- Lenin’s head is missing. It was last seen rolling around a forest near Berlin 23 years ago, but nobody can find it now, even though it weighs three and a half tons. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
- Evidently Lenin loses his head a lot. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Shame it didn’t happen in 1890 or so.
- How far does $100 go in your state? (Backstory here.) Be careful; the figures are state-wide averages. It’s much worse in urban cores. (Thanks to Tony Kyle for the link.)
- If you’ve never seen one, here’s an ad-farm article. I’ve often wondered if these are machine generated, written by people who don’t know English well, or machine-obfuscated copies of legitimate articles, intended to duck news providers’ plagiarism bots.
- Wired volcanologist Eric Klemetti reports that a swarm of small earthquakes may presage an eruption from Iceland’s Barðarbunga volcano. The volcano is interesting because its name contains the ancient letter eth (ð) something I don’t recall seeing on Web news sites in a lot of years. To generate an eth on Windows, by the way, just enter Alt-0240.
- Wired misses as often as it hits. One of its supposed futurists is telling us that the educated elite should be able to license reproduction, and dictate who can and who cannot have babies. By the way, his description of who is unfit to reproduce sounds a lot like the nonwhite urban poor. Articles of this sort are about as wise as “The Case for Killing Granny,” which put Newsweek in a world of hurt back in 2009.
- To make you love this guy even more, let me quote a summary of presentation he did on Red Ice Radio: “Zoltan argues that ultimately technology will be helpful to the ‘greater good’ and must be implemented, even if by force and even if there are causalities along the way. In the second hour, Zoltan philosophizes about technology as evolution and luck as the prime mover of the human experience. He talks about maximizing on the transhumanist value for the evolution of our species. We parallel transhumanism with religious thinking. He’ll speak in favor of controversial subjects such as a transhumanist dictatorship, population control, licenses to have children and people needing to justify their existence in front of a committee, much like the Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw’s idea.” If I were a transhumanist, I’d be ripping him several new ones right now. Or is transhumanism really that nasty?
- Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek is not proposing thiotimoline, nor anything else (I think) having to do with time travel. He believes that he’s broken the temporal symmetry of nature…which sounds devilish and full of interesting possibilities. As soon as I figure out what the hell it all means, time crystals will land in one of my hard SF concepts in -5 milliseconds.
- Michael Covington reminded us on Facebook that there are a surprising number of plurals with no singular form, including kudos, biceps, suds, and shenanigans. (I do wonder, as does Bill Lindley, if the very last bubble in the sink is a sud.)
- That discussion in turn reminded me of a concept for an END piece in PC Techniques that I took notes on but never wrote: the KUDOS operating system, which lacks error messages but pays you a compliment every time you do anything right. In 1992 I was thinking of purely textual compliments, but these days I imagine a spell-checker that plays “Bravo!” on the speakers every time you spell a word correctly. Wouldn’t that be fun?
This is Part 2 of an entry I began yesterday.
Nine years ago, I called for the creation of a digital content gumball machine; that is, a Web site that would accept payment and send back a file of some sort, whether a song, a video, or an ebook. It was the start of a popular series and I got a lot of good feedback. I’ve since walked back on several of the original essay’s points, primarily the notion that every author should have his or her own ebook gumball machine, but also the notion that DRM needs to be accomodated. At the time, I thought that while DRM might not help much, it wouldn’t hurt. I think the experiences of Baen and Tor (and probably other imprints) have proven me wrong. Lack of DRM helps. Besides, DRM is what gave Amazon its market-lock, and publishers demanded it. Petard, meet hoist.
The really big lesson Amazon taught us is that Size Matters. What we need isn’t a separate gumball machine for every author or publisher, nor even a clever P-P network of individual gumball machines, though that might work to some extent. We need Godzilla’s Gumball Machine, or Amazon will just step on it and keep marching through the ruins. To compete with Amazon, all publisher/author storefronts must be searchable from a single search prompt. Payment must be handled by the gumball machine system as a whole, via Paypal or something like it. Publishers will probably sell direct, and pay a commission to the firm operating the system.
This could be done. It wouldn’t even be hideously difficult. The technology is not only available but mature. Best of all, well…it’s (almost) been done already. There is a second e-commerce titan in the world. Its name is EBay. (Ok, there’s also Alibaba, which I have never used and know little about aside from the fact that it’s bigger than Amazon and eBay combined. Oh, and the fact that their TMall site is already hosting stores for Chinese print-book publishers.)
I’ll cut the dramatics and get right to the point: The Big Five need to partner with eBay and possibly Alibaba to produce a digital content gumball machine (or two) as efficient and seamless as Amazon’s. EBay’s affiliate store model is a good one, and I’ve bought an awful lot of physical goods on eBay, both new and used, outside the auction model. In fact, in the last few years I’ve bought only collectable kites at auction. Everything else was a fixed-price “buy it now” affiliate sale.
Admittedly, eBay has some work to do to make their purchasing experience as good as Amazon’s. However, they are already providing digital storefronts to physical goods retailers. I haven’t seen any plans for them to offer digital content so far, but man, are they so dense that they haven’t thought of it? Unlikely. If eBay isn’t considering a content gumball machine, it can only be because the Brittles won’t touch it. That’s a shame, though I think there’s an explanation. (Stay tuned.)
A large and thriving eBay media store would provide several benefits to publishers:
- Print books could be sold side-by-side with ebooks. Publishers could sell signed first editions to people who like signed print books (and will pay a premium for them) and ebooks to everybody else.
- Selling direct means you don’t lose 55% to the retail channel. Sure, there would be costs associated with selling on such a system, but they wouldn’t be over half the price of the goods.
- Cash flow is immediate from direct sales. It’s not net 30, nor net 60. It’s net right-the-hell-now.
- Publishers could price the goods however they wanted, at whatever points they prefer.
So what’s not to like?
Readers who have any history at all with the publishing industry know exactly what’s not to like: channel conflict. In our early Coriolis years, we sold books through ads in the back of our magazine. They weren’t always books we had published; in fact, we were selling other publishers’ books a year or two before we began publishing books at all. The Bookstream arm of the company generated a fair bit of cash flow, and it was immediate cash flow, not the net-180 terms we later received from our retailers. Cash flow is a very serious constraint in print book publishing. Cash flow from Bookstream helped us grow more quickly than we otherwise might have.
However, we caught a whole lot of hell from our retailers for selling our own products direct. That’s really what’s at stake here, and it’s an issue that hasn’t come up much in discussion of the Amazon vs. Hachette fistfight: Publishers can’t compete with Amazon without a strong online retail presence, and any such presence will pull sales away from traditional retailers, making those retailers less viable. If the Big Five partner with somebody to create Godzilla’s Gumball Machine to compete with Amazon, we may lose B&M bookstores as collateral damage.
Then again, the last time I was at B&N, they’d pulled out another several book bays and replaced them with toys and knicknacks and other stuff that I simply wasn’t interested in. The slow death of the B&M retail book channel has been happening for years, and will continue to happen whether or not the Big Five create their own Amazon-class gumball machine.
Alas, the Amazon-Hachette thing cooks down to this: Do we want Amazon to have competition in the ebook market? Or do we want B&M bookstores? We may not be able to have both, not on the terms that publishers (especially large publishers) are demanding.
And beneath that question lies another, even darker one: If eBay/Alibaba/whoever can provide an e-commerce site with centrally searchable ebook gumball machine for anybody…do we really need publishers in their current form? Publisher services can be unbundled, and increasingly are. Editing, layout, artwork, indexing, and promotion can all be had for a price. What’s left may be thought of as a sort of online bookie service placing money bets against the future whims of public taste. People are already funding books with kickstarter. B&M bookstores may not be the only things dying a slow death.
So what’s my point?
- Amazon works because it’s a single system through which customers can order damned near any book that ever existed. Any system that competes with Amazon must do the same.
- Digital and physical goods may not be sellable by the same firm, through the same retail channels. How many record stores have you been to lately? We may not like it, but it’s real.
- Neither B&M bookstores nor conventional publishers are essential to keep the book business alive and vibrant. We may not like that either, but it’s true.
- Publishing will probably become a basket of unbundled services. Big basket, big price. Smaller basket (if you can do some of the work yourself) smaller price. (I have an unfinished entry on this very subject.)
- The real problem in bookselling is discovery. This is not a new insight, and however the book publishing industry rearranges itself, discovery will remain the core challenge. You need to learn something about this, and although I’ll have more to say about it here in the future, this is an interesting and pertinent book.
And to conclude, some odd thoughts:
- The future of print-media bookselling may lie in used bookselling. Used bookstores seem to be doing OK, and it’s no great leap to imagine them taking a certain number of new books. Expect it to be a small number, and expect them to be sold without return privileges.
- The book publishing business may fragment into segments that bear little business model resemblance to one another. Genre books work very well as ebooks. Technical books, not so much.
- Change is not only inevitable, it’s underway. Brittle will be fatal.
I spent a couple of hours yesterday catching up on posts I hadn’t seen before concerning the Amazon vs. Hachette conflict. Most of it was what I call “nyahh-nyahh” stuff, which is easy to spot and click past. My eyes rolled so hard I could see my own pineal gland. I mean, really, is a ten billion dollar corporation “the little guy”?
In truth, the conflict is and will remain a standoff, for two major reasons:
- Amazon is doing nothing illegal. I’ve covered this in some detail before.
- Hachette (and the rest of the Big Five) can’t get what they want (in essence, to form an ebook cartel) without running afoul (again) of US antitrust law. (See the above link.)
So there’s nothing left to do but wage a PR war. This was The Latest Thing for awhile, though I think everybody is rapidly losing interest, probably because it’s really hard to make people feel sorry for James Patterson or Steven King. Calls for compromise will fail, as long as “compromise” remains what it is in today’s political sphere:
- Unconditional surrender of the Wholly Evil Other (WEO) to My Tribe;
- Self-humiliation of the WEO on national media, with apologies for existing;
- A pledge by the WEO to do everything My Tribe tells it to do while quietly dismantling itself and vanishing.
What I found fascinating about yesterday’s session is that nobody is talking about what the Big Five should be doing, which is competing with Amazon. Duuhh. In wondering why, I was reminded of a phenomenon I read about twenty or thirty years ago: brittle thinking. In a business context, brittle thinking appears when an organization has been doing things its own way for so long that it literally can’t imagine any change that wouldn’t destroy it. My theory is that brittle thinking is a consequence of narratives that we tell and repeat to ourselves until they become a sort of Holy Writ that cannot be challenged, lest the world end. The older a business is, the more vulnerable it is to brittle thinking. This may be why so many successful companies eventually fail. A narrative, like a habit, is a cable. The Big Five are all tied up in their own cables, and have become what I call brittle publishers.
The Big Five could take on Amazon. They could even win. They probably won’t, because they may be too brittle to imagine the changes that will be necessary. I’ve refined my thinking on this, and will offer a few points, aimed squarely at the foreheads of the Brittles:
- Break the Snowflake Mindset. Publishing is just a business. It has its quirks, like any other business. There is nothing magical or inherently special about it.
- Get out of Manhattan and San Francisco. The Brittles’ mantra that nobody outside Manhattan knows anything about publishing is hooey. I used to run Arizona’s largest book publishing company from a dodgy industrial park in North Scottsdale. My fixed costs were probably a third (or less) of what they would have been in Manhattan. My staffers, furthermore, were nothing short of brilliant. If it can be done in Scottsdale, it can be done in Omaha, Denver, Des Moines, or any other mid-sized heartland city. Hell, I bet I could do it in Cozad, Nebraska.
- Eliminate DRM completely. Many have commented that DRM was what caused the platform lock-in that gave control of the ebook market to Amazon. Yup. And it was the publishers that demanded that DRM. The only way to reduce piracy to manageable levels is to make the product cheap, good, and easily purchased. Oh–and don’t try to claw back what the honest customers have paid for, or you’ll just be giving them a full ride to Pirate University.
- And now, the biggie: Create an electronic retailer to rival Amazon.
Huh? What? Am I crazy?
Of course. I’m an SF writer. Tune in tomorrow, boys and girls, for our next exciting episode!
- Sony is shutting down its ebook reader business. Note the line that says with a straight face: “…the Librie was the first to use the e-ink display that makes long sessions headache free…” Headache-free? Headaches were why I stopped using the PRS-500.
- Here are the best shots I’ve seen of the first comet we’ve seen really close up. Y’know, I’ll bet we could make that into two comets if we really wanted to.
- According to Wired, there are Type 1 and Type 2 sockpuppets. I’ll bet there are others.
- Is luck really luck? Or is it some combination of skills and attitude?
- Here’s a detailed description of how rifle barrels are made. It’s a much more subtle business than I thought. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
- In case you were too young to actually be part of the 60s muscle car culture and wondered what all the jargon was in the old Beach Boys’ song “Shut Down,” here’s a detailed discussion. I was crushed: The mighty Corvette was going up against a “413,” which was in fact a…Dodge Dart.
- Someone asked me what I think about the EmDrive. Answer: I don’t. And until it’s demonstrated as thrust against gravity rather than thrust against a torsion spring, I won’t.
- Why, Lord? WHY?
- I thought I was imagining it, but evidently not: There really was a book called Science Fun with Milk Cartons . Now, where did I see the line, “Fun with Giant Frogs”?
- This one was real too, and I saw it face-out at eye-level in Bookstar.
- Speaking of real things, there’s a hot drink (tea of some sort, by the looks of it) called Urinal. (Scroll down.) I can guess where that one’s going. (Thanks to Irene Smith for the link.)
- More of the same here, though you’ll have to scroll to the very end to see the can of Unicorn Meat.
Last Thursday was 45 years since the magical night I met Carol. The earth moved for both of us; we just didn’t know what it meant yet. I was walking into walls for weeks thereafter. Carol, being generally more sensible, was determined not to lose her head, but she could tell almost immediately that I was, well, different. How many other boys would set up a home-made 100-pound telescope in her driveway to show her the stars? As it happened, I won her with science, and she won me the same way. I’ve told the whole story here and won’t recap, except to say that my father was right: Love grows out of friendship. There really isn’t any other way to do it, unless you’re willing to settle (as so many seem to) for mere infatuation.
On July 31, 2019 it’ll be 50 years, and that is gonna be a party and a half.
I jumped into e-readers fairly early, back in January 2007, with the original Sony PRS-500. It put me off e-ink for another seven years. I read a fair number of books with it, but the display only really excelled in direct sunlight. Since I read in a comfy chair under lamps that aren’t always as bright as I prefer, the gadget’s lack of contrast made me nuts. I soon went back to reading ebooks on IBM’s flawed but prescient X41 Tablet PC Convertible, which I used (generally for nothing else) until I bought a Nook Color at the beginning of 2012.
Fast forward to yesterday. (Now there’s a book title!) I came back from the mailbox at a dead run, with my new Kindle Paperwhite clutched tight in my right hand. Seven years is a long time in this business. I should have guessed that e-ink would improve. Optimistic as I am, I would have guessed short. The display is fantastic, in part due to seven years’ improvement in e-ink technology, and in part to the fact that the Paperwhite’s display is illuminated to keep it from depending completely on incident light. As with tablets and smartphones, you can actually read it under the covers in the dark. No flashlight required. (See above, which doesn’t do justice to the actual contrast between the two displays.)
Amazon has the ebook thing figured out: Make the products good, cheap, and effortless to buy. I had the Paperwhite out of the box for probably three minutes before I went online (through Wi-Fi; my unit does not have cell network capability) and bought two books in less than thirty seconds: Chuck Ott’s new novel The Floor of the World , and the Dover collection Oscar Wilde’s Wit and Wisdom . I’ve been a Nook guy for a couple of years, but that may change. We’ll see, as I explore the Paperwhite over the next few weeks.
Why did I buy yet another ebook reader? The Nook Color is actually pretty damned good, and my Transformer Prime is even better, at least for sideloaded books. However, I’m about to begin formatting my back catalog as ebooks, and I need to be able to test Kindle books (especially the newish KF8 format) on a real Kindle.
ESR recently posted a blog entry that won’t make him many friends in conventional SF publishing, but he’s on to something: We may be overstating the influence of tribal politics in the current SF culture wars. There is a huge difference between saying that characterization and literary writing are valuable, and insisting with rolled-back eyes that they’re all that matter. You know my perspective, at least on what defines SF: It’s the ideas. (Note the point that I make in the last comment; to that extent, I agree with ESR and did so a whole year before he made the point. I take my thiotimoline every morning, like all good hard SF writers should.)
Now, I am not taking up the character of Oscar Wilde in The Molten Flesh as a mere shortcut to literary acceptance. I have reasons, and I’m starting to think I need to explain those reasons fairly soon. Don’t worry; my intent is to stuff that yarn so full of ideas that they spill out onto the floor when you open it. It’s just what I do.
Finally, if any of you have any impressions or tips on Google Hangouts, I’d like to hear them. I’m about to implement virtual meetings for the Front Range Bichon Frise Club, and Hangouts looks like my best bet so far. (Skype has been off the table for over three years.)
- Someone asked me via email the other day: How thick is 16 gauge aluminum? I’m old: My first impulse was to grab my caliper and measure some. My second impulse was to google it. This answers the question, for steel as well as aluminum.
- The page cited above is part of a large and fascinating Web compilation called “How Many?” and it’s a dictionary of measurement units. Other tabulations include shot pellet sizes and the Danjon scale for lunar eclipse brightness.
- Metallic cesium figures, um, explosively in my novel Drumlin Circus. You can evidently distill it on your barbecue grill. I’m guessing you shouldn’t do that right before a thunderstorm, however. (Thanks to Jim Strickland for the link.)
- Speaking of explosions, here’s a map summarzing the legality of fireworks by state. I thought more states restricted them than actually do. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
- It’s not brand-new, but I stumbled on the Actobotics product line in the latest edition of Nuts & Volts. It’s a very nice Erector/Meccano-ish system with more robust parts & real metal gears. No, not cheap–but neither was Meccano, at least on the scale I used it when I was building things like The Head of R&D.
- If you’re interested in following the progress of the recent collapse of sunspot activity, don’t forget Solar Ham. More data than SpaceWeather, and you don’t to know anything about amateur radio to find it useful. Given that the peak of the current solar cycle was probably this past March, coming down so hard so fast is something of a phenomenon.
- There is a utility that finds loops in videos suitable for making animated GIFs. Sometimes technology advances the human condition and sometimes, well…
- There’s something called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, and if the maps are to be believed, I may be speaking it, though it sounds New Yawkish to me. This is a tweak on Inland North American English. Somebody oughta do an app that can tell me what accent I actually have. I’m a Chicagah boy but have been told I don’t sound like one. (Thanks to the Most Rev Sam’l Bassett for the link.)
- Pete Albrecht sends us a list of current and defunct bookstore chains worldwide. I spent so much money at Kroch’s & Brentano’s 40 years ago that the place should still be around but, alas, it’s not.
- If you’ve secretly longed to see a photo of Alfred Hitchcock eating a giant pretzel, or classic mustard ads of the 1950s, well, it’s all here. (Yes, I’m a sucker for vintage weirdness, but this is good vintage weirdness.)
I’ve been in book publishing since long before there were ebooks. Print was always primary, and you saw to print first. Once ebooks became practical, ebooks were derived from print book content. The tools were dicey, and the renderers (in ebook readers and apps) were very dicey. (I think they still are. Will any common ebook reader render a drop-cap correctly? If so, let me know. I have yet to see one that does.) The way publishing is currently evolving, this has to change. Ebooks are becoming the afterthought that wags the industry, and print, where it survives at all, looks to become an extra-cost option.
I’ve been watching for that change for some time, while continuing to use the same system I learned in the 1990s. I write and edit in Word, and then do layout and print image generation in InDesign, which I’ve used since V1.0. I’m willing to change the apps I use to generate books of both kinds, but it’s got to be worth my while.
So far, it hasn’t been. I do intuit that we may be getting close.
What rubbed my nose in all this is my recent project to clean up and re-issue my novel The Cunning Blood in ebook format. Although it was published in late 2005, I actually wrote the book in 1998 and 1999. Even when you’re 62, sixteen years is a long time. I’ve become a better writer since then, and beyond a list of typos I’ve accumulated some good feedback from readers about booboos and awkwardnesses in the story that should be addressed in any reissue. So the adventure begins.
There’s a common gotcha in the way I create books: Final corrections to the text in a layout need to be recaptured when you return to manuscript to prepare a new edition. I was in a hurry and careless back in 2005. I made literally dozens of changes to the layout text but not to the Word file. To recapture those changes to the manuscript I’ve had to go from the layout back to a Word file, which with InDesign, at least, is not easy. I don’t intend to make that mistake again.
That said, avoiding the mistake may be difficult. Word processors are marginal layout programs, and layout programs are marginal word processors. The distinction is really artificial in this era of eight-core desktops. There’s no reason that one program can’t maintain two views into a document, one for editing and one for layout. The marvel is that nobody’s succeeded in doing this. My only guess is that until very recently, publishing drew a fairly bright line between editing and layout, with separate practitioners on each side of the line. Few individuals did both. What attempts I’ve seen are shaped by that line.
Consider InCopy. Adobe introduced InCopy with CS1. It’s a sort of allied word processor for InDesign. It never caught on and is no longer part of CS. (Only one book was ever published about InCopy CS2, which is the surest measure of failure on the part of an app from a major vendor.) I have CS2 and can guess why: InCopy requires a great deal of what my Irish grandmother would call kafeutherin’ to transfer copy between the two apps. InCopy was designed for newspaper work, where a lot of different writers and editors contribute to a single project. I consider it it a multiuser word processor, for which I have no need at all. For very small press and self-publishing, we need to go in the opposite direction, toward unification of layout and editing.
There is a commercial plug-in for InCopy called CrossTalk that sets up InDesign and InCopy for single practictioner use, but the damned thing costs $269 and may no longer support CS2.
I’m still looking. A couple of my correspondents recommended I try Serif’s PagePlus. I might have done so already, but the firm’s free version installs crapware toolbars that most people consider malware. The paid version does not; however, I’ll be damned if I’ll drop $100 on spec just to test something.
I know a number of people who have laid out whole books entirely in Word, and I could probably do that. With Acrobat CS2, I could generate page image PDFs from a Word file. Atlantis edits Word files and generates good-quality .epub and .mobi files from .docx. That’s not a bad toolchain, if what you want is a chain. I already have a chain. What I want is a single edit/layout app that generates page images, .epubs, and .mobis.
Etc. The tools are definitely getting better. Solutions exist, and one of these days soon I’m going to have to choose one. As I said, I’m still looking. I’ll certainly hear suggestions if you have some.
- Here’s a nice rant about something that’s always bothered me: that programming is more difficult than it has to be, that programmers revel in its difficulty, and ceaselessly ridicule tools and languages that make it easier. The ranter lists COBOL, Hypercard, and Visual Basic as examples, but even he seems afraid to mention Pascal (much less Delphi or Lazarus) which looked like it might once have driven C into the sea. I admit I don’t understand the constant emphasis on Web apps. Conventional desktop and mobile apps are still useful and far less fiddly.
- Speaking of Lazarus, TurboPower’s stellar Orpheus component suite has been (partly) ported to Lazarus.
- AV software vendor Avast pulled an interesting stunt: They bought 20 smartphones on eBay and then used readily available recovery software to pull off 40,000 supposedly deleted photos, including 750 of women in various stages of undress. That, plus emails, texts, GPS logs, and loads of other stuff. I’ve always treated my old phones to a speed date with a sledgehammer. Someday I’m thinking my Droid X2 will go on the same date.
- Ahh, now global warming causes kidney stones. Two Snapple bottled iced teas a day for a year or two just might have had something to do with mine. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
- And while I was poking around io9, I stumbled across a piece I missed back in February. If you get 25% of your daily calories from sugar, you triple your risk of dying from heart disease. Again I say unto you: Fat makes you thin. Sugar makes you dead.
- Although not a gamer, I give points to a small Canadian game developer Studio MDHR who are creating Cuphead, a game series consisting of cel-animated action in the style of a 1930s Max Fleischer cartoon. These cartoons were played on TV endlessly when I was a 7-year-old, and they were often creepy as hell. (See “Bimbo’s Initiation,” “Swing, You Sinners,” and Fleischer’s surreal riff on “Snow White,” especially once the action enters the Mystery Cave.)
- I generally don’t watch online videos, particularly of a talking head lecturing. I can read a great deal faster than I can listen to people talk, and watching informational videos is therefore a bad use of my time. Here’s an interesting example. Don’t bother with the video, but read the comments. A guy summarizes the whole damned thing as a list that I read in seconds. So who needs the video?
- Megan McArdle stops short of making the point in her essay on Uber “surge pricing,” but legislative attacks on surge pricing are thinly disguised protection for the medallion cab industry.
- Relevant to the above: The last time Carol and I took a cab, the chatterbox cabbie said he was going to look into Uber, not only to make more money but also to control his own schedule. (Uber just recently expanded to Colorado Springs.)
- New York police chase a hobby RC helicopter (and that is precisely what it was; this “drone” thing is loaded language intended to demonize RC aircraft) endangering themselves, their aircraft, and people on the ground. Governments are terrified of being filmed. That’s it. That’s all you need to know about “drones.”
Rumors of my abduction by aliens are at least a little exaggerated. My wife, as most of you know well, is an …otherworldly… beauty, and on my 62nd birthday she abducted me for another tropical vacation. Carol’s sister Kathy and our brother-in-law Bob were co-conspirators, and though the Dominican Republic is a bit of an alien environment (especially for white-bread boys like me) it was an alien world well worth visiting.
The east coast of the island is an area called Punta Cana, where the density of resorts approaches a weird sort of recreational singularity. We landed at Secrets Royal Beach and stayed there for a full week. Logistically, the trip was a polar opposite to our second honeymoon on Grand Cayman back in May: In the Caymans, we bought our own food, cooked, and kept house on our own steam in a rented beach condo. At the all-inclusive Secrets, well, they do pretty much everything except throw you in the pool, and I’m guessing that could be arranged.
Our phones didn’t work. Meh. Ask me if I care. We had to pay extra for Internet, which we used a lot less than we expected. (My increasingly cranky Win7 laptop didn’t help.) I gained four pounds, which for one week is close to a personal record. Much of that was due to the neverending pina coladas, I suspect. What wasn’t alcohol was sugar, and in truth (this being an all-inclusive) there wasn’t a great deal of alcohol in the drinks unless you knew how to ask for it. (We learned.)
The beach is spectacular. The white sand was like powder, soft, and for some reason never too hot to walk on, even in the brutal noonday sun. Some sea grass breaks loose from the bottom and washes onto the shore, but the beach tenders were constantly raking it up. The water was upstairs of 85 degrees. The resort has chairs under the palms and under dozens of hand-thatched tiki huts. Granted that this is their off-season, we had no trouble getting a hut when we wanted one.
The Secrets staff were wonderful, with particular mention of two: Angel and Marianny. Angel (a male waiter whose turf included our spot on the “lazy river” pool) was hilarious, and kept the drinks coming. Marianny worked at the beach grill, and she was gracious enough to help me remember my Spanish across the 41-year gulf since my last Spanish course. I wanted to say “bee” (abeja) and almost said “abuela” (grandmother.) Instead, I buzzed. She laughed, and told me the word. I could not for the life of me remember the word for “breakfast” (desayuno) and one word that I could say (conozco) I could not define. (It means “I know.” Heh.)
This was a (mild) problem throughout the week. I was never entirely sure whether the staff understood my questions, and therefore whether their answers reflected reality. Boy, I started wanting a book that would be a sort of second-gen Exam Cram for stuff you learned long ago and recall unevenly. Anybody want to buy a series? The first title will be Take Back Your Spanish. (The second might have been Take Back Your FORTH, but some things are best left forgotten.)
Americans at the resort were outnumbered (I’d guess 2 to 1) by Europeans and Canadians, and most of the people we spoke to were British, Irish, or Russian. I had abundant opportunity to play my private game of identifying overheard languages. We heard Russian, Polish, French, and probably Portuguese. Here and there I heard languages I had no clue about, though I think one was Turkish. Peculiar cultural gaps kept appearing. A middle-aged British woman asked me what sort of hat I was wearing (not the hat in the photo above) and seemed poleaxed by the idea of an indestructable terrycloth roll-up beach hat that (granted) looks like something made out of a washcloth. She wanted to know where I got it, but I’ve had it for at least 25 years and no longer recall. Another woman from the UK had never heard of Kaley Cuoco, even though she was a dead ringer. European women evidently wear bikinis well into their seventies, a species of courage that I much admire.
Carol and I remarked to one another that we may be the last people in the Industrialized West without tattoos.
The food was good. We ate most meals at the buffet, which had its quirks but was generally excellent. We had uneven luck with the a la carte restaurants. Language again intervened: I ordered a steak at the resort’s French restaurant, and asked for a glass of red wine. The waiter said there was only white wine. I said ok, I’ll take a glass of white wine. Then he returned with the bottle and poured me a glass of…red wine. The steak was terrific, and the mushroom orzo spectacular. The wine was workmanlike, and hey, however tangled the negotiation, I eventually got what I wanted.
There are all sorts of things to do there, almost none of which we did. People hanging from parasails were going by over the beach constantly. I like kites and brought two, but I don’t think I’d particularly enjoy riding one. You could also get rides on these little ultralight planes with inflatable pontoons, or, for more money, rides in real helicopters. The snorkling was not good unless you went out a lot farther than we wanted to go. (In the Caymans it was right off the beach.) So we bobbed in the ocean and paddled around the pool. I got another 150 pages through Richard Ellmann’s ginormous fine-print biography of Oscar Wilde. I now know that Wilde had a 17-inch neck and a 38 1/2 inch waistline. It’s that kind of biography, and took Ellmann twenty years to write. I hope to finish reading it in less.
Secrets is “adults-only” (which sounds disreputable but just means the kids are in the next resort over) but the definition of “adult” was slippery. There was deafening rappish tech/trance music and much twentysomething horseplay by the big pool all afternoon through mid-evening. Every time I turned around I was hearing Aloe Blacc’s technocountry (yes, I just made that up) hit “Wake Me Up When It’s All Over,” to the point where I was absently humming it over dinner. On Canada Day there was a marching band circling around the pool playing “O Canada,” whereas on the Fourth of July there was a hot dog eating contest and a big machine spraying soap foam all over the revelers in the pool. What this says about us and the Canadians (or how other cultures perceive us) is unclear.
All of this is to say that we had a great time doing exactly what we wanted to (splashing, reading, enjoying the company) and little of what we didn’t want to. The outing cost about a third of what a week in Hawaii would cost us. The plane ride was five hours, not eight or nine. It was hot. So? It was winter in Colorado until fairly recently. Heat still has some novelty value. Overall, I’d call the experience superb. Once the Polar Vortex starts landing on you (and it looks like it’s already begun in parts of the Midwest) we suggest getting a couple of tickets on a Frontier starship and heading to planet Punta Cana. Highly recommended.
- A guy is working on 3D printing with molten steel, via TIG welding.
- I’m really good with words. Maybe that’s why a college friend said 40-odd years ago: “The trouble with you, Jeff, is that you’re too damned happy!” Everything is connected, I guess, and now there’s science indicating that human language is biased toward happiness.
- More research on ice ages: They may be made possible by the isolation of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by the Ithsmus of Panama. (Full paper here.) I’ve heard this before, but there’s more data behind it now.
- Some recently discovered fossilized poop in Spain suggests that I’m not really a Neanderthal after all. Bummer.
- I’ve always been of two minds about Mensa, for reasons I really can’t talk about here. Now there’s a Mensa dating site. I think I’m of three minds about that. Maybe five.
- There’s an exploitable software flaw in the Curiosity rover, stemming from arcane math in the Lempel-Ziv-Oberhumer compression algorithm. I hope the rover isn’t running XP, or (judging by the hype) it would have been totally pnwed since April 10. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
- This guy says he could tornado-proof the Midwest with a couple of 1,000-foot-high walls. Me, I say, implement STORMY. Then stand back.
- Meditation may not always be the unalloyed good that its proponents insist it is. I’m researching this further and will do a full entry on it at some point, as it’s a matter of serious interest to me. I have a theory that meditation is only one half of a single effective psychiatric process, and without its other half it can aggravate psychosis and even cause a drift toward schizophrenia.
- Here’s a terrific collection of photos of steampunk gear from Dark Roasted Blend. Follow the links to the mechanical calculators page if you haven’t seen it before. (It’s old, and I linked it from here some years back.)
- DRB publishes periodic “feel good” collections of visual odd lots that are mostly 50s and 60s nostalgia. Here’s the latest. Too many actresses, not enough classic cars. But if you like classic actresses, well, wow.