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Ideas & Analysis

Discussions of various issues including suggested solutions to problems and pure speculation

Masks as Inadvertent Variolation

Yesterday’s post on the effectiveness of masks reminded me of something I had taken notes on over a year ago: masks as variolation. The insight wasn’t original to me, but alas, I don’t recall where I first saw it.

Variolation, if you’re not familiar with the term, is the process of generating immunity to a virus by exposing people to small amounts of the virus. It was invented for (and named after) smallpox (variola). The process, however, can be applied to other viruses. I wonder if wearing a so-so mask within a population carrying SARS-CoV-2 would allow the inhalation of enough virus to cause antibody generation via a mild or even asymptomatic infection, but not enough to cause a full-bore and possibly severe symptomatic case.

This isn’t where I saw it, but an article in the New England Journal of Medicine from late 2020 makes precisely this point. In my article on masks I was talking about the aggregate effectiveness of masks, which depends on how many viruses you inhale through the filtration medium–and how many viruses are squirted out through jets at the edges of your mask when you exhale. No mask is perfect. A lot of them are worthless, but quite a few are effective enough to reduce viral load by some percentage, which obviously varies by the type of mask and how it’s worn.

Which brings me to my pet peeve, which is pertinent here: The media never talks about COVID-19 deaths. They only talk about cases, which can include mild or asymptomatic infections–or, in truth, false positives on the fluky PCR test. What the media absolutely will not talk about is natural immunity, that is, immunity conferred by an actual infection with the pathogen. We know such infections happen. We have no idea how prevalent they are. My hunch is that many or most of these new cases are not cases as generally understood (a sick person!) but positive tests from people who have had an infection and threw it off, perhaps thinking it was a cold or without even knowing they’d had anything at all.

I’ve seen studies indicating that natural immunity is stronger and longer-lasting than vaccination immunity. This post on The Blaze mentions some of them. What this means is that the “exploding case count” the pornpushers are screaming about could well be a count of positive-test people who now have natural immunity and will probably never contract the disease again.

How could this be? Simple: The vaccine gives you a quantity of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which teaches your immune system to recognize the virus by its spikes. An actual COVID-19 infection teaches your immune system about the whole damned virus, spikes and everything else.

Obviously, nobody wants to catch the disease, since the panic industry has pushed what I call “mask-it or casket” porn, typically just-so stories of some guy who claims the vaccine is fake and then dies of COVID the next day. The vaccine is not fake; Carol and I got it as soon as we were eligible. (I do wonder whether we would test positive under PCR. It might be worth the cost of the tests to find out.) What I’m talking about is that huge unknown: how prevalent natural immunity is–and how we came to get it.

Masks don’t protect you completely (as the government seems to imply) but they protect you some–and maybe enough to generate that natural immunity without suffering from the disease itself. That’s variolation.

As several of my friends have found, even mentioning “natural immunity” on Twitter or Facebook will get you banned, most likely because natural immunity argues against all the panic, and argues in favor of our hitting a degree of herd immunity (also a ban-attractor) soon or even already. Remember: A case is a positive test, symptoms or no symptoms. It’s very rare to contract the disease again after you’ve had it and thrown it off. It’s much more common to contract it after vaccination. (We’re ready for that, though given the prevalence of comment harpies, I’ll share details only with people I trust, and then one-on-one.)

Now, this notion of masks as variolation is just speculation. I bring it up because it exposes a huge gap in the coverage of COVID-19 that we’re getting from conventional online sources, who are censoring all mention of natural immunity and its related topics. It’s also why I keep my own instance of WordPress on my own hosting service rather than an account on the WordPress site. I don’t talk about controversial topics very often, but when I do, I don’t want the conversation to be suppressed.

Masks Can’t Work–But Not for the Reasons You Think

I’ve been pondering this issue since last fall, waffling constantly about whether I should write about it at all. I was sure that any number of other people would make the point I’m about to make, but I haven’t seen it. Maybe it’s too simple. Maybe people are past caring. I don’t know.

Here’s my point: Consumer-grade masks can’t stop SARS-CoV-2. It’s impossible. But not for the reasons you might think.

First, some background. Surgical masks were originally developed to protect vulnerable patients from pathogens exhaled by doctors. They were not designed to protect healthcare workers from patients. Some people recognized this early on, in memes stating (rather too confidently) “My mask protects you. Your mask protects me.” In a perfect world, that might be true. Such a world does not and cannot exist.

The key word here is perfect.

In order to be effective, a mask must meet these requirements:

  1. It must be made of a material allowing the flow of air while seriously restricting the flow of droplets and aerosol virus particles. Such masks are uncommon. The only ones I know of are N95 masks, without exhalation ports. (Exhalation ports render an N95 mask pretty much worthless, as this study showed.) And I’d just as soon reserve N95 masks for front-line healthcare workers.
  2. A mask must fit close to perfectly. I don’t know how anybody expects one mask design to fit all the infinite varieties of human faces. Fit often requires that the mask straps be very tight, so tight as to be nasty uncomfortable. A couple of loose straps over your ears won’t do it, especially if your face is unusually long or wide.
  3. The mask must be worn perfectly. If adjusted for comfort, even a perfectly fitted mask will leak like a sieve and ceases to be effective.
  4. Touching the filtering medium of your mask is a no-no. If you’re in an area with aerosol virus particles floating around, those particles will accumulate on the outside of the mask. Touching them transfers them to your fingers, which can then easily transfer them to food or tissues.

The primary failure mode for masks is leakage. When the whole mask fetish first became a thing, we bought some masks and I did some experimenting. I put a mask on as best I could, dipped a finger in a glass of water, and held the wet finger around the edges of the mask while I breathed normally. I could easily sense jets of air at several places around the edge of the mask, no matter how I adjusted it. These jets did not pass through the mask material, and if the wearer is contagious, the aerosol virus particles will be sent in several directions with significant force. I was surprised, in fact, at how much force was behind the jets from even normal breathing.

Think about jets of air for a moment. Even a tiny amount of air will move quickly if forced through a small hole or gap. Those jets leaking around the edges of your mask will carry aerosol viruses a long way. Sure, droplets quickly fall to the ground within the standard distance of six feet. SARS-CoV-2 travels as both droplets and as aerosols. Droplets are big enough to be trapped by the mask’s filtration medium. Aerosols are so small that most go right through it, absent expensive materials like those used in N95 masks. Cloth masks depend on the nature of the cloth. Cheap surgical masks barely stop them at all. Woodworking masks are completely worthless. Hold that thought; I’ll come back to it.

I’ve found some interesting videos. In this first one, a woman takes a hit off her vapestick, puts her mask back down, and then exhales. She immediately blows two jets of smoke right into her eyes, and then starts choking. Bad idea. The takeaway is that smoke came out the edges of her mask in a hurry. Obviously the mask was not being worn correctly. Hold that thought too; I’ll come back to it.

Here’s another, better video, in which a man wearing several types of masks inhales from a vapestick and exhales while wearing the masks. (I can’t tell whether he’s wearing the masks correctly or not, though it looks correct to me.) Smoke or vapor (I’m not especially familiar with the technology) streams out from the edges of the mask on every side. The smoke or vapor is there there simply to help you visualize how leaky cheap masks are. Clearly, my mask doesn’t protect you, and your mask doesn’t protect me. (The video was originally posted on YouTube several times, and taken down every time. It’s now on BitChute. The Powers obviously don’t want you to see failure modes in enforced conventional wisdom.)

Even a high-quality mask will leak around the edges, especially if you have a nonstandard face. We needn’t mention gaiters, which have no mechanism for preventing significant jets through the gaps on either side of your nose.

Now, I told you all that to tell you all this: Suppose a high-quality, perfectly fitting mask worn perfectly traps a significant number of aerosol particles. Here’s the extra-large economy-sized question:

How do you guarantee that all mask wearers are wearing effective masks that fit well and are worn correctly?

We all know the answer: You don’t. Masking is a collective exercise. It’s gotta be almost everybody or it might as well be nobody. There is no enforcement mechanism that will render a mask-wearing public immune to SARS-CoV-2. I’m pretty sure there’s no enforcement mechanism that will keep a mask-wearing public from exhaling massive numbers of aerosol viruses. Post mask cops on streetcorners, checking mask types and adjusting them to fit correctly and well? Really? Most of the public doesn’t like masking and will do the minimum necessary to meet a mask mandate. I’m thinking a lot of them will wear their masks as loosely as possible, just for spite.

My conclusion is this:

Enforcing an effective mask mandate on the public is impossible.

I can already hear the crowd screaming at me: “The perfect is the enemy of the good!” Well, yes. In this case, the chain of contingencies leading to effectiveness is so long that anything less than perfect is just about no good at all.

“But if a mask stops even one virus…”

The fifty billion other viruses gleefully jetting away around the edges of your mask might want a word with you. Or maybe they’ll just laugh.


Note well: This is a controversial topic, and as with all such topics, I require heroic courtesy from all commenters. Screaming at me won’t convince me of anything; it just makes you look like a moron. I’d appreciate that if you take issue with something I’ve said, take issue with the point I actually made.

The Ionophore Experiment

A year and some months ago, when the whole COVID-19 thing was just getting out of second gear, one of the doctors I see recommended that Carol and I take zinc and the OTC supplement quercetin every day. The explanation was simple: Quercetin is a zinc ionophore. Ionophores are chemicals able to transport certain ions through cell membranes through which those ions would not ordinarily pass. Zinc is known to attack viruses of all sorts, especially cold and flu viruses. Quercetin attaches to zinc ions and escorts them through cell membranes, into the cells where viruses replicate. Zinc stops virus replication cold.

This sounded familiar, and it was. About that time I had begun hearing of the work of Dr. Zev Zelenko, a New York physician who had begun treating early COVID-19 patients with a drug cocktail consisting of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), Zinc, and an antibiotic. Dr. Zelenko has a wonderful metaphor describing the cocktail’s operation: Zinc is the bullet. HCQ is the gun. Sure, it’s a little more complex than that, but despite metric megatonnes of anti-HCQ bullshit in the media, the cocktail works.

I’ve seen quercetin described as a zinc ionophore in many places. HCQ is also a known zinc ionophore. It’s a prescription drug that must be taken under medical supervision to avoid certain side effects. However, people I know personally are taking it every day and have for years for autoiummune disorders. I’m not sure how you measure the effectiveness of one zinc ionophore vs. another, so it’s unclear how “strong” an ionophore has to be. Everything I’ve read suggests that quercetin is strong enough to kill viruses wholesale by escorting zinc into cells.

Quercetin has, at best, mild side effects. It’s found in many foods, including kale. Alas, I won’t eat kale, so I take it as an extract in a gelcap. Carol and I followed the physician’s advice, and we’ve been taking 800 mg of quercetin once daily in a formula that includes bromelain. We also take 50 mg zinc daily in the form of zinc gluconate. I’ve talked about this before here on Contra, though it may have been a whole year ago or more. I bring it up again because Carol and I have noticed something unrelated to COVID-19: Neither of us has gotten a cold since we began taking quercetin plus zinc.

And that, my friends, is worth something. My long-time readers have heard me bitch about catching colds and feeling miserable down the years. I get one or sometimes two bad colds a year, and a scattering of sniffles that last for a few days and vanish. We get flu shots, but we still got the flu really bad back at the end of 2017. So the experiment is this: Even though we’re fully vaccinated, we’re going to keep taking quercetin plus zinc, and see how long it is before either of us catches a cold or flu. (We’ll still get our flu shots. I’m a strong believer in vaccination.)

Now, a lot of the country is still hiding out, though here in Arizona mask mandates are mostly a thing of the past. So it’s possible that we ducked colds for the past fourteen months by simply not rubbing shoulders with people much. Those days are past. We shop at big stores like Safeway and Target and Costco even when they’re crowded and nobody has masks. In other words, we’re more or less back to normal life. And my experience of “normal life” prior to COVID was (at least) one cold a year.

Carol and I aren’t worried about COVID anymore. Is it possible that we don’t have to worry about catching colds either? I’m turning 69 in a week. I’ll recap in another year. There’s still no cure for the common cold, but if two OTC supplements can stop colds before they start, man, I call that a revolution–and one helluva birthday present!

Music You’ve Heard But Can’t Name

Leroy Anderson came up in conversation recently, and I remarked that his orchestral compositions are a perfect example of music that everybody’s heard but (almost) nobody can name. When you hear an Anderson piece, you think, Sure, everybody’s heard that! But then you waste a minute or two trying to remember what it’s called. And you fail.

There are exceptions. Anderson wrote “Sleigh Ride,” and although you may not remember the name of the composer, you damned well know the name of the song.

I’m not sure what Leroy Anderson’s most-heard but least-named piece is, but I’d wager it’s “Fiddle Faddle.” (If you like ants, here’s a video of ants walking around to “Fiddle Faddle.” Don’t watch it if you don’t like bugs. Fits somehow, though, doesn’t it?) Second place may well go to “Blue Tango.” with “Forgotten Dreams” close behind. A lot of people know the name of “The Syncopated Clock,” but fewer, I think, could name Anderson as the composer.

My personal Anderson favorite may not be quite as well-known (It only made it to #180 of the Billboard annual tally–in 1953) but if you’re among the 50+ crowd, you’ve definitely heard it. And the sound effects pretty much give it away. My grandmother gifted me her huge cast-iron Underwood typewriter in 1962, when I could barely lift it myself. I pounded on it for six years, until my godmother bought me a Smith-Corona electric in 1968. The Underwood Standard #5 hammered out a lot of my juvenalia during its tenure, but I’m pretty sure that it could not smack the platen anywhere near fast enough to do justice to Anderson’s borderline-manic “The Typewriter.” This guy tries pretty hard, though with a much smaller typewriter.

Which leads me to wonder: How many people these days have ever actually heard a manual typeriter, much less used one?

As for un-nameable music, Leroy Anderson had no lock on the concept. I think a lot of people have heard at least portions of “The Light Cavalry Overture” without knowing what it was. You’ll have to listen for a couple of minutes to get to the familiar part. But when you do, you’ll know it. It’s become a metaphor for slogging doggedly along, and in truth I like the other parts better. Ditto Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld Overture.” You have to get about seven minutes into the work, but, then, yes, you’ve heard it a hundred times.

Any others come to mind?

Proposal: A New Standard for Encloseable Small Computers

Monitors are getting big. Computers are getting small. I think I’ve mentioned this idea before: a cavity in a monitor big enough to hold a Raspberry Pi, with the monitor providing power, video display, and a couple of USB ports for connecting peripherals like mice, keyboards, and thumb drives. Several of my Dell monitors have a coaxial power jack intended for speaker bars, and a USB hub as well. I’ve opened up a couple of those monitors to replace bad electrolytics, and as with most computer hardware, a lot of that internal volume is dead space.

The idea of a display with an internal computer has long been realized in TVs, many of which come with Android computers inside. That said, I’ve found them more a nuisance than useful, especially since I can’t inspect and don’t control the software. These days I outsource TV computing to a Windows 10 Intel NUC sitting on the TV cabinet behind the TV.

The top model of the Raspberry Pi 4, with 8 GB RAM, is basically as powerful as a lot of intermediate desktops, with more than enough crunch for typical office work; Web, word processing, spreadsheets, etc. With the Debian-based Raspberry Pi OS (formerly Raspbian) and its suite of open-source applications, you’ve got a desktop PC. More recently, the company has released the Raspberry Pi 400, which is a custom 4GB RPi 4 built into a keyboard, with I/O brought out the back edge. (In truth, I’d rather have it built into a display, as I am extremely fussy about my keyboards.) Computers within keyboards have a long history, going back to (I think) the now-forgotten Sol-20 or perhaps the Exidy Sorcerer. (Both appeared in 1978.)

What I want is breadth, which means the ability to install any of the modern small single-board computers, like the Beaglebone and its many peers. Breadth requires standardization, both in the monitor and in the computer. And if a standard existed, it could be implemented in monitors, keyboards, printers, standalone cases, robot chassis, and anything else that might be useful with a tiny computer in its tummy.

A standard would require both physical and electrical elements. Electrical design would be necessary to bring video, networking, and USB outside the enclosure, whatever the enclosure is. (I reject the bottom-feeder option of just leaving a hole in the back of the enclosure to bring out conventional cables.) This means the boards themselves would have to be designed to mate with the enclosure. What I’m envisioning is something with a card slot in it, and a slot spec for video, network, i2s, and USB connections. (GPIO might not be available through the slot.) The boards themselves would have slot connectors along one edge, designed to the standard. The redesigned boards could be smaller and thinner (and cheaper) without the need for conventional video, network, audio, and USB jacks. (Network connectors are increasingly unnecessary now that many boards have on-board WiFi and Bluetooth antennas.) Picture something like the Raspberry Pi Zero with edge connectors for I/O.

Defining such a standard would be a minor exercise in electrical engineering. The big challenge would be getting a standards body like ANSI interested in adopting it. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has the engineering chops, obviously, and once a standard has been created and proven out, groups like IEEE or ANSI might be more inclined to adopt it and make it “official.”

I understand that this might “fork” the small-board computing market between GPIO boards and non-GPIO boards. Leaving the GPIO pads on the opposite edge of the board is of course possible, and would allow the board to be enclosed or out in the open, or inside some other sort of enclosure that leaves room for GPIO connections. A big part of the draw of the small boards is the ability to add hardware functionality in a “hat” that plugs into the GPIO bus, and I don’t want to minimize that. I think that there’s a market for non-GPIO boards that vanish inside some larger device or enclosure that provides jacks for connections to the outside world. The Raspberry Pi 400 is an excellent example of this, with GPIO header access as well. What I’m proposing is a standard that would allow a single enclosure device to be available to any board designed to the standard.

Ok, it would be hard–for small values of hard. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be well worth doing.

The Question That Nobody’s Asking

I’ve been scratching my head a lot lately, and I need to stop before I wear through my scalp. (My natural armor has been mostly gone for thirty-five years.) It’s a natural, nay obvious question, which I’m putting in bold and giving its own paragraph:

If masks prevent SARS-CoV-2 infections, where did the current explosion of cases and deaths come from?

Take a look at the screenshot below. This is from the Arizona Department of Health Services’ COVID-19 dashboard. The graph is deaths by date of death for the entire state of Arizona. The curve starts heading toward the sky during the last week in October.

AZCovidDeathsGraph-500 wide.png

Maricopa County, where we live, issued a mask mandate on June 19, 2020. That was right about when the first near-vertical slope in the graph began. It took a few weeks for the mandate to catch on, but by August 1, it was pretty much universal. That’s about when the curve started to fall. There was a certain amount of crowing that the mask mandate had brought the pandemic under control in the state.

Then the end of October happened.

Now, I’ve been watching not only whether people are wearing masks in retail outlets and offices (they are) but also what kinds of masks and how they’re being worn. Over time, the masks are getting better. I’m actually seeing KN95 masks with some frequency, and it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve seen a useless “train robber” bandana mask anywhere. Mask adherence in the state is at 90%, which aligns with what I’ve seen, if perhaps on the low side. That’s a mighty high rate.

So again, my question: With mask adherence at 90%, why is the curve still so high? Note that the graph is of the days deaths happen, not when they are reported. Death reports are not all received by the state on the days deaths happen, and reports from rural areas can take a week or more to get to AzDHS. What looks like a falling curve at the right edge of the graph may simply be due to lag time in reporting.

There is certainly some inflation of death counts due to the problem of “with COVID but not of COVID.” Some. I don’t think that kind of confusion can cause the numbers we’re seeing here. And it’s inevitable that a certain amount of fraud happens; I’ve seen the news stories describing gunshot suicides, car accidents, and victims of alcohol poisoning described as COVID-19 deaths–some without a positive test for the virus. However, if there had been enough fraud to cause this explosion in deaths, somebody somewhere would have said something.

Wouldn’t they?

Ok. Although I’m open to other theories, I think it’s significant that something happened in the last week of October: Arizona temperatures crashed hard. We had a long, lingering summer here. Mid-October was still giving us 90+ degree days. That went down into the 60s and 70s in a big hurry.

It’s long been known that viral respiratory diseases become much more prevalent in cold weather. Why this should happen isn’t known with certainty. One theory is that influenza and corona viruses have a coating that becomes more rugged in colder temps, giving the virus a longer survival time in air and even in sun. Dry weather favors viruses for reasons that, again, are far from clear.

Well, in Arizona we have dry weather in spades, year-round. Cold, not so much. In fact, a typical winter’s day here is probably about the same temp as a typical summer’s day in North Dakota. Given the uncertainty about what causes viruses to infect more readily in winter, could it be a conjunction of cooler (than usual) temps and extreme dryness? Or (and I like this one better) is there something about the effect of a fall in temperatures (the delta, not the absolute temps) on the human body that gives the virus free rein?

That’s the only theory I have that I haven’t already shot down. It wasn’t Thanksgiving gatherings; the curve took off close to a month before Thanksgiving. And for all that, I consider it pretty thin gruel. It’s dry here probably 340 days a year. It’s even drier in summer than winter.

The theory that people spend more time indoors than outdoors in winter doesn’t apply in Arizona. The reverse is largely the case: When it’s 110 degrees outside, most people stay indoors, or maybe stand up to their necks in the pool. Winter is when people jog, bike, hike, and work outdoors, getting lots of fresh air and plenty of sun (and thus crucial Vitamin D) on their faces, arms, and legs.

Again, where the hell did that near-vertical runup in deaths come from?

I’ll tell you where it didn’t come from: People ditching their masks. The fact that mask compliance is at 90+% during an explosion in COVID-19 deaths screams out something a lot of people don’t want to hear: Masks don’t prevent infection. If they did, the increase would have been a lot more gradual, and probably a lot lower in magnitude.

Let me put it in short, simple words: Masks have been sold as a means of stopping the spread of SARS-CoV-2. They’ve been sold hard. Mask skeptics get called a whole lot of dirty words, even though we wear masks as a courtesy to the rule of law. Faced with a graph like the one the State of Arizona itself puts out, what are we supposed to think?

The graph says something else, perhaps a little more quietly: There are no COVID-19 experts. We still have very little understanding of how this thing spreads and (especially) why it hits some people so devastatingly hard, and others barely at all. When our (often self-appointed) experts told us to put on masks, we put on masks. And then the graph went through the roof.

I wish I had answers. I don’t. Why two peaks instead of one? What had been going on between the end of July and the end of September? Were we doing something right? If so, what? And what did we start doing wrong in late October?

Nobody knows. Read that again: Nobody knows.

If I figure it out, you’ll read about it here.

Just-So Stories

Here come the just-so stories. I ran into one some weeks ago that reminded me of the category. Most people think of Just-So stories as fables about animals, as Kipling wrote, especially fables about animal origins; e.g., how the leopard got his spots.

But that’s mostly because of Kipling. Wiktionary’s definition of a just-so story is “a story that cannot be proven or disproven, used as an explanation of a current state of affairs.” In most cases that’s true. In broader and more modern terms, a just-so story is an urban legend with a moral admonishing people to obey some stated principle or face the (scary) consequences. You’ve all probably seen your share, though you probably didn’t think of them as “just-so stories.” Still, that’s what they are.

Here’s the story I heard: A woman described having some unstated number of people over for Thanksgiving dinner. It was held outside, in Arizona. Some (unstated number) wore masks. The 13 others did not. The people who wore masks did not catch SARS-CoV-2. All the rest did.

I assume she thought she was doing a public service by frightening people into wearing masks all the time, everywhere. I don’t think she was ready for the response she got: People called her a fake, a yarn-spinner…a liar. The reason is fairly simple: The story is too pat. All the people who refused to wear masks got sick. None of the people who did wear masks got sick. And this was during a dinner held outdoors.

Is this possible? Of course. Is it likely? No, if you know anything at all about COVID-19. Was the dinner indoors? No. Were the dinner guests all older people? No. (The older people wore masks.) Young people may test positive for the virus, but they rarely show symptoms and almost never become seriously ill. And with even the slightest breeze, exhaled viruses are dispersed in seconds.

Yet, it was…just so. Medical privacy laws make such stories conveniently unverifiable.

I don’t want to pile on her too hard here, and thus won’t post a link. (I also don’t want to give her any more exposure than she’s already gotten.) The point I’m making is that urban legends are still very much with us, and unverifiable stories should be treated as such: useless at best and misleading at worst. The best way to fight urban legends is not to spread them. The second-best way is to (politely) state in the comments (if there is a comments section) that the story is an urban legend and not be trusted. The story may well have been “just so” in the teller’s imagination. In the real world, well…probably not.

RIP BEA

BookExpo America (BEA) and BookCon are folding. The shows’ organizers are blaming the shutdown on SARS-CoV-2, but the mask slips a little when they add, “The pandemic arrived at a time in the life cycle of BookExpo and BookCon where we were already examining the restructure of our events to best meet our community’s needs.” That’s corporate doubletalk for “The shows were both in trouble before the virus, and the virus was a plausible excuse to shut them down.”
I used to go to BEA every year. (I’ve never been to BookCon, which is a sort of combined fan and publisher gathering in NYC, targeted at consumers and mostly about fiction.) BEA was useful in a number of ways, not least of which was to see how our competitors were doing in the ’90s. I kept going for a few years after Coriolis folded, just to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry and spot trends. That pulse has been harder and harder to find in recent years. Ginormous publishing conglomerates are merging. This generally means that the smaller one is in trouble, and the bigger one wants their cash flow. Penguin Random House is buying Simon & Schuster, assuming antitrust challenges don’t emerge. What used to be The Big 5 is about to become The Big 4.
Two (related) things seem to me as behind publisher consolidation and the loss of big trade shows like BEA:
  1. The large publishers never wanted ebooks and don’t know how to deal with them.
  2. Independent publishing (indie) is catching on in a very big way.

The business model of traditional book publishing is complex, and weird. (Weird, even to me, and I worked in it for fifteen years.) The biggest single problem is that large and very large presses are fixated on hardcovers. This fixation goes back a very long way, and cooks down to the notion that hardcovers are books, and everything else (primarily ebooks and paperbacks) are secondary markets that depend on hardcovers to exist at all. It’s true that if you go back to the 1800s, vitually all books were hardcovers. Granted, there are exceptions: I have a paperback edition of Oliver Twist from 1882, which indicates that cheap books on cheap paper were there in the shadows all along, but were all too often slandered as “dime novels” that corrupted young minds. The money and prestige were in hardcovers.

Paperback originals emerged as a force in the 1950s, roughly concurrent with the emergence of the mass-market paperback (MMPB.) Because early MMPBs were reprints of hardcover editions, the notion of paperbacks as a secondary market was logical. When paperback originals emerged, larger presses used them to build the audience for their hardcovers, and to a lesser extent, a midlist from which promising new authors could be promoted to hardcover. Hardcover pricing was what kept the doors open and paychecks going out. Secondary markets were gravy.

Various forces are now turning the hardcover-centric business model on its ear. The single most important force here is not simply the ebook, but the fact that you can read ebooks on smartphones. Ebooks were dismissed early on because “nobody’s going to buy an expensive gadget just to read books on.” Well, dedicated ebook readers are no longer necessary. I have a Kindle Paperwhite because it’s easier on my eyes, but I’ve read plenty of books on my Galaxy Tab S3 and three different smartphones. Today, everybody has a smartphone, which means that everybody can read ebooks. It’s no longer a niche market.

This scares the crap out of traditional publishers. They have kept the cover prices of ebooks close to (or in some crazy cases higher than) hardcover prices, insisting that it costs just as much to create an ebook as it does to create a hardcover, dodging the truth that it’s all about physical inventory, returns, and unit cost. The unit cost of an ebook is zero. Inventory and returns no longer exist.

The second most important force is, of course, Amazon, home of The World’s Richest Man. Amazon did not create the notion of ebooks or ebook readers, but the Kindle Store allowed the emergence of independent publishing, more on which shortly. And the smartphone, in turn, created the market for the Kindle Store.

Amazon has systematically undermined the hardcover price point by allowing a nearly frictionless market for hardcovers that were read once and then sold through associate accounts for a third the cover price–or less–of the same book new. Amazon Prime created all-you-can-slurp shipping, and with improvements in logistics allows a book to be ordered in the morning and delivered in late afternoon. Why bother fighting traffic to get down to the last Barnes & Noble in town, when you can get the book just as fast (and more easily) with a few taps on your smartphone? (Yes, I’ll miss bookstores. But I won’t miss tchotchke stores.)

And last but by no means least, we have indie publishing. There are a number of platforms on which ebooks may be published, but realistically, it’s Amazon plus debris. They have wisely combined ebook and POD print book publishing into one entity. (90% or more of my sales are ebooks.) The system is straightforward enough to allow anybody with half a brain to publish their own books and short items on the Kindle store.

This means that a great deal of what is published isn’t worth looking at. We all worried a lot about that. But as it happened, people are discovering ebooks they same way they discovered print books in the old days: By word-of-mouth, which these days includes word-of-Web. Discovery sites like Goodreads help a great deal, as do Web forums with a topic focus. Amazon’s reviews are generally good, though you have to read a lot of them and average things out in your mind. Some people are hard to please, and others please way too easily. All that said, I’m very surprised at how few Kindle ebooks I have bought and then hated. Sure, some were better than others. But I did an odd kind of crosstime quality spot-check on marginal ebooks and SFF MMPBs from 50-55 years ago. Pull a passage from a 55-year-old no-name SF potboiler (easier now that the pages are coming loose as you turn them) and compare it to a no-name ebook SF potboiler you took a chance on for $2.99 based on Amazon reviews. The Amazon book wins almost every time. Why? Automated discovery, via reviews and recommendations. All we had to go on 50 years ago was the back cover, and a quick flip through the pages. Now we can be as fussy as we like, or at least as fussy as we have time for.

The bottom line on ebooks is that with automated discovery and online recommendations, you no longer need traditional publishing at all. I’ve bought some ebooks from the few traditional publishers (like Baen) who embrace them. But at least 75% of the SFF I’ve read in the last year has been from indie authors. Some books were better than others. Remarkably, all but a couple that I took chances on were worth reading.

I’ll miss BEA–a little. I had fun there and met some interesting people. I will not miss hardcover culture and its attendant weirdness. If the Big 5, er, 4 can’t shed that weirdness, the reading public will shed them, sooner than later.

In the meantime, it’s a marvelous time to be a reader–and an even better time to be a writer.

Where Have All the Pirates Gone?

Today is Talk Like a Pirate Day, matey.

Well, good luck finding anybody to talk to.

Long-time readers will recall that I followed the file-sharing subculture closely back when it was a Rilly Big Thing. So when I saw Talk Like a Pirate Day mentioned, I had to stop and think: Wow, I haven’t thought about that stuff for awhile. So I took a look around. Here are some bullets to duck:

  • Whoever currently owns The Pirate Bay has put two domains up for auction: piratebay.org and thepiratebay.com. (The site is currently at thepiratebay.org, but as followers of file sharing know, it bounces around a lot.)
  • There may be a method to this madness: Go to piratebay.org and you’ll see a funding pitch for The Torrent Man, an indie film about the file sharing phenomenon and the people behind it. Hey, I’d pay five bucks to see that. Or at least stream it on Prime Video.
  • Two of the file sharing news aggregator sites I used to check are now defunct: zeropaid.com and slyck.com. Torrentfreak.com is still out there, and maybe one such site is enough.
  • LAN parties, at which gamers played networked games locally to eliminate latency, are gone. (And that article is itself over five years old.) Several people have told me that purely local LAN parties were at least in part an opportunity to swap files around without worrying about the copyright cops. Modern games built on the progression model are constantly phoning home, so isolating yourself from the greater Internet is no longer possible.
  • Wikipedia has a list of file-sharing utilities, few of which I’ve even heard of. The page includes a list of defunct apps, which contains most of those I had heard of. So non-torrent peer-to-peer is still out there, though I wonder how many people are actually using it.
  • Torrenting is now the dominant file-sharing method. A great deal of torrenting has gone underground to private trackers, making me wonder how many casual users there still are. Government busts have gotten much more aggressive recently, greatly reducing the number of newly released files, especially games and ebooks.
  • I canceled my Usenet service provider account several years ago after not using it much since 2012 or so. I realized I was monitoring one or two groups and not much else. The binaries groups were all spam, most of it unrelated to the groups in which they were posted, and largely malware or porn. Shortly before I canceled my account people had begun posting large encrypted multipart files which were never adequately explained and may have been a clever backup scheme. There’s probably still pirated stuff on Usenet, but bring a big shovel to find it.

There may be more to it than that, of course, but I’m only willing to explore such fringe topics for an hour or so.

Ok. Where did all the pirates go? I think a lot of them simply went legit. You can get spectacular classical music tracks on Amazon for only 99 cents, with no DRM. We rent videos on Prime for a couple of bucks, and there’s plenty of good stuff on Netflix, like STTOS with improved effects. If getting media is cheap and easy, there’s not a lot of reason to go through technical and sometimes hazardous contortions to steal it. I also think that most of what piracy remains is concentrated among far fewer users who hide really well.

I guess if there’s no stopping it entirely, I’m good with that.

The All-Volunteer Federated Encyclopedia of (Really!) Absolutely Everything

My regular readers will recall that I wrote an article in the June/July 1994 issue of PC Techniques, describing a distributed virtual encyclopedia that pretty much predicted Wikipedia’s function, if not the details of its implementation. My discontent with Wikipedia is not only well-known but not specific to me: The organization has become political, and editor zealots have various tricks to make their ideological opponents either look bad, or disappear altogether. Key here is their concept of notability, which is Wikipedia’s universal excuse for excluding the organization’s ideological opponents from coverage.

In one of the decade’s great hacks, Vox Day created Infogalactic, which is a separate instance of the MediaWiki software underlying Wikipedia and a fair number of other, more specialized encyclopedias. Infogalactic has a lot of its own articles. However, when a user searches for something that is not already in the Infogalactic database, Infogalactic passes the search along to Wikipedia, and then displays the returned results. I don’t know whether or to what extent Infogalactic keeps results from Wikipedia on its own servers. It’s completely legal to do so, and they may have a system that keeps track of frequent searches and maintains frequently searched-for Wikipedia pages in local storage. Or they may just keep them all. We have no way to know.

Infogalactic’s relationship with Wikipedia immediately suggested a form of federation to me, though Infogalactic does not use that term. (Federation means a peer-to-peer network of nodes that are independently hosted and maintained yet query one another.) The Mastodon social network system is the best example of online federation that I could offer. (It’s not shaped like an encyclopedia, so don’t take the comparison too far.) There is something else called the Fediverse, which I have not investigated closely. In a sense, the Fediverse is meta-federation, as it federates already federated platforms like Mastodon. For that matter, Usenet is also a form of federation. It’s been around a long time.

The MediaWiki software is open-source and freely available to anyone. There are a lot of special-interest wikis online. One is about Lego. (Brickipedia, heh.) For that matter, there’s one about Mega Bloks. Hortipedia is about gardening and plants generally. It’s a huge list; give it a scan. You might find something useful.

My suggestion is this: Devise a MediaWiki mod like Infogalactic’s, but take it farther. Have a “federation panel” that allows the creation of lists of MediaWiki instances for searches falling outside the local instance. A list would generally start with the local instance. It might then search instances focusing on related topics. The last item on most lists would be a full general encyclopedia like Wikipedia or Infogalactic.

Here’s a simple example, which could defeat Wikipedia’s notability fetish for biographies and a lot of other things: Begin a search for a given person (or other topic) with Infogalactic, which, remember, searches Wikipedia if its own database doesn’t satisfy the query. So if that search fails, submit the same search to EverybodyWiki, which doesn’t apply notability criteria to biographies. In fact, EverybodyWiki does what I suggested be done a number of years ago: It collects articles marked for deletion on Wikipedia, of which it currently has over 100,000. I’m tempted to post a biography on Wikipedia just to see if, when it’s deleted (and it would be) EverybodyWiki picks it up.

(As an aside: I just found EverybodyWiki a month or so ago, and I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. It has more than just biographies and is definitely worth a little poking-around time.)

Now, the tough part: How would this be accomplished? I don’t know enough about MediaWiki internals to attempt it myself. There’s an API, and I’ve been surfing through the API doc. There’s even an API sandbox, which is a cool idea all by itself. Alas, there are remarkably few technical books on MediaWiki, and the ones I would be most interested in get terrible reviews. Given how important MediaWiki is, I don’t understand why tech publishers have skated past it. My guess is that few people bother to do more than custom-skin MediaWiki. (There’s a book on that, at least.) If the demand were there, the books would probably happen. If you know enough about MediaWiki modding, I’ll bet you could find a publisher.

I’m thinking about installing MediaWiki on my hosting services, just to poke at and try things on. Hell, I predicted this thing. I should at least know my way around it.

If you’ve done any hacking on MediaWiki, let me know how you learned its internals and what you did, and if there are any instructional websites or videos that I may not have encountered.