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New Photo of John T. Frye

JTF_1948.jpg

Reader George Cohn sent me a photo of John T. Frye that I had not seen before. It’s from the May, 1948 issue of Radio News, which contained the second installment of his very long-running “Mac’s Service Shop” column. Assuming the photo was recent when published, Frye would have been 38.

For those who don’t recognize his name, John T. Frye was the author of the Carl & Jerry educational stories from Popular Electronics, “Phone Phunnies” from QST, and a whole metric passel of other things in other places, including two books on tube-era radio servicing that from what I can tell have passed into the public domain. See my article on Frye and his creations Carl & Jerry. I republished all 119 stories in five books several years ago (plus one new storyI wrote myself, and another one from the late George Ewing WA8WTE) and they’re still selling. Frye was a paraplegic who never walked, and how he did what he did in his life is one of the great success stories of disabled people who just didn’t let anything get them down. Legs? We don’t need no steenking legs!

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • The length of the Earth’s day varies more than I would guess, and the cause seems to be a certain amount of slosh in our molten core.
  • PC World is shutting down its print edition. I still have early copies of both PC World and PC Magazine in boxes, including issues from those heady days when the PC universe was exploding like a supernova and the magazines could be an inch thick and heavier than some small dogs. If I could still make money in magazines I’d still be in magazines making money, but that train has left the station, the station has been razed, and the tracks sold for scrap.
  • I smell careers burning.
  • Which might be one reason the Chicago Tribune’s owners are doing this.
  • And yet another reason (among many) for this.
  • On a whim I went out and checked the Adobe CS2 download link that got so much attention this past January. Gone. I guess they calculated that anybody who was entitled to it already had it, and all the rest were pirates. I wonder if they understood that genii don’t return to their bottles once let loose.
  • How about some extreme swimming pools? Damn. I’d just like to have a really boring swimming pool right now.
  • Or maybe nine peculiar (old) vending machines. Read the comments, which contain more cool vending machine links. I saw beer vending machines on Japanese streets when I visited Tokyo in 1981. It shouldn’t be too long before a modern descendant of the Book-O-Matic actually prints and binds your book from scratch, while you watch. Alas, it will cost more than a quarter.
  • Speaking of descendants: I knew this. Did you?
  • Bill Higgins sent a link to some sort of German WWII tank training manual, written in German rhyme and illustrated in a very surreal fashion, including God carrying a tank on one shoulder and a chubby redheaded Aryan angel in leather boots, holding a cannon rammer. The Jaegermeister stag-and-cross is there too, which might explain a few things. Yet another reason I should have taken German in high school.
  • Speaking of Jaegermeister: I asked my nephew Matt what it tastes like. His answer: “You don’t want to know.” When pressed, he added, “Malort.” Only a little research confirmed that, yes, I really don’t want to know.
  • Choice is always good.

UPDATE: A little research on the Panther Primer shows that the figure I thought was God is St. Christopher; the angel in red braids is St. Barbara, and the guy chasing the buzzard is St. Hubert, who was a master hunter…a Jaegermeister. Siegfried is in there too, as are some Classical Greek figures. German tank crews must have been a pretty educated bunch.

An Ebook Piracy Mystery

For the most part, the ebook pirates have forgotten about me. Five or six years ago, I was all over the pirate sites. Now I’m not even on the Pirate Bay, and haven’t been for some time. Binsearch shows that the last time I was uploaded to Usenet was almost a year ago. It’s enough to give a guy a complex. (It’s certainly enough to make me feel like I need to write more books.)

So last week the backchannel sent me a link to an article about how several major textbook publishers have subpoenaed a couple of Usenet service providers demanding the identities of two prolific Usenet uploaders operating under the pseudonyms Rockhound57 and HockWards. Both upload technical books to a certain newsgroup devoted to technical nonfiction.

Boy, do they.

I fired up my newsreader and took a look. I’d been there before, and have gladly downloaded crufty scans of old Heathkit and classic tube gear manuals and the occasional supreme oddity, like the German-language service manual for the Nazi V-1 flying bomb. There are scans of military field manuals and much other odd junk, plus all the spam, trollery and asshattery we’ve been accustomed to seeing in newsgroups since, well, there were newsgroups. (I first got on Usenet in 1981.) Rockhound57′s posts are, for the most part, academic science books of almost vanishing narrowness. If you’re ever curious about Dipetidyl Aminopeptidases in Health and Disease, well, Rockhound57′s got it. Ditto Automorphisms and Derivations of Associative Rings. I actually thought that “cobordism” in Algebraic Corbordism was a typo. Then I looked it up. Man, if you can make head or tail of that one, you’re a better geek than I.

If you think about what those books (and they are indeed books, and not articles) have in common, you may understand some panic on the part of the big presses: Those books have very, very small audiences and very, very high cover prices. Algebraic Cobordism has a cover price of $99. Small potatoes. Hold on to your manifolds: Automorphisms and Derivations of Associative Rings will cost you $269. I’m not exaggerating when I suggest that there are maybe 500 people on Earth who might conceivably buy such books, most of them starving graduate students. (I suspect that the publishers make what money they make selling to university libraries.) Having perfect PDFs flitting around on Usenet is an academic publisher’s worst nightmare.

But that leads us to a very important and completely unanswered question: Where did all those perfect PDFs come from? Not a single one of the titles I spot-checked is available as an ebook on Amazon. These copies are not slap-it-on-the-glass pirate scans. They are as perfect as the print images we used to generate for our books at Coriolis and Paraglyph. If they’re not being sold, how did the pirates get them to begin with?

I can think of a couple of possibilities:

  1. They’re DRM-stripped versions of e-texts that aren’t sold on Amazon but rather through heavily protected textbook sales channels like Adobe’s.
  2. They’re the print book equivalent of “screeners,” sent out for review, proofing, indexing, etc.
  3. They’re downsampled print images lifted somewhere along the pipe leading from the publisher to the printing presses.

My gut is going with #2, though #3 is certainly possible. Publishing services have been thoroughly commoditized. Most publishers use freelancers for proofing and editing, and many outsource layout itself. Any time a print image goes outside a publisher’s doors, there’s the chance it will “get legs.”

That said, I boggle at how many perfect PDFs were uploaded by those two chaps. We’re talking literally tens of thousands. Are there that many leaks at the major presses? Or is something else going on here? I still can’t quite figure it. I do know that a number of backchannel sources have told me that ever more file sharing is being done locally and off-Net, often by passing around now-cheap 1TB SATA hard drives. There’s no stopping that. Publishers need to start taking a very close look at their own internal processes. Pulling production back in-house might help, but it wouldn’t be a total solution, at least as long as desktops have USB ports. Problems don’t always have solutions, and piracy is probably one of those increasingly common nuisances.

There were times when I miss being in publishing. Alas, there are other times when I’m glad I’m not.

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.”

Summer Doldrums

Yes, I’ve been gone for awhile, and for any number of reasons found it inconvenient to put anything together until this evening. I’ve been having some trouble with that old book-hauling injury in my left arm, spent ten days in Chicago, fixed some stuff (including an interesting repair on a dog grooming hair dryer) and learned some new things that I didn’t expect to learn, including a few that I probably didn’t need to learn.

In short, I’ve had nothing much to report, and in the summer heat just felt better reading books and taking it easy in the cause of getting my whiny supinator to shut the hell up. The gruel here is on the thin side, but that’s summer.

My younger niancee, Justine, made me aware of something called Prancercise by demonstrating it in front of the whole family. Damn. I thought she was kidding. Then I watched the video. Wow. It has nothing on the Invisible Horse Dance, but it could be the next craze at weddings. Or maybe not.

Weddings. We did attend a terrific wedding, of the daughter of my oldest friend Art. At her reception I saw something called the Casper Slide–not to be confused with the skateboarding stunt of the same name. And if you are confused, you’re not alone. I think this is why the real name of the dance is the Cha-Cha Slide, developed by a Chicago DJ named Casper. I watched the dance, and apart from some stomping, it looked a lot like the Electric Slide. But hey, what do I know about cultural tropes?

Another bit of knowledge that was true but unwelcome is that Barnes & Noble comtinues to come apart at the seams. Their CEO quit the other day over the failure of the Nook tablets to capture any significant part of the tablet market. The Nook division is for sale, and Microsoft is making slobbering noises. The Nook guys have been on my you-know-what list for some time, for pushing down updates that freeze in mid-install and can’t be removed. (I don’t use AMV, but I wonder if it works at all after the installer gets stuck.) Leonard Riggio wants to take back the retail division. A lot of stores are closing, and half the remaining stores have leases that expire in 2016. And everybody’s wondering what happens after all this happens. Especially publishers.

I learned that the Chicago Tribune has a page dedicated to documenting every single homicide that happens in Chicago. That this would be a big, frequently updated page is bad enough. That is exists at all is worse. I guess Chicago is a terrific place to be from.

There’s a video on domesticated fox, pointed out to me by Pete Albrecht. I mentioned the Russian research on Siberian fox years ago, but this is the first time I’ve seen videos of the animals themselves. It’s sad in a way; the poor things are stuck somewhere between fox and dogs, and are at best unreliably tame. It’s pretty clear to me, however, that this was the same process our ancestors used to turn wolves into dogs. And it didn’t take thousands of years.

I learned that the backlight behind the controls of my new car stereo changes color continuously.

Ok, ok, I can see eyes glazing over. That’s it for tonight. I hope to get back on my usual schedule shortly.

Odd Lots

Novel Compression Schemes

I’ve been selling my writing professionally since I was an undergrad, now literally forty years ago. I’ve had to do remarkably little selling. My first story and first article both sold to the first places I sent them. I’ve never had a publisher turn down a computer book proposal. (Granted that selling books to a publisher you co-own is rarely a challenge.) My fiction has been a mixed bag, but in general a story either sells quickly or not at all.

All changed. This is the toughest market for novel-length SFF since, well, forever. I’ve just spent two years writing Ten Gentle Opportunities, and now the selling begins. This is a new thing for me. I’ve historically considered tireless self-promoters to be tiresome self-promoters, and now I are one. I hate to go that way, and if there were another way I’d already be taking it.

It begins this weekend, when I have a chance to pitch to a major SF publisher at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. The pitch happens in a time slot literally eight minutes long. I have eight minutes to make a bleary editor hungry to read my book. No pressure.

The primary challenge is to summarize the novel in synopses of various sizes, from 5,000 words down to…140 characters. Various markets and agents prefer synopses of various sizes, so they’d all better be right there on the shelf, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

This is harder than it looks; nay, it’s diabolical. The story itself is insanely complicated to begin with: One of my beta testers described it as “a Marx Brothers movie with twice as many Marx Brothers.” That’s just how I write, as anyone who’s read The Cunning Blood will understand. I have a mortal fear of not giving my readers their money’s worth, and a venial fear of being boring.

The way to write synopses of five different lengths is to start with the longest one, and write each one from scratch. In other words, don’t write the longest one and then try to cut it down to the next smaller size. This is like trying to turn hexacontane into propane by pulling carbon atoms randomly out of the middle; sooner or later the molecule has too many holes and falls apart.

It’s work, but it works. I finished the 300-word synopsis earlier this morning, and then set my hand to the gnarliest task of all: the “elevator pitch,” AKA logline. I get to summarize a manic 94,200 word story into 140 characters. I’ve actually been trying and failing to nail this for literally six months, since I finished the first draft. I first thought it would be easy, as I used to write cover copy for early Coriolis books. Heh.

The solution, as I said, is to start from the beginning. Each time I wrote a synopsis from scratch, I was forced to take two more steps up the ladder, and look down at the story from a little more height. You literally tell it again, each time with half the words you had last time. In the process, you get a clearer sense for what the story is about, and what the major themes are. Finally you end up with something you can say in an elevator between two adjacent floors:

A spellbender flees to our world with ten stolen nuggets of magic, and a crew of AIs helps him battle a repo spirit sent to retrieve him.

Will this work? Dunno. I guess I’ll find out this weekend.

Odd Lots

Pirates vs. Ebooks: A Webinar

Very quick note here: I will be giving a webinar today on ebook piracy and DRM at noon Mountain Time (11:00 Pacific Time, 1 PM Central Time) to a site called Book Street Cafe, based in Phoenix but not geographically limited except by time zones. It was founded by some of my friends from the now-folded Arizona Book Publishing Association, which I belonged to all the time I lived in Scottsdale and acted as president for two years. The webinar is scheduled for 45 minutes, with another 15 minutes for questions and discussion.

Book Street Cafe is a paid membership organization, but they’ve given me a one-time link for my webinar that I can post. If you want to participate, click here.

You’ll have to either have Java running or download the Citrix app that underlies the GoToMeeting technology. You’ll be able to do the download when you click to the site. I know that Java is in a bad odor right now, but the Citrix app is relatively small and only takes a few seconds to download and install.

The presentation is oriented toward print book publishers who are nervous about ebook piracy and are considering DRM. It is not a techie show. It draws on research and positions I’ve presented on Contra for several years.

We’d love to have you. Try to log in a little early so that you make sure you’re properly connected.