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Odd Lots

  • It’s Back to the Future Day, and apart from antigravity, well, Marty McFly’s 2015 looks more or less like the one we live in, only with better food and inifinitely worse partisan tribalism. If predicting 19 Jaws sequels is the second-worst worst flub the series made, well, I’m good with that.
  • October 21 is also the day that the Northrop YB-49 flying wing bomber made its debut flight, in 1947. (Thanks to Charlie Martin for the reminder.) The YB-49 is my second-favorite undeployed bomber prototype, after the stunning XB-70 Valkyrie.
  • Here’s a (very) long and detailed essay by a liberal Democrat explaining why he went from being a climate alarmist to a global warming skeptic. Loads of charts and links. I don’t agree with him 100%, but he makes a very sane and mostly politics-free case for caution in pushing “decarbonization.” (Thanks to Charlie Martin for the link.)
  • Far from melting, Greenland is breaking all records for ice growth, having gained 150 billion tons of snow and ice in the last six weeks.
  • Here are 18 useful resources for journalistic fact-checking. Pity that MSM journalists are unwilling to do that sort of thing anymore. (Thanks to Esther Schindler for the link.)
  • The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has ruled that scanning books is legal. The court ruled against the Authors Guild in their 2005 class-action suit against Google. The Guild intends to appeal to the Supreme Court. If the Supremes take the case, interesting things could happen. If they don’t, the case is over.
  • The secret history of the Myers-Briggs personality test. I am of three minds about Myers-Briggs. No make that nine. Oh, hell: seventeen.
  • This is probably the best discussion I’ve seen (and certainly the longest) on how and why SFF fandom is actively destroying itself at the same time it’s dying of old age. Read The Whole Thing. Part I. Part II. Part III. (And thanks to Sarah Hoyt for the link.)
  • Also from Sarah: Backyard atomic gardens of the 1950s and very early 1960s. I love the word “atomic.”
  • I love it so much that, having recently bought a midcentury home, I may subscribe to Atomic Ranch Magazine. I’ve begun looking for a Bohr atom model to put on our mantelpiece.
  • From the Elementary Trivia Department: The only way to make pink-tinted glass is to add erbium oxide to it.
  • Thunderbird is getting on my bad side. It regularly pops up a box claiming that it doesn’t have enough disk space to download new messages. My SSD on C: has 83 GB free. My conventional hard drive on D: has 536 GB free. Online reports suggest that Thurderbird has a 2 GB size limit on mail folders. Still researching the issue, but I smell a long integer overflow somewhere.
  • From Rory Modena: A talented writer explains the history of the Star Wars movies, and rewrites some of the clumsier plot elements right before our eyes. A lot of what bothered him blew right past me; I knew it was a pulp film and was in it for the starships and the robots.
  • From Esther Schindler: A Mexican church long sunk at the bottom of a reservoir is emerging from the water due to drought. (This isn’t a rare occurrance; it happened last in 2002.) I kept hearing Debussy’s spooky tone-poem “The Engulfed Cathedral” while reading the article.
  • McDonald’s recently went to a breakfast-all-day menu, to my delight. I’m very fond of their Sausage McMuffin with Egg, which is of modest size and makes a great snack anytime. Alas, adding all the new line items to the menu has caused chaos in some smaller restaurants, and franchise owners are having second thoughts. I doubt McD is facing “imminent collapse” but I’m now wondering how long the new menu will last.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

All the Myriad Waze

Several weeks ago, Carol and I got stuck in traffic on I-25 on the south end of Denver. We were trying to get home to Colorado Springs, and traffic was at a standstill. We didn’t know where the problem was, nor how to get around it. So we took most of an hour to get a couple of miles. The next day I tracked down a fuzzy memory of a mobile app that maps traffic congestion using crowdsourced reports from app users. It only took a minute to find Waze. I installed it on my phone, and Carol and I have been playing with it ever since.

We don’t punch a clock anymore and have no commute, but whenever we have to go across town (which for Colorado Springs is about fifteen miles tops) we fire up Waze and look at the prospective route. It’s definitely saved us some stop-and-go time, especially on I-25, which is the only freeway we have here.

Waze is basically an interactive map on which reports from users are plotted in something very close to realtime. These include speed traps, wrecks, potholes, construction, and other miscellaneous hazards. The reports are generally accurate, right down to the potholes. When traffic is slow, Waze knows it, because GPS can calculate your speed. When two or more Waze users are going slow on a particular route, Waze paints the road in red and indicates what the speed currently is.

This is cleverness but not genius. Back in the wardriving era when GPS was first commonly available (back in 2000-2003 or so) I had this notion that a system could gather information about speed traps, if only there were a way to get reports to the central server from user cars. Then, wham! Smartphones happened. The rest is history.

No, the genius part of Waze is that its creators turned it into a sort of combination video game and social network. Waze users are plotted on Waze maps right along with the speed traps and potholes. It integrates with things like Foursquare. You get points by submitting reports and spotting errors on Waze maps. (You actually get points just by driving around with Waze running on your phone, which allows them to gauge speeds on the roads.) People with the most points get swords, shields, or crowns to wear on their little ghost-like Waze icons. Intriguingly, you can send messages to other Waze users, create teams of drivers, and other things that I haven’t quite figured out yet, including searches for cheap gas. Even doing as little driving as we do, in three weeks we managed to rack up over 900 points. There’s a stack rank of users for each state. (We’re down in the 100,000 range for Colorado.) Carol got some points for making roadkill out of a piece of hard candy that mysteriously appeared on the Waze map in front of us. If that sort of thing appealed to us, I suspect we would be addicts, like the people with over half a million points obviously are.

There are two fairly obvious downsides to the Waze system:

  • To be useful, Waze requires that a certain critical mass of users be prowling around your town, reporting things. Here in the Springs, this rarely happens outside rush hours. I’m guessing that in smaller towns, Waze never really gets out of first gear. Like so much these days, it’s a YUH (young urban hipster) phenomenon.
  • As if I even had to mention, it’s yet another driver distraction, probably in the same league with texting. That’s why we only use it when we’re both in the car, and Carol typically does the reporting and the sniffing ahead for congestion.

I’m starting to see articles about how cops hate it because of speed trap reporting, which suggests that, at least in large urban areas, it’s working as designed. I like it for the sake of the traffic reports, which I suspect will be even more useful the next time we’re in Denver, or lord knows Chicago. Problematic for one, useful (and sometimes fun) for two.

Cautiously recommended.

Why I’m Not On Twitter

On more than one occasion, a reader has emailed me to ask why he or she couldn’t see me on Twitter. My answer might have seemed inconceivable to them: I’m not on it. I never have been. I’ve researched it and thought about it and waffled about it almost since there was a Twitter. I still haven’t gone there. And at this point, I’m unlikely to.

One reason has always been that I don’t think in 140-character text bites. I’m a careful and methodical writer on both the fiction and nonfiction side, and being methodical (not to mention fair) requires more than 25 words, or five words and a hotlink. I’ve recently experimented with what I call nanoarticles on Facebook. I’m currently on Day 13 of a 50-entry meditation on writing over there, with individual entries running from 40-100 words or so. I’m still not sure it’s useful.

I like epigrams, and I’ve written a few. I’ve gotten hundreds of Twitter posts and retweets of my statement: “A good tool improves the way you work. A great tool improves the way you think.” A few have liked “If you see a pinata, remember that somewhere close by is a blindfolded person swinging a stick.” I’ve gotten some pushback on “Self-esteem is confidence without calibration.” (This leads me to believe it may be truer than I thought.) It might be in the family; my father said, “Kick ass. Just don’t miss.” I guess I’m good enough at epigrams to post them publicly, and Twitter is epigram-sized. That said, I don’t think I want to be known primarily for my epigrams. On Twitter, you pretty much have four choices:

  • Epigrams.
  • Forwarded links.
  • Retweets.
  • Shouting.

Note that novels, technical books, and long-form journalism are not on the list. I already do Odd Lots here on Contra. One cannot retweet without tweeting.

So then there’s Number Four.

“Shouting” is the short form. It’s almost always indignant shouting, self-righteous shouting, or outright hateful shouting. The basic Twitter mechanism is a sort of amplifier, and once the person doing the shouting gets above a certain level of popularity, a runaway feedback mechanism ensues. Boom! (Squeal?) We have a mob. And far oftener than you might think, we have a lynch mob.

It struck me a few months ago: Almost all the current Internet wars are Twitter wars. Gamergate could not have happened without Twitter. Neither could Donglegate. Mobs require the sort of immediate feedback that only immediate presence provides. Twitter is as close as you come online to immediate presence.

Twitter wars would be mere popcorn fodder (low comedy, actually) and easy to tune out if there weren’t real-world consequences. There are. Adria Richards eavesdropped on two dorks making dumb jokes at a conference, took photos without permission, and tweeted them. One of the two dorks was fired from his job, as (a little later) was Adria herself. People have objected angrily to a Twitter lynch mob’s reducing Rosetta mission scientist Matt Taylor to tearful apology over his dopey Hawaiian shirt. I have a suspicion that he had no choice but to apologize. It’s not easy getting a probe to a comet, and it wasn’t easy for Dr. Taylor to be part of the team. Had he not made obeisance to the lynch mob, he might well have lost his job, and in fact his entire career. Employers can be cowardly in this fashion without much cost to themselves: There are always 400 people waiting to fill the void that you make when your company shows you the door.

We have a phenomenon here related to what I call “comment harpies.” There is a psychology that feeds on outrage and hate. Comment harpies are this psychology’s manifestion in blog comment sections. On Twitter, the psychology is amplified way past absurdity, and becomes an online lynch mob. It’s so easy to join in: Are you an umbrage vampire? A recreational hater? Choose your hashtag and join the mob!

I don’t associate with such people, and I don’t want my participation on the Twitter system to be seen as validating what might well be the Internet’s most efficient hate machine. Whether Twitter would be good for my writing career is still an open question, and while Twitter leaves an ugly smell in my nostrils, I rarely say never. Attention amplifiers are very good things, if they can be controlled, and somehow prevented from melting down or blowing up in your face. This happens; there is an SF writer I once respected who has frittered away much of his reputation on laughably rabid Twitter attacks. This may be a calculated strategy: Is he deliberately trading the broad but shallow support of his casual readership for the slobbering adulation of a Twitter mob? If so, he may not be as smart as he looks.

I strive to always be smarter than I look. The smart path may be to avoid Twitter entirely. Time will tell. In the meantime, watching the Twitter lynch mobs at work has put new steel up my back. If some jackass umbrage vampire ever calls me some sort of ist or phobe, I will reply: “No, I’m not. Now back off.”

I might be thinking worse of them inside my head, but…civility matters. And civility is the exception on Twitter.

Odd Lots

Godzilla’s Gumball Machine

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.

Any questions?

Brittle Publishers

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!

In Search of the Great Unifier

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.

Odd Lots