Skeptics may well ask: Is this really a business model? Can it scale? Can it be applied to other fields? Does it have a future?

All good questions. I'll take them up tomorrow.

September 22, 2005: Ebook Anguish, Part 5: Business Models

Recapping yesterday's entry: After subtracting the inevitable ego issues, the core problem with ebooks as products is that there is no business model. I'm not saying that the ebook business model is flawed. I'm saying that it's absent, and that terrifies even well-behaved publishing execs who are not Right Men and might otherwise embrace ebook publishing. These are the publishing people who aren't half insane about the possibility of getting ripped off. They're worried about making money.

I understand—and sympathize. I myself don't have a magic business model to unveil here. What I want to do for a day or two is talk about some of the ways that people are trying to find it, with greater or lesser success.

The one I admire most, hands down, is O'Reilly's Safari subscription service. Most programmers and network guys are familiar with it. It's brilliant because it doesn't try to preserve the print book business model, and it takes into account the peculiarities of its own market. Basically, for a monthly fee, you can do very precise full-text searches on a large library of computer books from O'Reilly and several other publishers. Your subscription entitles you to choose a certain specified number of books, which reside for a period of time on your virtual bookshelf on ORA's servers. The more you pay, the bigger your shelf. When your shelf is full, you can either buy a bigger shelf or swap out one book for another. Books must remain there for at least 30 days before being swapped. Your subscription entitles you to download up to five printable chapters (not whole books) per month, and "download tokens" roll over for 90 days. You can buy additional download tokens if you want them. A subscription includes a 30% discount (35% in some cases) for print books ordered through Safari. The package I describe here (Safari Max) goes for $20 per month.

Safari works as well as it does because the unit of demand for computer books is the chapter, not the book. (The "album vs. song" issue in music is similar.) Although I've read a handful of computer book tutorials from cover to cover, mostly I've zeroed in on the chapter that explains what I need to know right now. A chapter-oriented business model wouldn't work as well for other nonfiction fields, where you're dealing with a history (like The Great Influenza) or a gradually established position.

Some will argue that Safari is an information service, and not an ebook publisher—but if that's the business model that works, so be it. I'll counter-argue that they're making print books available in searchable, nonphysical form, so it really is ebook publishing. I guess that what O'Reilly has actually done is turned print books into a huge online help system. Given that print computer books are an "offline help system," this was the logical next step.

To summarize on Safari: It's easy to sign up and pay for, it's relatively cheap (how much have you spent on O'Reilly print books in the last few years?) and not trivial to pirate. Since programmers are already used to squinting at on-screen man pages and help windows, the lack of an easy-on-the-eyes reader isn't a killer. Particularly useful chapters may be printed. I don't think I can point to any serious flaws in the system.

Computer publishing is probably a special case. Computer books are among the two markets I know of where people are (reasonably) willing to read ebooks. The other is genre fiction, especially SF, fantasy, and mystery—and that's where I'll pick up tomorrow.

September 21, 2005: Ebook Anguish, Part 4: DRM

Read an ebook aloud to your kids, go to jail.

Yeah, right. Like to see them try that. But I'm not kidding: According to the fine print of Adobe's Glassbok reader EULA, reading one of their ebooks out loud is an actionable violation of the publisher's rights. I guess we're so far down the DRM rabbit hole that DRM itself (and in its shadow, the whole idea of copyright) has begun to look ridiculous. What are these people thinking?

Actually, that part's pretty simple. DRM is the clown show it is for two reasons:

  • Big Media is dominated by Right Men who cannot stand the thought that anyone is ripping them off. Right Men never doubt themselves and cannot tolerate humiliation, and for a grubby pre-teen to download a DRM-cracker from Russia and free up a stolen ebook is a species of humiliation. I'm not exaggerating here. Book publishing is full of Right Men. I know a fair number of them, and usually cross the aisle at trade shows when I see them coming.
  • DRM is a last-ditch defense of the only business model that existing print publishers understand. The print books business model doesn't work for ebooks, but we don't have a new business model yet.

It's as simple as that: The ebook industry doesn't exist because we really don't know how to make money on them. Yes, there are reader problems. Yes, there are format problems. And yes, DRM is offputting to consumers. But without confidence in a business model for e-publishing, the big guys will either take a pass, or post armed guards outside their content.

Ebook DRM itself is for the most part beneath contempt. Microsoft's .lit format has been cracked several times, and cracker utilities are easily available on the Web. I've heard that Glassbook has been cracked, though I've not seen the cracker. In a pinch, the pirates can always take screenshots of each page and OCR them. (This is the ebook equivalent of audio's "analog hole" and it's been done.) As with software activation schemes, ebook DRM only annoys honest people who are willing to pay for content, and drives away potential customers who feel like the whole thing is an insult and a ripoff.

On the other hand, this is good news: While the Right Men sell crippled ebooks for as much as (or more) than paper editions, or just sit out the dance, the rest of us can figure out how the future will work.

One thing you need to understand is that the print books industry itself has a weird business model that makes people who sell coffee makers or can openers say, WTF? I've spoken of this before and won't take much time here, but books are basically sold on consignment, and a huge number of paper books end up either pulped before they're read and written off or basically given away at or under manufacturing cost—which we call "remaindering." This doesn't happen because publishers make mistakes. Publishers assume that a given percentage of their printed books will be destroyed and make no money, and factor that into their operations.

In other words, it's a part of the business model.

I see that this series may take a few more entries than I thought, and I'm about out of space for today. I'll return to the issue tomorrow, by looking around to see who's trying what in the ebook world.

September 20, 2005: Wireline Anguish

A quick aside from my current discussion of ebooks: I just got home from a radio appearance on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show, doing the noon-to-one hour on his "Tech Tuesday" segment. The show is out of American University in Washington, DC, but many NPR affiliates carry it. NPR bought an hour's time at a recording studio here in Colorado Springs so that I could talk with Kojo on a high-quality ISDN phone line. This makes it sound like I'm actually in the studio with him, and NPR is very fussy about the quality of their audio.

I like radio appearances, and have been on Kojo's show before. We were about halfway through the hour, and we were having a lot of fun, talking about how to degunk Windows and taking questions from listeners, when suddenly the line went silent. No warning, just...dead.

At the same moment, the studio's ordinary landline phones went dead as well. The studio's engineer quickly got on his cell to NPR in Washington, and they got it set up so that I could return to Kojo's show through my cellphone. Needless to say, quality was not especially good, but it was the best we could do.

What happened? It was infuriating, and almost a movie cliche: They recently began building a new office complex across from the studio's location, and the contractor was out there was a great big trenching machine. (If you haven't seen one of these, picture a truck-sized chainsaw for dirt.) Well, the trencher was digging a run for water lines, and for reasons unclear, nicked the buried Qwest cable bringing phone service to that whole area. Many, many phone lines were severed, and I wouldn't want to be that contractor about now. ("Always call before you dig!" "But I wasn't digging! I was just trenching!")

Apart from the fact that it was a diabolically unlikely coincidence (sort of the flipside of my 1923 penny story) it illustrates how vulnerable our high-tech world is to relatively simple mechanical mayhem. The fact that one minimum-wage doofus on a trencher machine could cut phone service to an entire neighborhood makes ubiquitous wireless sound real good—though sheesh, I would have settled for telephone poles!

September 19, 2005: EBook Anguish, Part 3: Formats

There's a ton of public domain ebooks out there—see Project Gutenberg if you've never been there. They have about 16,000 completely free ebooks ready to read or download. All of them are in plain text, even the ones supposedly in HTML. Now, Rasselas was hard enough to read when expertly set in reasonably large type in the Penguin edition I had in college. In raw text, without even HTML headers for the chapter titles, it was painful. Typography matters. (Nobody seems to believe this but me.)

Virtually all of the free ebooks out there are simple text files, with almost no formatting. I thought at first that this might be because typography requires a certain nontrivial amount of human labor, but it's not as much as you might think, and there are clever programs like TeX that can do about 80% of the layout automatically. I'm sure that there are plenty of typography freaks like me who would massage the wrinkles out of that last 20% and contribute the layouts to the public domain, but it won't happen. It won't happen (at least not right now) because there's no standard format for a typeset ebook. To benefit the greatest number of people, Project Gutenberg and its brethren leave all of their text as...plain text.

Most people believe that the reader problem (yesterday's entry) is serious, and most people believe that the DRM problem (to be taken up shortly, with some luck, tomorrow) is serious. Nobody seems to believe that the current chaos in ebook formats in serious, but it's one of those submarine issues that nobody sees until it's too late.

There are at least ten viable typography-enabled formats for ebooks right now. Wikipedia's entry on ebooks provides a good summary, though I don't consider things like SGML or XML "formats." Of those ten, four are the major players: Microsoft (.lit), Adobe PDF, EReader, and Mobipocket. For the narrow domain of computer books, compiled HTML Help (.chm) is also a player, but it's unknown outside its home turf. Although there are some (very) minor players establihed as open standards, all of the truly successful ebook formats are proprietary and sconnected with particular ebook reader software. As best I know, none of the readers for the four biggies will load and display any of the other three readers' data formats.

This forces publishers to either choose a reader package to support, or to mess with two, three, or four different document-creation processes—and pay for a document creation suite for each one. (There are some free ways to create PDF files, though most people use Acrobat.) Worse, consumers have to download and install more than one ebook reader to ensure that they can access the full range of published ebook titles.

You can argue that DRM (more on which tomorrow) is the real issue here: Publishers want strong DRM, and each reader package has its own proprietary DRM scheme. I'm less sure about that. I'm pretty sure that the majors all want to dominate the ebook business and thus "own" ebooks the way Microsoft owns operating systems. This makes interoperability about as popular among the lead vendors as centipedes in a sleeping bag.

As long as this situation holds true, the process of reading ebooks cannot "melt into" the computing experience the way the process of reading the Web is melting into the computing experience. We got the Web because HTTP is an open standard, Microsoft's efforts to subvert it notwithstanding. Open standards for ebooks have been proposed, but nobody's jumping in to embrace them.

As long as this stalemate continues, an awful lot of people and companies will sniff at ebooks as yet another geekoid gimmick. I'll continue the discussion tomorrow (or soon) with the key issue of ebook DRM. Until then, I'll leave you with this: DRM is not a disease but a symptom, and the disease itself is the lack of a business model for ebook publishing. There are ways to make money in ebooks, but the techniques are contrarian in the extreme, and not the sorts of things that the Right Men who run Big Media are likely to embrace any time soon. And as should be obvious (but which I will explain when I conclude) that may be the best news of all.
This came up kind of quickly, but it looks like I'm going to be on Kojo Nnamdi's "Tech Tuesday" show tomorrow, 9/20/2005. The show is carried by a lot of NPR affiliates, and is broadcast live at 12:00PM Eastern time, so it's 11:00 AM central and 10:00 AM mountain. We're going to be talking about degunking this time, and Kojo's very sharp and always a lot of fun. Tune in if you can.

September 18, 2005: EBook Anguish, Part 2: Headaches

For the last ten or twelve years, I've bought fiction mostly in hardcover or trade paperback format. Prior to that, most of what I bought was in pocket book format. I thought I was just impatient, but there was more to it than that. A year or two ago, I was reading Nancy's Kress' pocket format biomedical thriller Stinger, and caught myself wishing that I had it in hardcover. What I wanted, 50-something bifocaler that I am, was simply larger type.

So it isn't just ebooks that give readers headaches. The problem of reflected vs. generated light is now well understood, and people are starting to realize that contrast and viewing angle matter a lot as well. Most of you who are interested in ebooks at all are probably aware of recent advances in "electronic paper," a purely reflective display technology with the viewing angle of paper and almost all of the contrast. Xerox led the way with its Gyricon technology, but the market leader today is E-Ink. I've seen the technology demoed at trade shows, and it's extremely impressive. I don't know how expensive it is to manufacture, but I think that if the demand were there for mass production, it could be made very cheaply—and it would allow me to make the type any damned size I wanted.

Sony actually introduced an E-Ink based ebook reader for the Japanese market in March 2004, and the display technology reviewed well. Predictably, Sony killed the LIBRIe reader by building ridiculous scorched-Earth DRM into the system, and forbidding people to load their own content into the box. (This is Sony's usual path toward also-ran-hood. Why doesn't somebody just buy them and part them out so we won't have to watch them commit techno-hara-kiri yet again?) What LIBRIe proved is that E-Ink can be made right now, and read without headaches. That problem's been solved. However, under that problem in the Great Big Sock Drawer of Unanticipated Hassles lay another, subtler one: The reading experience is not the same as the computing experience. A display that works swimmingly on a computer will not work as well for reading as a display engineered to be read, and vise versa.

Electronic paper holds its very crisp monochrome images in the absence of applied power (like paper) but the displays are very slow to refresh. Animation just isn't in its bag of tricks. That doesn't matter in any but certain technical books offering simulation or animated graphs; lord knows I do not want animated gif-oids bouncing around my book pages. Electronic paper in color is well along, but when reading text in bulk I want b/w and gray scale, not color. The difference is crucial: Gorgeous full-color coffee-table books are meant to be looked at, not read.

I don't know if faster electronic paper can be made; I'm sure its creators are trying. In the meantime, there is yet another concept-killer: People do not want to lug a separate reader around with them. This is why early dedicated ebook readers like the $500 Rocket EBook tanked on delivery: It was yet another fragile thing in the briefcase to be learned, protected, and lugged around. People are going blind reading ebooks on their cellphone displays because their cellphones are always with them. I wouldn't try that, but I've seen it done; my physician cousin Dr. Greg Toczyl has the entire freaking PDR on his smartphone. (I guess when you need the PDR, you need it right now, so at least he has an excuse.)

My compromise solution is this: Merge the reading and computing experience into one device by giving that device two displays. Picture a laptop (or better still, a convertible like Lenovo's X41) with a conventional color LCD on one side of the hinged lid, and an electronic paper display on the other. The electronic paper display is on the outside, but if you need to compute, you pop it open like any laptop and get to work. (With a convertible, you can do it either way.) The same computer stores and processes both ebooks and conventional data, but it renders ebooks on the slower but sharper and easier-to-read electronic paper display.

Having seen and handled the X41 (see my entry for August 20, 2005) I'm sure this would work. Sooner or later it will be done, and if people get used to smaller tablets like the OQO it might just catch on big. My point is that the ebook headache problem could be solved if manufacturers felt that the market was there. The market isn't there yet, and those problems are even gnarlier. More tomorrow.

September 17, 2005: EBook Anguish, Part 1

When I built my house here, I set myself an interesting challenge: To keep my three largest and most-used book categories (computing, religion, and general reference) in my office, and limit myself to what will fit on the shelves. I have a lot of shelves in this one room (what you see at left is only about half of them) but I also buy a lot of books, and in little more than a year, I have just about hit capacity. What this means is that when I buy new books, I have to let a couple go. This isn't all bad news; the culling process is good discipline, as it forces me to review the collection periodically, asking myself whether a given book is now obsolete (DOS, anybody?) or otherwise unnecessary.

Of course, with ebooks I wouldn't have to bother. I have a few ebooks here, and they're small. Even with graphics, a typical technical book is generally smaller than your typical MP3 file, down in the 2-3 MB range. Novels or purely textual nonfiction are smaller still, often smaller than 1 MB, with much of that taken up by the cover bitmap. Assuming an average size of 2 MB, that's 500 ebooks per gigabyte of storage. 4 GB USB flash drives are now commonplace, and getting cheaper. That's 2,000 ebooks in something the size of your little finger, which is more books total than I have here in my entire house. If you can set aside 20 GB of your laptop's hard drive for ebooks, you can carry 10,000 ebooks in your briefcase—and I'm sure I haven't read nearly that many books in my entire life.

I like print, and I think it will be with us for a long time to come. But packrat that I am, being able to deep-archive marginally useful print books as ebooks would be nirvana. If I ever really need a book on DOS, well, I'd still have it.

So why aren't ebooks the Next Big Thing? When will they break out of the Early Adopter Ghetto? Let me spend a couple of entries talking about that.

Overview: There are three serious problems with ebooks:

  1. The reading experience is still painful.
  2. Proprietary formats still dominate
  3. File-sharing makes publishers hesitate, or tie up the product with unacceptable DRM.
Tomorrow I'll begin by talking about why reading ebooks is still a headache—and why this is by far the easiest problem to fix.

September 16, 2005: Cover Art for The Cunning Blood

The most amazing Todd Hamilton has turned in the cover art for my novel, at left. (Cover text has not yet been merged with the image.) Those who have read the story will almost certainly recognize the various motifs; everybody else won't have to wait long: It should be off press and in our hands by November 10 or so and will be available in quantity shortly after, especially if you'll be at Windycon in Chicago on November 13.

The book will be a dustjacket hardcover, 360 pages, printed by conventional offset press at Thomson-Shore near Ann Arbor, Michigan. Cover price has not yet been set. It should be available from Amazon and will have (I hope) some reasonable presence in Borders and Barnes & Noble. Certainly you'll be able to order it from any reasonable bookstore, and once the ISFiC Web site is finished (it's still a little sparse, but I know that Steven's working on it) you will also be able to order it direct from the publisher.

I wrote this so long ago and tried to sell it for so long that the whole adventure had begun to feel completely unreal. Suddenly, after seven long years, it seems mighty real.

September 15, 2005: The Great Threat to Copyright

In most recent articles about DRM, the big content companies invariably bemoan the fact that "nobody respects copyright anymore." Setting aside the question of how serious the problem actually is, the question I'd rather see answered is, How did this come about?

I have a theory: Copyright is increasingly seen by ordinary people as something benefitting only a few wealthy people and companies. This suspicion was growing even before scorched-Earth DRM systems put targets on the heads of paying content customers. For quite a few years (I would say since the early 1980s) various market forces have gradually been turning the content industry into a "winner-takes-all" game in which a few players get hugely wealthy, and players on the fringes get little or nothing. Part of it is retail concentration and the death of quirky, locally controlled media retailing; part of it is the concentration of attention that the mass media bring about; and part of it are new laws that give much stronger legal protection to media that only the wealthy can afford to prosecute.

I first heard the term "mansion trash" years back when newly rich country star Garth Brooks started bitching about used CD sales (not piracy!) and how trading in used CDs should be illegal. When people like Brooks so obviously hold their audiences in contempt, it shouldn't surprise anyone that people begin to hold Brooks' copyrights in contempt. When people who pay for content feel like copyright restrictions and DRM are tightening around their necks like a noose (and making their grip on the content they paid for weaker and weaker) it's natural that they feel like they're being ripped off, prompting wholesale disregard for the rights of content creators.

I'm not saying that it's right. I'm saying (as a holder of several paying copyrights) that it's dangerous. Great concentrations of wealth and power eventually provoke populist responses. The personal income tax was made constitutional in 1913 almost entirely to punish the wealthy Northeast. If we ever do see another populist revolt against concentrations of power, the entire concept of intellectual property may go into eclipse. The very fact that some people reading this are probably saying to themselves, "so what?" indicates that we're already a long way down that very foggy road.

September 14, 2005: Activation's Core Problem

I'm a little surprised, but a couple of people didn't get the gist of my September 8, 2005 entry. I have several issues with product activation, but the primary reason I don't use activated products myself is that they can't be trusted. As Jerry Pournelle pointed out over 25 years ago, copy protection is a bad idea because it makes software fragile. It may be true that the programmers who created Adobe's activation system didn't intend for it to conflict with striped RAIDs, but software, as with any species of complex system, is full of unintended consequences. Today's it's striped RAIDS. Tomorrow...who knows? Multiprocessor systems? Multicore processors? Hardware-assisted virtualization? I'm not going to put time and what's left of my hair on the line to debug what amounts to a weapon aimed at my own forehead.

As long ago as late 2000, I ran afoul of an early scorched-Earth DRM system in an ebook reader called Glassbook. The damned thing wouldn't let me run a debugger while it was in memory, and there was no way to get it out of memory short of rebooting. For all the praise heaped on it, and Adobe's acquisition of the technology in 2000, Glassbook has since bought the farm, and it's unclear whether Glassbook formatted ebooks can be read on any other reader. (This is yet another problem I have with DRM technologies: What happens to orphaned DRM systems and content?)

As I said in my September 8 entry, activation is only used by companies that are so prosperous that they can annoy their paying customers with impunity. Pirates can and have cracked every activation scheme I've researched, so the only people who take the hits are people who pay for the software and try to play by the rules.

Again, no thanks.

September 13, 2005: Odd Lots

  • Whew. As best I know, my part in the publication of The Cunning Blood is finished, and the book should be off press by November 10 or pretty close to that. (That's why I've been missing days here. Many things collided in a single time period.) The book will be introduced at Windycon in Chicago on the 13th. I'll be there. Do let me know if you will be too!
  • Gallery 2.0 was released today. That's the PHP server-side photo manager that handles my albums at I'm extremely impressed with Version 1, and will be upgrading to V 2.0 some time in the next few days. So if the albums don't come up right away, it may mean I'm messing with the software. Check back later.
  • Pertinent to the above, the most-viewed photo in the Jeff & Carol album is the 1971 shot of me in that nearly indescribable psychedelic suit, and Carol in a miniskirt. Why do I think it's not me that everybody's rushing to see?
  • I just replaced a 1995-era Pentium I machine over at our church with something current, and the old machine (166 MHz) is going to be scrapped. In older days I would be wondering about how to render data on the hard disk unrecoverable (it contains records of church membership, donations, bills, etc.) but it occurred to me that there's not a great deal of use anymore for a 1 GB hard drive. Therefore I'm going to do what I call a "mummy unwrapping" next week and literally take the drive apart piece by piece, not only to render its data unreadable, but also to recover those wonderful strong little rare earth magnets that help move the read/write heads. It's odd to think that a 1 gigabyte hard drive is now so small as to be worthless, but true's true. If it weren't for the magnets, I'd use it for target practice with my sledgehammer.
  • I learn interesting new words in odd ways. While spell-checking a document the other day, my spell-checker barfed on the word "scannable" and suggested "scumble" instead. This is a real word, meaning "to apply a thin layer of semi-opaque paint over a color to modify it." I used to regularly type "cerate" instead of "create" and was in my thirties before I discovered that "cerate" means "to coat with wax." Egad, English has a word for everything.
  • Pertinent to the above, I learned another peculiar word last week—and then in the heat of a very busy week forgot what it was. The word meant "eloquent praise of worthless things." It's a rare word (else I would have heard it before I was 53) and even a fair amount of googling has not turned it up.

September 11, 2005: Why I Didn't Self-Publish My Novel

As I mentioned briefly a few days ago, my SF novel The Cunning Blood is going to be published in November by a startup press outside Chicago. I wrote the book in my loose moments from the end of 1997 to April, 1999. I shopped it for several years and got nowhere. Some of the big houses were polite, and looked at the manuscript. Most were polite and said, we're overbought right now. (With the implied: Come back ten years ago.) The rest didn't even answer my emails. So the book just sat for a couple of years doing nothing, and I strongly considered publishing it myself. After all, I know how it's done, heh.

Well, I didn't, and a number of people have asked me to explain why.

First of all, some very knowledgeable people told me not to—people with the stature of Nancy Kress and Darrell Schweitzer. I confess that as well as I know the mechanics of publishing, I don't know the SF book market very well, and I'm smart enough to listen to people whom I consider experts in the field. They told me that self-publishing marks you as an amateur for life, irrespective of how good your material is. This is less than completely clear to me, especially given that Christopher Paolini self-published his fantasy novel Eldest, and now that Random House has picked it up, nobody's calling him an amateur.

I know, I know, there's one Christopher Paolini for every ten thousand wannabe self-published novelists. Am I so bold as to assume that I'm the next one in ten thousand? On a good day, maybe. But my real reasons lie elsewhere.

Basically: I don't like the way most of the big presses operate, not only in SF but in other areas as well. The accountants are running the show, and the SMOWS (Sell More Of What Sells) imperative gradually narrows the field within which the front-line editors can move until there's almost no originality in the lineup. Harry's big this year, so elves'n'gnomes are big, or anything else that would appear to ride on Harry's coattails. To deviate from SMOWS requires a very big name.

This is certainly true of computer books, and from I've heard it's even worse in SF/fantasy.

I don't expect to make much money on the novel, and I don't have to live off the proceeds. That allows me to work with a publisher that actually knows the field and the audience, and do my part encouraging what I think is the future of quality book publishing: small presses that know their topic area and remain close to their audiences.

Besides, self-publishing is work. This way, I free up enough time to (gakkh!) write another novel, and now that my first is no longer moldering on the shelf, I'm good with that.

September 10, 2005: Odd Lots

  • I stumbled across a great little set of JavaScript calculators focused on "space math." You can calculate orbits, speeds for both Newtonian and relativistic travel, rotational speeds of space habitats given their size and desired level of artificial gravity, and so on. Man, I could have used this thirty years ago—and with some luck, I will need it again in the near future. Fine stuff.
  • Another handy page summarizes the HTML document character set. If you need to find out how to insert special symbols (daggers, math symbols, em/en dashes, foreign language characters, etc.) this page provides a nice summary.
  • We're seeing some increased solar activity (more info) the last few days, so those of you living life in a northern town, look out your windows on the next few clear nights. We are expecting aurora borealis as far south as (yes!) Colorado.
  • This one's for tube radio freaks, and low-voltage tube radio freaks in particular: Jim Strickland sent me a link to a page focusing on the "Hikers" radios of the 1930s, which used low-voltage batteries and are thus not a shock hazard. The page is detailed and includes a lot of scans of the original construction articles, but it's extremely IE-specific, so if it looks weird using another browser, you'll have to swallow your bile and fire up IE.
  • I put up a second album on, this one with photos of Carol and me down through the years, starting when we met in 1969. It's just for fun; to see a picture of me with hair, or Carol in one of those 1970s miniskirts, that's the place to go.

September 9, 2005: Donating Carefully and Effectively

I may be the last one in the blogosphere to have said this, but it bears repeating: Be careful where you send money to benefit the victims of hurricane Katrina. Scammers and phishers jumped in almost immediately, and the Web is full of "Donate here!" links, almost all of which are legitimate. But how can you tell which is which?

It's not easy, especially since many completely legitimate charitable agencies have formed in the last couple of weeks specifically to help victims and refugees. You won't find anything on them because they're too new. That doesn't mean they're bogus or inefficient. In fact, some of these brand new efforts are working very well because they're small, local, and not burdened by huge bureaucratic organizations.

Church relief agencies are also generally effective, because charity has long been the business of (legitimate) religion. If you belong to a large church organization, see if there are any efforts active in Katrina relief. The Catholics and Baptists have extremely effective organizations, and the Episcopalians are right up there. These are just the ones I know are active; other churches may well be. If you don't have a church or aren't interested in organizations within a religious framework, the American Red Cross can certainly be trusted.

I find the local groups working outside of the disaster area to receive and help settle refugees especially interesting. If everybody descends on New Orleans it will be chaos. The real challenge is getting people out of there and into some sort of functional life situation somewhere, either permanently or until New Orleans is fit to live in again. They're everywhere; ask around. You may know some of the people involved, and that's the best way to determine if they're legitimate (they probably are) and effective—which is more of a challenge since many are composed of people with little or no experience in this kind of service.

One of these local agencies that I will vouch for is PADS: Public Action to Deliver Shelter. It's located in south suburban Chicago, and is focused on using the old Tinley Park Mental Health Center as a temporary shelter for Katrina refugees. The Chicago Tribune covered it a few days ago. I trust PADS because the Rev. Mary Ramsden, an Old Catholic priest, is in the center of it all, working with the sort of furious energy that only saints-in-training can bring to bear on humanitarian efforts. She knows how it's done, and she's been doing it most of her adult life.

PADS doesn't have a Web site yet. Contributions are always welcome; make checks out to "South Suburban PADS." Checks should then be sent to:

The Rev. Mary T. Ramsden
5520 South 72nd Court
Summit IL 60501-1203

I'm encouraged by the incredible outpouring of money and energy from ordinary people to Katrina's victims, in stark contrast to various government agencies, which can't seem to get out of their own (and one another's) way. Government doesn't care. Government can't care. Only individuals care, and every time I start edging toward cynicism, ordinary people are the ones who slap me out of it.

September 8, 2005: Who Benefits from Activation?

Silly question, actually. Product activation is touted as software vendors' only defense against bankruptcy at the hands of software pirates, but I find it notable that the only companies that use activation are those that dominate or even monopolize a product category. Microsoft is the most visible user of product activation, but Adobe and Macromedia use it as well, and Adobe's system appears to be much touchier than Microsoft's.

Case in point: Adobe's recent product releases don't like RAID arrays, and assume that each RAID drive is a separate PC. I find this mind-boggling. Was this the consequence of putting moron-level programmers on the job? Or does Adobe just not care what problems they cause paying customers, so long as they reduce their piracy rate to zero?

We're dealing with Right Men again, who will go to any lengths to get their way, even if it means losing money they would otherwise have made. I bought InDesign 1.5 and Acrobat 4 some years ago, and use them happily to this day. I would have upgraded to more recent releases, but I won't if the software is hair-trigger ready to stop my work in its tracks. Adobe therefore loses a significant amount of money they they would definitely have received from me. How much they lose from piracy is a difficult question, because not every pirated copy is a lost sale. But nobody ever seems to talk about how much money Right Men lose by screwing over their legitimate customers.

The RAID problem isn't the core issue. A product activation scheme that will call a RAID array a group of separate PCs will do other stupid things. Forget it.

Small software companies trying to stay alive don't fool with product activation. Only companies that are almost completely secure in their respective markets can risk losing money they would have made from customers who (very understandably) won't allow their software to hold their work hostage. This actually does damage to the whole idea of copyright, as I will explain in a future entry.

September 7, 2005: Odd Lots

  • Stumbled across Mike's Classic Cartoon Themes while researching Colonel Bleep, a slightly surreal limited animation cartoon we used to see on the Garfield Goose show in Chicago in the late 1950s. Virtually all the cartoon shows I remember are there, with the notable exception of Tom Slick. Lotsa fun.
  • I like good tech hoaxes, and this is one of the best I've seen in a while.
  • The SF story I was reaching for in my September 4, 2005 entry was "Who Steals My Purse" by John Brunner. Cool cover. I don't have the mag yet but will eventually find it somewhere.
  • You want to see some spectacular astrophotography, try this. And with an 11" scope and a Webcam! The page speaks for itself. Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.
  • Brad Thompson points out that New Orleans has more to worry about than dirty water. I duked it out with termites once, back when I was in Arizona. I had a pile of duplicate ham radio mags on the garage floor, and they hollowed it out and turned it into Termite City. Interestingly, we used the same techniques the chap here describes, which are not new—though admittedly, I was not fighting Formosan Super Termites. (Maybe they'll all drown.)

September 6, 2005: That Damned Tone Control

Well, last night I may well have finished my 6T9 tube stereo amp—depending on how you define "finished." By mid-August I had finished wiring the first audio stages and the balance control. I tested the amp then, and it was glorious. It only puts about 1.7 watts per channel, which doesn't sound like much by headbanger standards, but it fills my workshop very nicely. I tested it with single-tone audio from my audio generator, and then with music from MP3s played on my laptop beside it on the bench. At one point I had some very slight instability at about 150 Hz on the left channel, but re-dressing some wires made it go away, and I haven't heard it since. I may have a borderline ground loop problem somewhere. Whether I decide to chase it depends entirely on whether the instability returns. If it does, I know where to look.

Anyway. The sound was great, but it was a little shrill, especially on some of those 60s "hits" that were mixed to emphasize the highs, for reasons I've never entirely understood. The last things I wired in were the tone control components, and that's when it hit the fan.

Troubleshooting is actually part of the fun in this game, and I'm not sure I would have been completely pleased had the amp worked flawlessly the first time I tried it. With the dual tone control pot in place, one channel was dead...and the other was unaffected. No matter where I swung the tone pot, the frequency mix on the left channel didn't change.

The dead channel was the easy one. I had left the solder tip on one end of a run of RG 174 a little too long, and because there was some bend in the run, the center conductor migrated through the softened insulation and touched the shield braid, grounding the signal input to the second audio stage. That was simply bad construction on my part. I should have cut the braid back another 1/4".

After I fixed that, both channels worked...but the tone control did nothing. It took an hour of hard thought and some flipping through a couple of 50-year old tube-era radio servicing books, but at last I realized that tone controls are really touchy things.

The circuit first appeared in the 1965 GE Electronic Components Hobby Manual, which was an assemblage of circuits from GE's engineering staff intended to promote use of their parts. Tone control circuits work by using a pot to shunt in capacitance that will pass high audio frequencies but not low audio frequencies. Too low a capacitance will shunt no audio at all (making the control ineffective) and too high a capacitance will shunt all audio to ground, leaving nothing for the power stage to amplify. GE had specified 750 pf for the shunt cap, which puzzled me. At 10,000 Hz (which is the range you want to attenuate a little to let the bass be heard) 750 pf has a reactance of 21,000 ohms. Nothing much is going to go through that until you go past 20,000 Hz or so, and human beings can't hear that high.

So what's shown in the books? It's all over the map, and I don't understand audio well enough to try to work through any equations. My tube-era books that discuss tone controls specify values from 100 pf to .05 uf. Um, that's quite a range. Since the books could not provide a consensus, I just closed my eyes and picked something in the middle somewhere. I tacked in a couple of small, modern .02 uf monolithic caps. This time, the tone control worked—too well, actually. At minimum resistance, most of my signal (both treble and bass) was going to ground, and volume fell off to almost nothing. Too much capacitance. I tacked in some 005 uf caps, and the high frequencies didn't come down quite as much as I wanted, but at least the tone control wasn't pretending to be a second volume control. .01 uf was a nice compromise, and while I could probably fool with it for a few more weeks, I think I'll leave it where it is. I have an intuition that .00750 uf might have been perfect—could the GE guys have dropped the decimal point? Or did the publisher of the book do it? There's no way to know. If I can find a couple of good quality .008 uf caps I'll try them. In the meantime, I have a pretty fine amp, and while I won't claim that it's "high-fidelity," it's just the thing for playing that scratchy rock'n'roll, as Joni Mitchell was telling Carey back when I was in college.

The updated schematic in TIF format (originally drawn in Visio 2000) is here. As time allows, I'll take voltage readings at key points and add them to the schematic.

September 5, 2005: The Two Kinds of Disaster

Pertinent to yesterday's entry, I need to make clear that there are two entirely different kinds of disaster: Acute disaster, and chronic disaster. Acute disaster is something that happens quickly, and is amenable to repair. Chronic disaster is something that develops over a period of time, and is often extremely difficult to put right. Acute disaster is a failure of expected circumstances. Chronic disaster is a failure of the underlying system.

Natural disasters, like those caused by volcanoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes, are classic examples of acute disaster. We don't expect them, though perhaps (as with earthquakes along the San Andreas fault, and hurricanes in New Orleans) we should. Sometimes, as with the Great Influenza of 1918, acute disaster comes straight out of left field and blindsides us all.

Chronic disaster is the result of cultural or governmental systems that have for whatever reason ceased to work. The anarchy in Somalia is probably the best example I could cite, though there are others to be found, especially in sub-equatorial Africa. This kind of disaster can be corrected (think of the famine in Bangladesh in the 1970s) but it generally takes a fundamental change in culture, government, or both.

There are cases that fall somewhere in the middle. AIDS, like any deadly disease, might have been stopped in its tracks in the mid-1980s, but it collided with a radical reorganization of sexual conventions in the first world, and became parasitical on Western urban culture. The Great Depression was the consequence of worldwide economic nationalism that might have continued for decades had not World War II turned the developed world inside out.

The key is to recognize that chronic disaster isn't usually amenable to change from outside. We can fix New Orleans (how to fix it, and to what extent it should be fixed, and—most important of all, who pays for the fixing—are separate issues) but by this time it's pretty clear that we can't fix Africa, or Iraq, and we will probably make things worse by trying. (Whether we must try when people are dying is one of the thorniest and most painful ethical problems that any of us are facing right now.)

Nonetheless, there is hope, even for chronic disaster. Communism was a chronic disaster for Russia, and it took 70 years for things to even begin to move in the right direction. (They will be moving in that direction for a long time yet.) India and China are moving in the same direction, and far more quickly, even though they've corrected their own disasters by exporting some of it to us.

Being open to change is the key. Brittle things are the seeds of disaster. Thinking outside the box often lets you out of the box. Holding on to the box just means you stay in the box, even if somebody cuts a hole in the box and tries to wave you out.

September 4, 2005: When Helping is Selfish

Time and again, liberal pundits, theologians, and other assorted folk on the left lambaste Americans for not sending more aid to Africa. This is a constant theme at the Live 8 concerts, where multimultimillionaire rockers and movie stars scream their indignant fury at the American middle class for their selfishness.

Nobody (especially our liberal media) seems to want to discuss the possibility that all the money and donated goods streaming into Africa are a significant part of Africa's current problems. Here and there I see some press on the topic, and back in July, Der Spiegel (a German newspaper) published an interview with Kenyan economist James Shikwati, who basically pleads for the West to "just stop." (Alternate link; Der Spiegel can be fussy.)

We're killing them with kindness—if kindness is what it really is. In 1997, 137,000 people were employed in Nigeria's textile industry. In 2003, the figure had dropped to 57,000, due to shiploads of donated clothing from the West. Loose supervision of aid monies allows corrupt regimes to make off with, or simply waste, what is sent.

The engine behind fuss of the Live 8 sort is guilt: We can feel better about our abundance by sending a little of it to poor Africa. It's not about the Africans. It's about us. We don't need that old Jersey anymore, so put it on the boat with tens of thousands of other jerseys. We get a clear conscience, and Africa gets so many jerseys that its own clothing industry withers and dies. Somehow, nobody ever talks about that.

The one thing that would undeniably help Africa is the one thing that the left will not consent to do: Throw open our borders to African-made goods and food. Big labor will have none of that. (Nor will Big Farming and many other groups that lean right, but the left never offends its benefactors, even when it would make ideological sense to do so.) In fact, as this article indicates (usual idiotic newspaper signup required) we have jiggered debt relief for nations such as Ghana in terms that force them to reduce tariffs on heavily subsidized American and European farm products, which bankrupts African farmers and indigenous industries.

I vaguely recall reading an SF story in Analog when I was in college about us knocking over a Vietnam-like nation by air-dropping on it all the things they make locally, thus bankrupting the country. (Does anybody remember that story? I think it was the cover story, and would have been in '72 or '73.) We're doing that to Ghana right now; basically dropping subsidized chickens and rice on them, and we're not even at war with them.

The ugly truth may be that ordinary people like you and I are powerless to help Africa. Generosity cannot help them. Debacles like Iraq suggest that military intervention won't help them. Accepting their goods may help a little, but unless African nations somehow create governments and cultures that allow local economies to thrive, Africans will continue dying. We can't transform their governments for them. The least we can do is stop donating them to death.

September 3, 2005: Ecoterrorism Via Model Rocketry

Pete Albrecht and I have been model rocket hobbyists for a great many years—me, since senior year high school at least. It pains me to see knucklehead government officials, especially in our school system, positively freak out at the very idea of a rocket-powered toilet paper tube with a balsa-wood nose. Good lord, with a weapon of such awesome power you could could destroy...well, you could probably destroy something. (Certainly, you can destroy the composure of a great many fools in powerful places.) It's gotten so bad in some cities that you have to belong to a club, or notify the police, before launching a model rocket anywhere.

Now we have this. A group of hugely righteous green-types in Holland have apparently developed a system based on model rocket technology for delivering herbicide-tolerant weed seeds into farmers' fields as a way of protesting genetically modified crops. (Oh, the irony.) Because gasoline is itself ecologically damaging, you have to pedal your way to the offending field before pushing the button.

I thought at first that it might be a hoax, but judging from the other items on their site I suspect it's serious. (However, note that nowhere do we see a photo of the rocket actually being launched.) Now when local officials here set out to ban model rocketry (to prove that they're not "soft on terrorism" and actually earning their keep) they can present the Dutch bicycle-mounted ecoweapon to prove that somebody, somewhere, is using model rockets to commit terrorist acts.

Hoax or not, it's actually pretty funny. How long do you think this guy would last pedaling his way down a street in Washington, DC, or any other major American city?

September 2, 2005: Is New Orleans History?

New Orleans is indeed history, and that's its biggest problem. Even if we manage to pump untold millions of gallons of sewage-laced water from the heart of this lower-than-sea-level city, we have to consider what happens next: A huge part of New Orleans' beloved Creole architecture will have to be razed. As this article suggests, old buildings that sit mostly submerged in sewage for more than a few hours almost always have to be gutted to the frame and rebuilt, and even then the frame isn't a sure thing. In other words, New Orleans may well rise from the muck—but it won't be the same New Orleans. Most specifically, what has historically defined New Orleans as a place and a culture will simply be gone, and that's not something you can just rebuild with new plywood from Home Depot.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (not available online) described how the once-thriving seaport in New Orleans has mostly been abandoned, and virtually everything that keeps the city going depends on tourism. Many don't like what a lot of the tourists go there for (wholesale puking in the gutters and exposing of breasts, among other things) but the dollars are real. Without its historic buildings and ambience, there won't be a lot left. A fluky, history-bound city like New Orleans is an emergent phenomenon. Just as you can't bring back a meadow once it becomes a forest (as Michael Kelly described in his seminal book Out of Control) you can't necessarily bring back a culture and a city that co-evolved to their current state over a period of 250 years.

We can rebuild the city if we really want to, but what most people think of as New Orleans will be gone forever. We will have to re-think not only how a city stuck on low ground between a lake and a big river can be made invulnerable to category 5 hurricanes, but also what the city is really for. Can New Orleans live without Mardi Gras? Given a few years and some hard work, we may find out. I'm hoping for the best.

September 1, 2005: Odd Lots

  • Frank Glover sent me a pointer to an article discussing a study implying that to build muscle through exercise (and make the most of other exercise benefits, like losing fat rather than muscle) you need to eat more protein than Americans are generally eating. That's a contrarian perspective these days. The mantra seems to be "Meat bad. Veggies good." On the other hand, I have never seen a muscular vegan. I guess you really are what you eat.
  • People are chewing the carpets over a new search engine that scrapes public records to assemble information on people. Zabasearch sounds creepy to some people, but my testing shows that about half of the records are simply wrong, having errors or being out of date and thus useless. People who have been dead for over five years are still listed, sheesh. I think you can worry a little less. I'm reminded of the Far Side cartoon of a guy in a house of mirrors confronting a belligerent duck, who says something like, "But which duck is the real duck, Mr. Farnsworth, and which is only a reflection?"
  • Several people sent me pointers to a new Wired article on filk songs and filk conventions. I like filk songs and used to write a lot of them, and my sister Gretchen has a great little side business selling filk collections on CD. (She and her husband Bill Roper have an entire professional-quality sound studio in their basement.) By sheer coincidence, I learned today that my very first SF filk song, "Our Space Opera Goes Rolling Along" has been nominated for a Pegasus Award. I wrote that song at Clarion East 1973, and people are still singing it at SF cons, which always amazes me a little, considering that I dashed it off in about ten minutes in the middle of the night.
  • Because so many people have told me they won't link to Contra unless individual entries are linkable from the day they're posted (and not 30 days later) I'm changing my strategy a little: I'm posting both this page (ContraPositive home) and the current month archive simultaneously. In other words, if you want to mount a permalink to this entry, you can use the September 2005 archive address right away: