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June, 2014:

Odd Lots

Stapling the Correct Battery to a Dead Horse

In the wake of Heartbleed there’s a whole lotta password changin’ going on, reawakening the always-lively discussion of what constitutes a strong password. Xkcd has a legendary answer to that as well: Correct horse battery staple. In other words, four randomly chosen words beats g0B!deEG00kk. The information theory explanation is that there is more entropy in those four random words than in a quirky misspelling of “gobbledegook.” Xkcd reminds us that if you can picture a horse asking if that’s a battery staple, those four words are also hugely easier to remember.

Bruce Schneier disagrees, and (as always) he lays out a good case. His password-generation scheme is certainly harder to crack than choosing four shortish random words. However, some scorch spot in my genes makes it hard to use a mnemonic like that. Remembering passwords is key, since a password that’s miserably difficult to remember simply won’t be used. Nonetheless, if you can do it, it’s golden. There are traps, however. Some years ago, when I first had an account that allowed (almost) arbitrarily long passwords, I used a favorite line from Tennyson:

Down along the beach I wandered, cherishing a youth sublime

That was in fact an excellent passphrase for a couple of reasons, one of which was unintentional. (Can you guess? Answer below.) Using Bruce’s method combining the initials of this line and the one that follows gives us:


I’ll bet that’s damned hard to crack. However, it took a lot of work to extract that from the text, given that I had to extract it every time I typed it in. I could actually type both lines in full twice in the time it took me to extract the initials once. So as password generators go, it’s not my favorite. Furthermore, I intuit that automating initial-extraction from passphrases findable online (like lines from famous poems) would be trivial.

Once I learned a little more about dictionary-driven password cracking, I stopped using lines memorized out of famous poems. Given the size of modern hard drives, and the boggling number of offline hashes that modern GPUs can calculate per second, having a dictionary of all lines from virtually all famous poems, plays, and novels would be a computational blip. (Text is small.)

That said, the passphrase above is actually stronger than you’d think, because, well…it’s wrong. That’s not how the line goes in Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall.” The correct line is:

Here about the beach I wander’d, nourishing a youth sublime

Assuming I hadn’t spilled the beans here, I might actually have gone back to using it, because, having used it for a couple of years, it got pretty well set in my memory. Alas, consistent misremembrances of this quality are scarce. Poetry can work, however, since structures of rhyme and meter make poems easier to remember. It can work if you write the poems yourself. Your mileage will vary. I’m oddly good at both writing poetry (which doesn’t mean that it’s good poetry) and then remembering it. In fact, bad poetry is lots easier to remember. Just now, this line popped out of nowhere:

“Piffle!” said the Golmodox. “His niffled head is all but rocks.”

This is actually two reasonably strong passwords, or one if you’re paranoid. What makes them strong? Two of the words are made up. Words that don’t actually exist make cracking miserable. Poetry makes phrases easy to memorize. So sit yourself down, my writer friend, read some Lewis Carroll to get your brain revving in the right direction, and write a nonense poem. Read it several times until you can recite it out loud without hesitation, and then encrypt it (strongly). Choose a line from the poem and make it a password. As you need passwords, choose other lines from the poem. When you run out of lines, write a new poem.

Nothing is uncrackable…but when you’re the highest fruit on the tree, you’re not going to get picked any time soon.

Odd Lots

The Manhattan Hardcover Conundrum

Judging by the online commotion, people are still arguing about whether Amazon or Hachette (and by implication, the rest of the Big Five) will win the current fistfight over ebook pricing. The media has generally positioned Hachette as the plucky little guy trying to take on Saurazon by getting everybody in the Shire to stand up, face east, and yell, “Huzzah!” It’s not that easy, heh. But then again, nothing is.

My position? I think the fight may already be over. The Big Five lost. I say that for several reasons:

  1. The Feds are against them. The whole fight is about how to keep ebook prices from falling, which in antitrust law hurts the public and becomes actionable when producers collude. Even the appearance of collusion will start that hammer on its way down again. Hachette has one leg in a sling before the kicking contest even begins.
  2. The public has already decided that ebooks can’t be sold at hardcover prices. In fact, this decision was made years ago. Although the issues are subtle, it’s completely true that producing ebooks is considerably less costly than producing print books, especially hardcovers. What publishers have tried to declare the floor ($10) is probably now the ceiling. That ship has not only sailed, it’s folded into hyperspace.
  3. Monopsony power (one buyer facing many sellers; e.g., Amazon) is not illegal. I’ve read in several places that Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act does not outlaw monopsonistic practices unless they are acquired by exclusionary conduct. There’s not a lot of settled case law about what sorts of conduct are considered exclusionary by a goods retailer, as opposed to an employer. Future cases may change this, but it’s going to be a near-vertical climb.
  4. Virtually all recent technology works in Amazon’s favor. Ebook readers, cheap tablets, fast ubiquitous broadband, POD machinery, thermonuclear sales data collection, online reviews, you name it: Amazon has almost no legacy baggage.
  5. Almost everything works against print publishing generally, and the Big Five in particular. I’ll come back to this.

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the whole business. In general, letting publishers set their own prices via agency agreements with retailers is a good thing because it allows startups to undercut them. The value to the public of any individual publisher (or conglomerate) is low, as long as startups have access to markets and can replace them. Access to bricks’n’mortar retail shelves has always been and still is tricky. Access to other retail channels has never been easier. If I were ten years younger I might be tempted to try again.

Now, why is Big Print in such trouble? Somebody could write a book (and I wish Mike Shatzkin in particular would) but here are some hints:

  1. Trade book print publishing is a big-stakes wager against public taste. It’s hard to predict what the public will want even in categories like tech. Literary fiction? Egad. Guess wrong, and you’ve lost what might be a million-dollar advance plus the full cost of the press run and any promotional efforts.
  2. The economics of trade book publishing are diabolical. Trade books are basically sold on consignment, and can be returned by the retailer at any time for a full refund. This makes revenue projection a very gnarly business. Books assumed to be sold may not stay sold.
  3. Online used bookselling reduces hardcover sales. Buying a hardcover bestseller soon after release is a sort of impatience tax. The impatient recover some of the tax by listing the book on personal retailing sites like eBay or Amazon Marketplace at half the cover price. The patient get a basically new book for half-off, and then sometimes sell it again…for half the cover price. This would not be possible if online searches of used book inventory weren’t fast and easy.
  4. Related to the above: Remaindering teaches the public that new hardcovers are cheap. Most print books are eventually remaindered. The remainders are generally sold online for as little as three or four bucks. They’re new old stock books with a marker swipe on one edge. The more publishers guess wrong about press runs (see Point #1) the more books are remaindered, and the more hardcovers lose their mystique and (more important) their price point.
  5. Fixed costs for the Big Five are…Big. There is a very strong sort of “Manhattan culture” in trade book publishing. Big publishers are generally in very big, very expensive cities, which carry high premiums for office space and personnel. My experience in book publishing suggests that none of that is necessary, but as with Silicon Valley, it’s a cultural assumption that You Have To Be There, whatever it costs.

Bottom line: The Big Five need the $25 (and up) hardcover price point to maintain the business model they’ve been evolving for 75 years. If hardcover sales ramp down, they need ebook sales to make up the difference. Ebooks are cheaper to produce and manage (i.e., no print/bind costs, shipping, warehousing, or returns) and it’s quite possible that a $20 ebook price point could stand in for a $30 hardcover price point. However, Amazon has trained the public to feel that an ebook shouldn’t cost more than $10. Indies have put downward pressure on even that, and the demystification of hardcovers via used and remainder sales hasn’t helped.

What options do the Big Five have? Culture is strong: They’re not going to cut the glitz and get out of Manhattan. (That may not be invariably true; Wiley US moved from Manhattan to New Jersey some years ago. Wiley, however, does not publish trade fiction and has never been deep into glitz. I doubt, furthermore, that they would have moved to Omaha.) A reliable midlist might help, but midlist titles now exist mostly as ebooks. Most publishers, big and small, have long since outsourced design and production to third parties, and are already doing a great deal of printing in China. Beyond that, I just don’t know.

Don’t misunderstand: My sympathies are with publishers, if not specifically large publishers. I was in the trenches and I know how it works. Books can only be made so cheap before quality suffers, especially ambitious nonfiction like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. We may be in a race-to-the-bottom that cannot be won by either side. What I’d really like is honesty in all quarters about the issues and (especially) the consequences. Rah-rah tribalism helps no one.

Both sides have points in their favor. Amazon has done something not well-appreciated: It’s made it possible for self-publishers and indie publishers to reach readers. Physical bookstores have long been barriers to entry in publishing. Quality remains a problem, but hey, is that a new problem? Traditional publishers claim that they guarantee quality, even though “quality” is a very tough thing to define. Most of my life I’ve abandoned a fair number of print books every year as unreadable, not because I dislike the approach or the topic but because the writing is bad. This is supposedly the value that publishers add. The adding is, shall we say, uneven.

My suggestions sound a little bit banal, even to me:

  • Publishers need to pay more attention to objective quality. Bad writing is a fixable problem; you either don’t buy it, or you fix it after you buy it if you judge the work important enough to go forward. This is the edge traditional publishers have over the indies.
  • Amazon needs to consider that book publishing is an ecosystem in which many players have important roles. Market share won’t matter if you kill huge segments of the market. They may not care; there’s plenty of money in selling thumb drives and diapers.
  • Readers need to meditate on the realities of writing. Writers need to be paid. Cover price isn’t everything. Quality matters.
  • The hardcover as the core of trade publishing must die. Hardcovers need to become a luxury option. If I read an ebook or paperback of a truly excellent work, I may want a hardcover, and we’re very close to having the machinery to do hardcover onesies at reasonable cost. I’ve upgraded to hardcover many times, but generally on the used market, since by the time I read a paperback the hardcover may already have been remaindered and unavailable new.
  • Publishers need to ask themselves if Manhattan and San Francisco really deliver benefits comcomitant to their astronomical cost.
  • Amazon is a given. The Internet leans toward channel capture. If it weren’t them it would be someone else. Grumble though we might, we need to start there and figure out the best way forward.

In the meantime, remember: There are countless sides to every argument, and no easy answers to anything. You are always wrong. And so am I. Get used to it.

Odd Lots