Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image


Odd Lots

  • Ars has the best article I’ve yet seen on the recent ruling in the Apple ebook price fixing trial. Insight: Publishers get less under agency than they do under wholesale, but they’re willing to accept it to keep control of pricing. Book publishing is a freaky business. This may not work out as planned for the publishers.
  • Also from Ars: Weird search terms that brought readers to the Ars site. I used to publish these too, but I don’t get as many as I once did. Web search has always been a freaky business. I guess the freakiness just wanders around.
  • The sunspot cycle still struggles. Cycle 24 will be freaky, and weak–even with our modern tendency to count spots that could not be detected a hundred years ago.
  • Not news, but still freaky if you think about it: The Air Force tried building a flying saucer in 1956. The aliens are still laughing at us.
  • Actually, the best flying saucers are all triangles. In the greater UFO freakshow, these are by far my favorites.
  • There’s a quirk in the insurance industry that will allow young people to opt out of the ACA and still get health insurance–while paying much less they would buying traditional health policies under ACA. Life insurance policies often allow for accelerated payouts of benefits while the insured is still alive. My insight: Such a policy would be a way to finesse limited enrollment windows by paying for catastrophic care until enrollment opens again. (Which would be no more than ten months max.) And you thought publishing was a freaky business.
  • We thought we knew how muscles work. We were wrong. Human biology is always freakier than we thought.
  • As is washing your hair–in space.
  • Streaming is the ultimate end of the DRM debate. Music, movies, sure. Could one stream an ebook? Of course. Would people accept such a system, or would they freak out? Well, we thought DRM for serial content was dead, too. (Book publishers have become much more aggressive against piracy lately. More tomorrow.)
  • And finally, if you want freaky, consider the humble cicada killer, which vomits on its own head to keep from frying in the summer. We had them living under our driveway in Baltimore. I didn’t know what they were and they scared us a little until I called the county ag agent, who said, “They’re cicada killers, but don’t worry. They’re harmless.” I immediately called Carol at work to give her the good news. The receptionist at the clinic wrote down: “Jeff called. The things living under your driveway are psychotic killers, but don’t worry. They’re harmless.”

Odd Lots

  • From the “…And Then We Win” Department: Lulu is eliminating DRM on ebooks published through the site. (I was notified by email.)
  • The Adobe CS2 download link everybody’s talking about (see my entry for January 10, 2013) is still wide-open. If it was indeed a mistake, you’d think they would have fixed it by now. New suggestion: They’re arguing about it. New hope: They’re really going to allow CS2’s general use without charge.
  • I didn’t get the art gene from my mother, but I did indeed enjoy the Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies. I still have my full drafting set in a drawer somewhere, replete with bow compasses, French curves, triangles, and so on. How many years will it be before nobody under 50 has any idea what those are? (Thanks to Jim Rittenhouse for the link.)
  • And while we’re doing peculiar museums, check out this selection of implements from the International Spy Museum. I believe the surplus houses were selling CIA turd transmitters twenty or thirty years ago. Shoulda bought one when I could. As the late, great George M. Ewing would have said: “Forget it, Jeff. Nobody will pick that up.”
  • Strange transmitters you want? From Bruce Baker comes a video link that no steampunker will want to miss: The annual fire-up of the only Alexanderson alternator left in the world, station SAQ in Sweden. From the sparks to the swinging meter needles, it’s just like Frankenstein, only it’s real–and sends Morse telegraphy at 100 KHz or so. No vacuum tubes, and I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t have been in operation in 1890.
  • Every wonder who was behind Information Unlimited? Here’s the guy.
  • Here’s more on how fructose messes with your brain. It’s not just the number of calories. It’s the chemical composition of those calories. Whoever says “a calorie is a calorie” is wrong, and probably has an agenda.
  • It’s almost pointless to link to the first video ever made of a giant squid (since we won’t see the whole thing until January 27) but Ars Technica has a background page that’s worth reading. “Hello, beastie!”
  • The BMI is worse than worthless. But I told you that years ago.
  • Brand fanboys may have low self-esteem. Or they may just be tribalists. Or tribalists may be people with low self-esteem. No matter: Defend no brand but your own. Big Brands can damned well defend themselves.

The Terror of Customer Expectations

As I’ve said any number of times, I loathe DRM and have since I first understood what it was. My reasons are these:

  • It makes content delivery systems fragile. DRM adds complexity to a system, and by its nature is constantly looking for a reason to cut people off. Jerry Pournelle made this point at least 30 years ago, when DRM was “copy protection” and floppies ruled the world.
  • DRM inconveniences paying users and does very little (if anything) to stop piracy. Because…
  • A DRM system only needs to be broken once. A single very bright individual (or a small cadre of them) figures out the crack, then wraps it up in a script or a simple utility that any fool can use. Bruce Schneier made this point at least twenty years ago.
  • DRM often ties content to one single company, generally through some kind of Internet permissions system. If that company goes under, DRMed content can become unavailable.
  • Related to the above: DRM often (admittedly, not always) ties content to a single device or family of devices. Users who want to move to a different content rendering system can lose everything they’ve paid for.
  • Very Large Companies Run By Comittees Of Clueless Egotists (VLCRBCOCEs) forget that the ultimate goal is to curry favor with customers so as to sell them stuff, and allow the pursuit of DRM to make them do really stupid things. Google “sony rootkit” to see how that works. Oh, and Amazon’s private dustup with the 1984 rightholders that led them to “repossess” books right off customer Kindles.
  • Consequences of much or all of the above: DRM turns paying customers into pirates. Piss off honest customers a few times, and they’ll start looking on the pirate sites before heading over to your online bookstore.

In short, DRM creates an adversarial relationship between content providers and content purchasers that benefits neither side. As a publisher, I have promised never to force it on my readers.

Which brings us to today’s issue: What happens when online stores force DRM on me? Jim Strickland and I are preparing ebook editions of all our SF, and as time allows I’m going to do the same for my Carl & Jerry books, and even the Old Catholic Studies Series. It’s not news, and certainly not news to me, but we’ve had to confront the fact that Apple forces DRM on book publishers who want access to its store. Jim and I will probably go along, and think of a clever way to get unencumbered epubs to paying iBooks customers.

I don’t know what that clever way will be yet, but you’ll hear more about it as we figure it out. In the meantime, it’s a headscratcher: Why the hell would Apple do this? I’ve been sniffing around and there’s no clear answer. Some think it’s because Apple owns the DRM technology (FairPlay) and it’s in their interest to sell books with FairPlay gunked to them. I doubt that it’s true (it’s like paying yourself for something you already own) and given that you can download bookstore apps from other vendors to iOS, encumbered ebooks are at a competitive disadvantage, right there on Apple’s home turf. (Amazon allows unencumbered ebooks on Kindle.)

If I had to guess, it would be this: One or more VLCRBCOCEs in the print publishing industry, as part of their deals with Apple, demanded that everybody selling on iBooks must be required to use DRM–or no deal. What’s really at stake are customer expectations. Big Print is in a panic over ebook pricing to begin with, as we learned a year or so ago when Amazon and Macmillan jumped down one another’s throats. Macmillan didn’t want Amazon to “train” customers to think that ebooks should cost $9.99. (I was on Macmillan’s side that time, though for a different reason: If they jack their ebook prices up to the sky, I can undercut them much more easily. Amazon, please let publishers control their own pricing–especially huge, clueless, suicidal publishers.) In this case, Big Print doesn’t want customers to think of unencumbered ebooks as normal and expected, and DRM-encumbered ebooks as undesirable anomalies.

That particular war has already been lost, pretty much. Conventional wisdom among the tech savvy is that DRM is bad, and few of the indies use it. Nontechnical ebook buyers will figure it out when they decide to move to another reader system and can’t take their purchases with them. (The ebook business is so new that most people are still on their first reader and their first forty or fifty ebooks.) The day will come in the next few years when Big Print will be a lot less big, and competing against a lot more ebook publishers who have long understood that DRM does no one any good.

And price expectations, egad. $9.99 is so 2010. Many independent publishers now think that $3.99 or even $2.99 is the new normal. Furthermore, Amazon is now worried about yet another price point–99c!–at which their own ebook business model becomes unsustainable. Ebook pricing is still a huge imponderable, and I don’t (yet) have much useful to say about it. I hope to have some real data for you by this time next year.

Do I have proof that Apple was railroaded by Big Print into requiring DRM from all comers? No. But it makes sense to me: Apple didn’t have the negotiating leverage that Amazon or B&N had. If they get bigger, things may change. And if they don’t get bigger, it may be because everybody else, and especially the indies, is eating their lunch. Either way, for weal or woe, Big Print is in trouble, and therein lie many more entries that I hope to write in the near future.