Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

April, 2012:

Odd Lots

The Agency Model and the Fair Trade Laws

All the recent commotion over the agency model vs the wholesale model in ebook retailing reminded me of something: my very first pocket calculator. I got my first full-time job in September of 1974, and whereas fixing Xerox machines wasn’t riches, it paid me more than washing dishes at the local hospital. In short order I got my first credit card, my first new car, and a number of other things that had been waiting for my wallet to fatten up a little.

One of these was a pocket calculator. The device itself has been gone for decades, but I’m pretty sure it was a TI SR-50, with an SRP of $149.95. I shopped around for the best price, since $150 was a lot of money back then. However, everybody who sold the SR-50 was selling it for $149.95. I bought it at a camera store downtown, and only a little research told me that it was covered under the Fair Trade laws, meaning that all retailers sold it for the same price, set by the manufacturer. I grumbled a little, but wow! I had a calculator! I gave it no further thought.

Between 1931 and 1975, a significant chunk of retailing in the United States was basically on the agency model. Books, cameras, appliances, some foods, wine and liquors, and certain other things were sold for the price the manufacturer chose. This is one reason prices were often printed right on the goods. Retailer margins were open to discussion, but in a lot of industries, the margin was 40% or pretty close to it. The Fair Trade laws were enacted during the Depression to protect local one-off retailers from being driven out of business by much larger chain stores, during a time of reduced demand and thin profits. How well this worked is disputed, but by 1975 the laws had become so unpopular with the public and so difficult to enforce that they were repealed by an act of Congress.

I grant that Fair Trade was not a clear win for the little guys. Some of my readings suggest that the Fair Trade laws accelerated the dominance of retail chains because chain retailers could build bigger stores and shelve a greater variety of goods, even if their prices were the same as prices in smaller, one-off stores. House brands were invented largely to evade the Fair Trade laws, since the retailer was considered the manufacturer for legal purposes and could set prices in stores as desired. This gave another advantage to large chains, since only large chains had the resources to establish house brands.

Fair Trade retailing as I understand it rested on two big assumptions:

  • Manufacturers compete on price.
  • Retailers compete on things like customer service and selection.

Shazam! Those are the same two assumptions underlying the agency model in publishing, and I don’t think it matters whether we’re talking print or digital. So I think it’s fair to look at what happened after 1975, when Fair Trade went away:

  1. Discounting allowed consumer prices to go down.
  2. Both the chains as a whole and individual chain retail stores got bigger.
  3. Smaller, independent stores vanished in droves.
  4. Small retailing became specialty retailing. This was certainly true of bookstores. Of the two bookstores I could easily reach on my bike in the 1960s, one became a card shop that carried a few books, and the other became a specialty bookstore carrying Christian/Catholic books only.
  5. Small retailers dealing in used goods hung on longer–think used bookstores and used record stores. The Doctrine of First Sale allowed used goods retailers to set their own prices even on Fair Trade goods.
  6. Manufacturer consolidation went into high gear. One reason, I think, was monopsony, which is the power big retailers have to dictate prices to suppliers. Smaller manufacturers who could not meet retailer price expectations merged with larger manufacturers, became importers, or went under.

In the ebook publishing/retailing world, #5 does not apply, as there’s no unambiguously legal used market. Most of the other consequences in the list above are things that I predict an agency model would work against:

  1. Retail prices will rise–though perhaps not as much as some fear.
  2. It will be easier to mount and maintain a new online retailer against competition by enormous retailers like Amazon.
  3. Given the above, with the consequence of more players in the retail market, monopsonistic pressures on cover prices will be greatly reduced.
  4. Absent Amazon’s monopsony, smaller publishers have a better chance of competing with much larger publishers, given small publishers’ advantages of lower fixed costs vs larger publishers.
  5. The presence of a larger number of smaller publishers will keep downward pressure on prices, since that’s their primary way to compete. Macmillan has to keep ebook prices up to protect its print hardcover line. Ten thousand small ebook publishers have no hardcover lines to protect. $10? No problem. $5? The new $10. Even within the agency model, small press will train consumers to expect ebooks to sell for $10 or less.

There’s another consequence that I don’t think has any precedent in the Fair Trade phenomenon: Larger numbers of retailers and publishers will reduce the power of very large retailers or publishers to “silo” the business with proprietary file standards and DRM.

There are problems with such an agency-based business model (and wildcards; Pottermore, anybody?) but overall I think those problems are more solvable than the collapse of book retailing into Amazon, Amazon, and more Amazon. So my vote goes with agency retailing. I’ve just told you why. (Polite) discussion always welcome.

Rant: The Bumperstickerization of Facebook

Maybe I just hit a statistically inevitable bad stretch. I don’t know. But last night, it seemed like every other entry on my Facebook friends feed was a photo that was nothing more than an image of words. I won’t embarrass anyone by citing a particular example; I’m pretty sure that anybody who’s on Facebook knows what I mean.

I do not mean visual puns like Imperial Walker, which at times border on brilliant. Nor even the genre I guess we call “demotivational” posters, which bring a painful grin now and then. I’ll gen up an example of my own:


Why is this better than:

“They build too low, who build beneath the stars.” –Edward Young 1681-1765.

I have to grin: Here’s Jeff Duntemann, the Visual Developer guy, arguing for plain text against graphics. But hey, it’s text, and nothing more than text. If quotes had OK buttons (or, better yet, Cancel buttons) I might feel otherwise. They don’t. Text is sufficient.

There’s another problem: In no case was the text in the image the words of the person who posted it. They’re all well-worn platitudes or slogans or political nanorants, just as you’d see on a bumper sticker. That, in fact, is what they remind me of the most. Last night I realized that I was seeing the bumperstickerization of Facebook.

I did not sign up for Facebook to drown in a sea of virtual bumper stickers. They call it a “friends list” because, theoretically, the people there are friends. I like to hear what my friends are thinking, feeling, reading, writing, coding, making, or otherwise doing. I don’t mind pictures of your cats, your dogs, your kids, your vacations, or the stuff you’re building in the basement. That’s what Facebook is for.

Are your daily travails more important than quotes from Abraham Lincoln, FDR, or Oscar Wilde? Damitall, yes. I already have Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I used to read it like a novel. (I’m nutty that way.) If you must quote someone, quote yourself. And do it in text. Pixels Are For Pictures.

Now, weren’t you making cannoli last night? Or calling CQ on six meters? You’re my friend. If I didn’t hear about it, well, it’s not for lack of wanting.

Odd Lots

  • Not posting often here, but I’m ok. Working hard on several things, chief of which is getting my office and Carol’s exchanged, outfitted, and fully functional. This involves furniture, wiring, lighting, and sorting an immense quantity of glarble. I hope to return to regular in-depth posting soon.
  • I have a new favorite cheese: cave-aged gruyere, which can be had sometimes at King Soopers, and is lucious with a good dry red wine. Get the oldest cheese you can find, as young gruyere tastes nothing like old gruyere. A year is as young as I buy.
  • The asteroid that whacked the dinosaurs must have thrown an immense amount of material into space. How much rock might have made the journey, and how far far did it go? Here’s a good quick take on the topic. It would take a million years or more to get to Gliese 581, but suitably rugged bacterial spores might have survived, and made the origin of life on planets there unnecessary. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • A book I’m not bullish on: Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, which describes how the cause of cholera (infected water) was proven by the persistent John Snow through charting of cholera deaths upon a map of London neighborhood water pumps. Why? The book does not include the actual ghost map named in the title. (So what else is missing or wrong?) Whatever editor let that past should be fired and spend the rest of his/her days stuffing toddler clothes in racks at Wal Mart.
  • Could the TRS-80 Mod 100 possibly be 30 years old? Yes indeedy, and it was ubiquitous among tech journalists when I was at PC Tech Journal in ’85-86. Its keycaps made a distinctive sound, and sitting in a significant press conference back then was like sitting under a tin roof in a rainstorm. I yearned for one myself (the keyboard was wonderful for such a small device) but didn’t pull the trigger because the machine did so little other than keystroke capture.
  • Toward the end of my tenure at Xerox I saw the Sunrise, which was a more ambitious take on the “lapslab” concept. My department was considering writing an app for it, so I had a loaner for awhile. Even better keyboard than the TRS 100, cassette data storage, modem…but the 3-line display was harder to read. Xerox private-labeled the hardware from another company, and basically killed it with a $1500 price point. (There was a flashier version that cost…$2500!) Xerox abandoned the market in 1984, after sinking what rumor held to be an obscene amount of money into it.
  • One machine I did consider was the Exidy Sorcerer, which also had a good keyboard and didn’t cost $3000. Lack of software made me spend the $3000 anyway, on a huge honking S100 system running a 1 MHz 8080.
  • One of the big issues between Amazon and the Big Six is an explosion of co-op fees, which according to some reports have increased by 30 times since 2011. The whole “co-op” business has always smelled gamey to me, but it had a purpose in the B&M bookselling world. How it fits into online ebook retailing is less clear, and in my view starts leaning perilously in the direction of bribery.
  • Most of us think that reading is in decline. Gallup poll results suggest otherwise. Nor are today’s books worse than those of 40+ years ago. This quote is significant: “The bad [books] of yesteryear have gone out of print while the bad ones of today are alive and being sold in supermarkets.”
  • I’m still watching the ASUS Tranformer Prime (their botch of its GPS support has kept me away for the time being) but the Prime has a little (as in cheaper) brother now, and it looks like a decent machine in its own right. Here’s Engadget’s detailed review of theTransformer Pad TF-300.
  • Here’s another wonderful gallery from Dark Roasted Blend, this time of high-speed photos of liquids. Some of it is photoshopped, but it’s all startling. (Thanks to Ernie Marek for the link.)
  • Santorini is smouldering again. Yes, the volcano that may have made the Minoans extinct and launched the legend of Atlantis (or at least put an older legend on the map) is getting restless. Like the Greeks need that right now.
  • Eating meat allowed our hominid ancestors to reproduce more quickly, by accelerating infant brain growth and thus shortening the breastfeeding period. (Breastfeeding naturally inhibits ovulation.) This on top of several other issues.
  • From the Words-I-Didn’t-Know-Until-Yesterday Department: Beatboxing , which is vocal generation of sounds like drums and synthesized sound effects. I heard of this in an interesting way: There’s a slightly silly commercial for the Honda Pilot that involves a Pilot full of bored tweens beatboxing the rhythm of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” and by chance we had captioning turned on. When the kids started making noises, the captioning read, “Beatboxing.”
  • Pete Albrecht sends a link to a map color-coding US gas prices by county. The very abrupt differences between states suggests that gas prices are more a question of state and local taxes than regional differences in demand.
  • It was inevitable: A 3D printer that prints chocolate novelties. Now we need a 3D printer that prints spice-cake Easter lambs with ears that stay on.

Odd Lots

  • I’m behind on a great many things, especially fiction writing and replying to email, so bear with me until I get dug out from under the pile. Exchanging offices within a house is precisely the same as moving two offices, and that means a lot of boxes and a lot of bother, exploding intercoms being the least of it.
  • I didn’t expect this wine to be as good as it actually is. About $11.
  • The weather’s been beautiful here, so yesterday I was going to get out on the back deck with my Icom 736 and work the world. That was, of course, the day that sunspots basically vanished on the visible face of the Sun. What does it mean to have solar flares but no sunspots? Nobody knows.
  • Thanks to many people (Jim Strickland being the first) who wrote to tell me about a “smart sand” project at MIT that is the first step toward the sort of nanoreplicator I postulated in my Drumlins stories: Tap in a 256-bit code, and some “smart dust” (very smart) in a stone bowl assembles something for you. I love it when my crazy dreams come true!
  • Single-atom nanotransistors can now be reliably made, rather than hunted for. (Thanks to Roy harvey for the link.)
  • From Michael Covington comes a link to a fascinating article about the other kind of abduction: abductive logic. If you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, don’t miss it!
  • The Colorado state law that led Amazon to nuke my Associates account has been declared unconstitional. No word from Amazon as to whether I can have my account back.
  • I would probably buy one of these if I could find one in stock somewhere.
  • Jack Tramiel has left us, having created quite a raft of famous computers, including the very best forgotten computer ever.
  • I checked the date on this one, but it was nine days too late to assume it’s a hoax. One might argue that solar panels are more elegant, but you can’t make buffalo spaghetti sauce in a solar panel.
  • I’ve seen more dumb YouTube posts than I’m willing to admit, but this one takes the cake for sheer willful stupidity. I knew how this worked in 1959, when I was 7.
  • Kids, this is futurism. All we need now are better tacos.

The Wonderful Exploding Intercom

Lafayette PA405 Intercom.jpg

Carol and I are trading offices, and trading offices is a lot of work. I’m trying to do it right and not have piles of unsorted glarble on every horizontal surface, accruing new mass like black holes. That may be impossible; I don’t know. I’ve never had an office without piles of unsorted glarble. The nature of the glarble changes over the decades, but a quick trip through the photo albums confirms that the glarble has always been there.

There’s another problem I intend to fix this time: Carol has always wanted an intercom between her office and mine. Lacking an intercom system we use our cellphones, but cellphones are not intercoms. I was born in the 1950s and I know an intercom when I see one: Intercoms have things that light up, ideally inside as well as on the front panel; and they buzz. The buzz is to remind you that their magical souls are yet alive within them. If they’re good intercoms, you can hear remote audio over the buzz.

And so it was a while back that I bought a pair of 1964-era Lafayette PA-405 4-tube wireless intercoms on eBay, for the remarkably low price of $30. A wireless intercom is a very cool thing. You don’t have to run wires between the two stations because they use your house wiring as a signal conduit. Each station has a little radio transmitter and receiver within it, and so using them is a little like using CB radios. (If you don’t know what CB radios are, well, you’re not a Baby Boomer.) Push the button labeled Talk, and you talk. Otherwise, you listen. (How ’bout that Girlfriend! This is Contraman! What’s yer 20?)

The two units are beautiful; practically pristine visually. I plugged them both in, one in Carol’s office and one on the kitchen island. Got some buzz (natch) and random racket on both sides. I was playing with the silencing control on the back panel of the unit in Carol’s office when I heard a weird concussive sound through the air from the kitchen, followed by Carol yelling, “IT EXPLODED!”

This is not something Carol yells very often, even across a 35-year marriage to yours truly. I got back to the kitchen pronto and found smoke curling out the holes in the masonite back panel and Carol cranking wide the kitchen windows. I suspected (as old-timers will agree) that a 50-year-old electrolytic had decided to go out kicking, as has happened to me more than once. Not so: Once I opened it up I found a relatively modern .05 tubular capacitor that had blown out one end and pewked up its foil-and-mylar guts in a spectacularly spiral fashion.

Exploded Cap - 500Wide.jpg

I’ve never seen a cap die quite that way, and I can only assume that it had shorted internally. Its function in the circuit appears to be feeding low-level RF signal onto the power line from an RF coil. If shorted, the cap would bridge one side of the wall mains connection to the other side, through the secondary of the RF coil. (I may be wrong about this, but that’s how it looks through a magnifier.) Although the coil looks fine, the circuit isn’t working, and shorting wall current through a small coil of #30 wire is rarely good for the coil.

I’ve ordered the schematic from Manualman and will go back to the units when it arrives. Am I annoyed? Not hardly. 1964 was one of my favorite years, and the good thing about electronics from that era is that the parts are big enough to see. If I did in fact burn out the RF coil I may have to find a parts unit, but that sort of surgery is no great challenge with parts in hand. (I may also be able to rewind the coil, which looks like about 12 turns of #28 or #30 enameled.)

Why am I so happy? Call me weird, but it’s like this: If it didn’t explode I wouldn’t have the fun of fixing it. So there.

Review: John Carter (of Mars)

I wrote this three weeks ago and then forgot to take the file to Chicago, duhh. I assume everybody’s seen the film by now, but I’m not sure what else to do with the review but post it.

carterswoola.jpgSaw John Carter with a few geek friends, all of them (but me) EEs. It got lousy reviews for the most part, but I was intrigued by the idea of a quarter-billion dollar pulp novel. Because I know what pulp novels are (and because I read A Princess of Mars when I was 15 or so) I was by no means disappointed. Guys, it’s a pulp novel. This means that it’s either about cleavage or else bashing your enemies to a pulp.

Disney made this one, so the cleavage is minimal, and the pulping quite bloodless. The costuming and CGI creations, on the other hand, were breathtaking in a sort of half-Spartacus, half-Steampunk way that we don’t see very often. (I really can’t think of another example, though the very uneven 1961 George Pal film Atlantis, the Lost Continent comes close.) Much of the film was shot on location on an alien planet called Utah. The rest came out of whole CGI cloth.

And that, my friends was worth seeing. The tusked, four-armed native Martians called Tharks looked absolutely real, right down to the eyes. They fidgeted, they pouted, they even wept, and they did not all look alike. It is a credit to the production quality and attention to detail that in other films the Tharks might be consider monsters; here they were more or less the bad boys you stayed away from in high school or (very) occasionally befriended. There actually weren’t a lot of monsters, once you discount the Tharks as ugly but mostly human dumbasses. One of them, however, was my favorite living thing in the whole film: Carter’s six-legged Martian dog sidekick Woola (technically a calot) who might accurately be described as Jabba the Mutt.

I liked the human characters a lot less. After all, I’ve already seen Spartacus. Carter himself (Taylor Kitsch) was forgettable beefcake. The bald guys were unconvincing, and reminded me of mysterious, hair-challenged heavies in a multitude of bad media pieces all the way back to Ming the Merciless. The princess-scientist Deja Thoris had remarkably durable eye makeup considering the roughousing she engages in. Then again, so did Sophia Loren in the underappreciated 1957 big gun epic The Pride and the Passion. (So, in fact, do most movie heroines who aren’t ugly by design.) The Zodangans and the denizens of the city of Helium (what was Burroughs thinking?) were toga-epic extras, who brought all the passion of plum pudding to their parts.

I twitched every time I heard someone say, “…then Helium falls.” Hey, if Helium falls, why do we fill blimps with it?

The steampunkish walking city of Zodanga was a nice touch, explaining as it does why Mars appears to have long lines spanning its deserts. That’s just Zodanga tracks, and Zodanga has a lot of legs. Nonetheless, it’s a very big item, and if you’re not so dumb as to just sit and wait for it to step on you, I’d guess it’s fairly easy to outrun.

Unfortunately, the one big thing that bothered me immensely in the film was key to the plot: Carter’s Supermannish ability to jump a hundred feet straight up, supposedly because of the lower gravity on Mars. Sorry, no. Mars’s gravity is 3/8 that of Earth, so a 200-pound ruffian would still weigh 75 pounds. I might believe fifteen feet straight up, or 60 feet in a horizontal long jump with a good running start. And if Carter can, the slender and apparently muscular Tharks should be able to. Not so.

That’s my main complaint, apart from the fact it’s sometimes difficult to tell exactly what’s going on. I’ll freely admit that I didn’t care. John Carter is about spectacle; fights among improbable flying machines, goofy aliens, and endless startling things purchased by the compound interest of Moore’s Law. Don’t expect it to make sense. (Alas, don’t expect it to make much money, either.) Resist the temptation to crack helium jokes. (If Deja Thoris is a Princess of Helium, why doesn’t she have a squeaky voice?) Just turn your brain off and enjoy the scenery.

Guiltily recommended.

Sparking Ideas

Thermaltake Box and Ground Box 500 Wide.jpg

Carol and I traded offices here after completion of our downstairs rehab, and while the process is ongoing (much stuff is still lying around in boxes) I’ve come upon a problem I didn’t have before. Back in late March, I touched the metal bezel of a conventional USB 2.0 port on my desktop quadcore, and drew a 1/4″ spark. As you might expect, the machine died instantly. The new carpet generates a lot more static than the old carpeting did–and our customary 7-9% humidity doesn’t help.

Why the USB port bezel wasn’t grounded is a mystery, since the wire coming out of the top panel encapsulated port assembly was screwed tight to the case, and the case to the third wire. I can only assume that something was broken inside the port assembly. I’ll tell you right now, I am not going to buy any Antec cases anymore. This is the second one that’s gone bad in precisely the same way: wonkiness in the front/top panel port assembly. Furthermore, I had to destroy the top panel to remove the port assembly, since the case metal completely blocked access to two of the plastic release tabs. No wonder they wouldn’t sell me a replacement port assembly, since the assembly could not be changed without destroying the case itself. Antec is off my list, now and forever.

There’s nothing bleeding-edge in the new machine. The mobo is a Gigabyte Z68A-D3H-B3, if that means anything to you, with an Intel Core i5-2400 Sandy Bridge processor on it. The cores run at 3.1 GHz, vs 2.4 GHz for the old machine. I had them put it all in a Thermaltake V3 case, which is smaller and simpler than the Antec Nine Hundred I’ve been using since late 2008. I am not a gamer and am quite content with integrated graphics, so elaborate cooling machinery is unnecessary. The case fans are quiet (though one of them seems to rattle periodically) and overall I consider it a winner.

Now to figure out how not to kill the new machine. The quick fix was to pull a homebrew 350V power supply off the shelf and plug it in beside the new quadcore. The aluminum chassis is grounded to the wall through the 3-wire cord, so touching the chassis before touching the quadcore should do it. (The blue mouse pad is just to keep the supply from scratching the table.) I know it works because I can pull quite a spark by touching it after scuffing around the lower level. Better still, if I hold an NE-2 neon bulb by one lead and wave it a few inches from the grounded power supply, I can see the static bleed off through the bulb, without even touching the other lead to the chassis. (Turning the lights off makes it more dramatic, but I can see the orange flickers in full daylight.)

The neon bulb experiment suggests that something more graceful than an old power supply could be put together as a grounding station. I have a wonderful 5″ bronze worm wheel given to me by Carol’s dad circa 1987, and with a little skill and some copper pipe fittings could build something with a VR-75 tube at the center, and the gear as the touchplate. Touch the plate, flash the tube, kill the static. I’m going to lash it up before putting a lot of work into it, but I see no reason why it wouldn’t work. More as it happens.

You Can’t Go Home Again

We’re back and I’m ok; you can stop worrying about me now. (Nonetheless, many thanks for all the concerned emails.) We flew to Chicago to house-sit for Carol’s sister for a week or so, and most of what I did there was read books and visit family and a few old friends. My arm no longer hurts…much, and that only when I put significant weight or torque on it. I’m going to strength training tomorrow, a session I suspect will be interesting.

In the meantime, I passed through my old neighborhood on the way to visit my kindergarten friend Art, and cruised down the street where I grew up, to see the house I lived in until I was 23. I was halfway down the block when it hit me: This is all wrong. I stopped where I knew my old house had been, and looked at something that was no longer my old house. In fact, it looked a lot like Dorothy’s tornado had dropped somebody else’s house on top of the house of my birth and somehow got the alignment right.

Let me show you the house shortly after its completion in 1949:


It was a fairly common design, by the well-known Chicago developer Maclennan, and there were lots of them in our neighborhood. The original floor plan was just 900 square feet, with only two bedrooms and one bath. When my sister came along in 1956 my parents put a floor under the cathedral ceiling and made a third bedroom out of it, with a new dormer for a half bath upstairs. Shortly after that, they put a good-sized family room off the back side of the house that ran the full width of the structure. The family room included a brick fireplace with its own chimney. It was a little tight (especially by today’s standards) but I finished the basement in knotty pine when I was 15 and after establishing my desk and workbench there spent a great deal of my time downstairs.

My mother lived there for 47 years, and when we sold the house in 1996 I figured that somebody would put some work into it. Whew. Was I right or what? It looks like they literally shaved off the second story and the family room completely, or possibly gutted the place down to the brick walls and started over. (I’m guessing my knotty pine walls in the basement did not make the cut either.) The house as it is today looks a little topheavy, but the lot is only 35 feet wide, and it takes some creativity to maximize the useful space buildable on that little land.

No hard feelings, though forgive me for thinking that it just looks funny. The most striking change was the removal of both chimneys, which made me sigh because my first ham radio antenna was 30′ of #22 wire strung from one chimney to the other. I worked 34 states from that house (on a hacked-up Knight T-60) and saw eight planets from the front lawn. It was, let’s say, formative.

Much more to talk about. I’ll try and catch up in coming days. I have a new desktop machine here, having scragged the old one by touching it before grounding myself. When you see a quarter-inch spark jump from your finger to a USB port, you know that nothing good is about to happen. I have a sketch for a steampunk discharge station coming together, with a 5″ bronze gear and a VR-75 gas regulator tube for visual effects. Touch your quadcore before touching the discharge station, and it’s back to your Babbage barn, bunky!