Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

February, 2010:

Odd Lots

  • Stumbled across Atlas Obscura, which is a collection of pointers to peculiar places around the world, including a museum in Iceland housing the world’s largest collection of animal penises. Alas, they do not list Bubbly Creek, on the south side of Chicago, where the stockyards dumped untold quantities of animal blood and offal for 80-odd years, forming a layer of clotted blood up to three feet thick on the riverbed. Peculiar don’t quite capture it.
  • Don’t know if I buy this, exactly, but there is some evidence that people lose weight just by living at higher altitudes. I certainly weigh less at 6600 feet than I did in Scottsdale at 1900, though strength training, shunning sugar, rationing grains, and eating lots more meat and dairy may have had something to do with it as well.
  • AVG is at it again; I got a trojan warning today for Trojan Generic 16.AUZZ in the installer for the Pan newsreader, which I have used off and on for several months. The file has been in my installers directory since last September and never triggered an alert before. I don’t think it’s a threat, but it demonstrates the difficulties of signature-based virus detection.
  • In case I haven’t mentioned it before: I’ve abandoned Winamp (after something like twelve years) for the VLC Media Player. It plays every audio and video format I’ve thrown at it (including some odd ones like mkv) except for MIDI. It never bitches about codecs and so far has never failed to play a playable file or disc. It even plays HD video, though the only example I have right now is some footage of me doing stand-up comedy with Terry Dullmaier at our 40th grade school reunion. Simple, sane interface with controls big enough to see. Free. What’s not to love?
  • And the Gimp may become a lot more lovable within a year. Man, I’ve tried to love the product for years…and always failed. The 2.8 version, due in December, could be just the thing.
  • Cool emerging space tech: Ionic mini-thrusters small enough to build several into a CubeSat.
  • What is the term for those people who dress up in chicken suits and wave signs too damned close to the street near places like Wild Wings? (Lately it’s mostly been guys in Statue of Liberty suits hawking Liberty Tax Service.) Helluva way to make a living. (I keep thinking I’ll be wiping them off my windshield.)


Not having much luck making Workstation 6 function, and two conversations and numerous emails with VMWare’s tech support people hasn’t helped. I install the product, I enter the serial number as requested, and get this error message. Has anybody else ever seen this? Or can anybody even explain it? I emailed the screenshot to VMWare, and that’s about the time they clammed up.

I hate to abandon Workstation entirely. VMWare’s snapshot system is far superior to that of VirtualBox, and I use it a lot. I’ll miss it. Boy.

And while I’m asking peculiar things, let me ask the multitudes here how you pronounce “iodine.” I have always said eye-oh-dyne, but Bob Thompson, who knows more than a little about chemistry (and certainly more than I) pronounces it eye-oh-deen. This lines up with the rest of the halogens; we don’t, after all, say “broh-myne.” So? Which is it?

I edited another half a chapter of FreePascal From Square One yesterday morning, and in laying out the edited material got up to page 136. The book I’m adapting it from is 800 pages long, but don’t look for anything that size. To be workable on Lulu, the book is going to have to stop at or before page 400. A lot of the material in Borland Pascal 7 From Square One just doesn’t apply anymore…who’s called the Borland Graphics Interface lately, or done text output by poking word values into the video display buffer? The BGI chapter was 100 pages all by itself, and when I slice out that and other things like overlays and DOS/BIOS calls, I’m really pulling 400 pages out of no more than 600 pages of useful material, maybe less. Should be done by June. I hope.

The issue of whether Amazon imposes DRM on Kindle publishers is complicated, and I’ll back away some from my statement to that effect on Monday, and will hold off until I try to get one of my own titles into the system. This article suggests that recent policy changes have made DRM optional. Having to face the DRM issue square-on has kept me putting off publishing on the Kindle for some time. As a very small publisher I’ve made this promise to my readers: No DRM of any kind, on anything, ever. I’m willing to forgo Kindle sales if the DRM decision is not my own, but from what I’m reading now, I think that won’t be the case.

As for Amazon caving, well, that’s more complex too. I see that Nancy Kress’s new book Steal Across the Sky is listed on the Amazon Web store, and her publisher, Tor, is one of Macmillan’s imprints. However, you can’t order it from Amazon at this time. (Third-party affiliates are offering it, but Amazon itself is not. Note the double dashes under “Amazon Price.”) Ditto Nancy’s Beggars and Choosers, another Tor book. Yesterday morning’s Wall Street Journal had a story explicitly stating that Amazon had conceded the price issue to Macmillan. But Amazon isn’t selling the books yet, so clearly the struggle goes on.

Off to church, to install an SX270 in place of a doddering old E-Machines box that is four times the size and probably a third the capability.

Ebooks: Wholesale/Retail vs. Commission

I’m guessing that by now, most of you have heard of Amazon’s little dustup with Macmillan, one of the world’s largest book publishers. As long as Kindle was the only significant online retailer for ebooks, Macmillan accepted Amazon’s sales terms, which set a ceiling of $9.99 on most ebook prices, at Amazon’s option. But the instant Apple popped up as a second significant ebook retailer, Macmillan cut a better deal with Apple, and demanded that Amazon match Apple’s terms, which include a higher price ceiling. Amazon responded by refusing to sell Macmillan’s titles.

Amazon caved yesterday, and agreed to reinstate Macmillan’s books at Macmillan’s higher prices. People posting in the comments sections of some news sites seem puzzled that a more competitive market would raise prices for consumers, but that’s just the way truly free markets work. Until Apple showed up with their iPad, Amazon had a monopsony relationship with ebook publishers, rather like WalMart has (still) a monopsony relationship with a multitude of small-to-middling goods manufacturers and wholesalers. In a competitive retail market, neither monopoly (one seller, many buyers) nor monopsony (one buyer, many sellers) dominate. There are lots of buyers and lots of sellers, and we quickly find out what the “real” price of a product is, as manufacturers and retailers jockey for the greatest market share among consumers.

That’s not, however, what I find interesting about the recent conflict. Look closer, and you’ll see two fundamentally different approaches to selling a product to consumers: Amazon is selling on the conventional wholesale/retail model, and Apple is selling on an agency model. Amazon wants to buy ebooks from publishers at a wholesale price and make money on the margin between that wholesale price and a retail price that it controls. This allows it to create occasional “loss leaders” to generate traffic, as conventional goods retailers have done as long as anyone remembers. Apple, by contrast, wants to sell ebooks at prices set by their publishers, and take a percentage of every sale.

Publishers like the agency model since it gives them more control over pricing, and does not train the public to expect all ebook prices to be $10 or less. How much better the agency model is for publishers and authors is unclear, and depends in part on how fungible you think books are, which is a very weird business that I’m still thinking about. It may also depend on how many players can participate on the publisher side. A B&M bookstore can only contain and manage so many physical books, and publishers play lots of dicey scarcity games to get more shelf space than their competitors. (“Stock our whole frontlist and we’ll give you an extra 2 points’ margin…”) An online ebook store’s capacity is essentially unlimited, and any number of publishers can play. If there are a million publishers and 999,900 of them sell products at lower prices than you do, your control of pricing is less than it was in the era when it was tough to get your books into stores and a relatively few large publishers dominated the market.

Nor does it end there. If you look even closer, Apple’s model starts to look familiar in another sense: It starts to look like a publisher paying authors a royalty. The royalty rate is insanely high by historical standards (70% or thereabouts) but there are no atoms to push and protect. Without atoms getting in the way, being a publisher becomes an entirely different challenge, and the difference between conventional publishing and self-publishing implodes to the process of contracting for services you need with people who have the skills you don’t have. As experience in that process becomes more common, being Macmillan gradually becomes less and less important. I wonder whether Macmillan understands that.

Most of all we need to remember: The ebook business is still in its infancy. Everything remains in play. The readers can only get better. People are doing weird things that seem to work, like giving away your older ebooks to develop a market for your newer ebooks. Lots more ideas will be tried, new technologies will appear, and older technologies will change and improve. Maybe Amazon’s crazy action against Macmillan had to happen, just to show everybody that such things won’t work. (Sure, it was obvious…in hindsight.)

Me, I’m with Apple…for now. Why? Because Apple’s business model smells more like a free market than Amazon’s–and more like a game I can compete in. That could change, and much of that decision will hinge on the nature of Apple’s ebook DRM. (We don’t know all the details yet.) Kindle’s DRM is mandatory–whether I as a publisher want it or not. In a sense, its purpose is not to protect the publishers or the authors from piracy so much as to protect Amazon from a freer market, in which consumers can move their books from device to device at will. Apple could adopt that same strategy, leaving us with two paranoid and incompatible ebook retailers and readers. Hey, that’s nothing that another five or six major ebook retailers couldn’t fix, and they’ll happen. Give ’em time.