L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

02 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

Belated Friday Olive Tree Blogging

Been across the Atlantic for a few days. Back now and raring to blog. I could have blogged while I was there but I admit to being too tired to wrote anything coherent and worthwhile. Anyway Olive Tree blogging is back with a photo from the archives that I don't believe I've posted before. Can't find it anyway.
20070831 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
As always you can see an enlargement by clicking on the image and don't forget to visit the olive tree blogging archives if you're new here.

02 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

No Hugo for Baen

This one hurts. James P Baen failed to win a Hugo for Best Editor (Long) by 2 votes at the end of an extremely complex preference balloting system, despite winning most of the way through. In first preference votes he was ahead by a significant margin to Tor's Patrick Nielsen Hayden in second place (109:83) and he maintained that down to the fourth round (124:107) but when it came down to the final calculation between the two, PNH won by 158:156. This means that, assuming PNH and hia wife Theresa voted for him, then their two votes were what swing the ballot his way.

From the pdf of the voting:
Patrick Nielsen Hayden 83 83 92 107 158
James Patrick Baen 109 109 116 124 156
David G Hartwell 78 78 84 100
Ginjer Buchanan 47 47 53

Lou Anders 32 32

No Award 15

Note that the voting here is a disgrace. There were only 364 (83+109+78+47+32+15) people who could be bothered to vote, one of them being me. If ever there was a sign that the Hugo is a total sham this is it. The Hugo is supposed to represent the "readers", but even in the most popular category (best novel) only 471 people could be bothered to vote. I would need to check on some of the other categories but it seems clear to me that 200 people who voted in lock step could a) guarantee a nomination and b) almost certainly win any and all Hugo awards.

I admit to being extremely tempted to stump up the money to get a hundred or so drones to register as non-attending members to the next worldcon and vote the way I want them to. I believe I would need no more than about $10,000 to do this.

Unfortunately this won't get Jim Baen his Hugo because he's dead and therefore no longer eligable for another attempt.

Update: Additional thoughts on the Hugos here

03 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

Scribd and Copyright Infringement

I, along with many others, read all about Croy Doctorow's tiff with the SFWA over removal of copyright infringing works. I also read Jerry Pournelle's slap down response to Mr Doctorow. All of this is interesting in part because up until this little scrap I'd never heard of scribd and never visited it. I have just done so, and find it a pretty annoying Web 2.0 site. Although this short on Heinlein and Sex is quite an interesting read I doubt I'll browse much further in the site.

Anyway back to the issue at the root of the tiff. Scribd seems to make it easy for people to upload works written (and copyright) by someone else and put them in a form where they are relatively easy to find. Cory's "information must be free" shtick is wrong here where he complains that:

Specifically, in the Aug 23 email, SFWA Vice President Andrew Burt demands that Scribd require its uploaders to swear on pain of perjury that the works they are uploading do not infringe copyright. SFWA has taken it upon itself to require legal oaths of people who want to publish any kind of thought, document, letter, jeremiad, story or rant on Scribd. Not just "pirates." Not just people writing about science fiction, or posting material by SFWA members -- SFWA is asking that anyone writing anything for publication on Scribd take this oath of SFWA's devising.

The 'oath' essentially says that the uploader affirms either that he owns the copyright to the work being uploaded or that the work is permitted to be distributed this way. It is possible that it could be rewritten better but the concept seems perfectly fine and sane. Cory seems to think that asking such an affirmation is an infrinegement of the uploader's rights which seems bizarre. I cannot imagine why any creator of a review or other "thought, document, letter, jeremiad, story or rant" would not wish to assert his/her copyright of the content in question, so asking that the uploader assert that he is not violating the copyright of others seems like basic sense.

Pournelle's rebuttal makes a couple of excellent points:

It looks to me as if we have reached a decision point: either authors have some rights to what they create, or they don't. If they don't then we have to start looking at sales models.

The sites in question had thousands of copyrighted works and deliberately made it difficult for the copyright owner even to request that they take them down.  SFWA has a couple of volunteers to work on their behalf. Dr. Burt used some software tools to compile a list. The list apparently included some works that the sites had permission to post. When that was called to his attention the objections to those items were removed.

The worst that happened was that for a couple of days some of Corey Doctorow's work was not available for download from those sites; that is presuming that the site actually took them down at all.

On the other side, for weeks thousands of copyrighted works were available for download from a pirate site.

Doctorow says he is the aggrieved party, and the hounds now bay after SFWA and Dr. Burt.

Precisely why this should be so I don't know, but it looks as if "electronic freedom" means that authors have essentially no rights: or that the right of Doctorow to have his work displayed on a site that uses piracy to get net traffic is far more important than mine to have a writers organization try to act in my behalf. Incidentally, make no mistake: the SFWA committee did send polite letters to begin the discussion. Those did not get much attention.

Having said that Cory is wrong I have to say that I tend to agree with his basic thrust which is that the DMCA makes it far too easy to remove stuff that shouldn't be removed. In fact it seems to me that the DMCA is flat out a badly written law. It makes a lot of perfectly harmless things illegal, makes a bunch of things that should be easy difficult and vice versa. In other words, no matter whether you agree with the aims of the law or not is irrelevant because the law doesn't really deliver on its stated aims but is a mess. Indeed on the scribd blog the EFF legal reposnse makes it clear that the DMCA in fact allows scribd to do the slopey shoulders trick and disclaim any responsibility for anything and shove the blame right back to the SFWA.

Even beyond the DMCA issue, I was originally in agreement with Cory, however the more I read, the more I decide that the guy is wrong and he is defending a service that doesn't deserve it. Whether or not the SFWA should be the enforcer for all its member writers is a side issue. The main issue should surely be that scribd has numerous uploads which are almost certainly copyright violations - jusr a quick search this morning shows titles such as Uller Uprising, Emerald Sea and Cold as Ice - and seems to make it hard to get these taken down. A simple button on every title where you can fill in a form stating why you believe this is a copyright violation would help. Even if the form did not immediately cause the work to be removed from view - it probably shouldn't - it would be possible do a wikipedia style thing of putting up a notice like "This item is subject to a dispute over copyright, downloading it may be in violation of copyright" and having a clear policy that the uploader must respond within a certain umber of days (say 5 working days) or see
  1. the work removed
  2. all other work he has uploaded removed
  3. his ID being banned from scribd (ID may be defined as cookie, email or IP address or some combo thereof)
I can't see a problem with any of this. One scribd user (Mondobeyondo) appears to have uploaded around 2000 documents, most of which appear to be under copyright. If I were the SFWA (or any of the various authors of publishers) I would be asking scribd for the identity of this uploader and suing the bugger for everything he has because, unlike some of the RIAA lawsuits, this guy has clearly played fast and loose with the law as it is written and deserves to be sued for punitive damages, even though I suspect his actual contribution has been more positive than negative.

I should note in theory a place like scribd performs a valuable service and that philosopically I tend to agree with Doctorow when he claims, as have Eric Flint and others, that having electronic editions of works available for free enhances print sales. I am in fact positive that this is correct. However that does not mean that I believe all authors/publishers should have no recourse to unauthorized persons distributing works for free. Authors and publishers should be able to choose whether or not they wish to allow electronic editions of their work to be made available for free or at reasonable prices.

I strongly believe that making the first work (or first two) in a series available for free is a great way to hook readers. I strongly believe that the biggest problem most writers face is obscurity not piracy but the choice to make works available electronically should be theirs not someone else's. Furthermore I am strongly in favour of cheap ($4-$7) ebooks being produced for all works from smaller authors because it immediately removes the "book 2 of a series of 5 is now out of print" problem that is such as great way to make keen readers avoid a series. There are some other interesting consequences of ebooks - as Charlie Stross noted some time ago, the existence of an easy to get, cheap (or free) ebook reduces the attraction of said book for the piraters because the gift giving nature of that subculture means that works are valued based on how hard they were to create and/or how much money they would cost if bought legally. A $5 ebook barely rates while a $25 hardback is well worth pirating.

The same goes in spades for works that are out of print by deceased authors. I would be willing to see a copyright law that says that if a work is out of print for N years then any publisher shall have the right to republish it in any format they wish and that royalties shall be collected at some fixed rate and the estate of the author shall have to claim them. There are any number of writers (H Beam Piper being an excellent example) whose works are now out of print and unavailable except in second hand bookstores but who would provide entertainment to numerous readers if only the readers could actually buy the book. If a single central "out of print" registrar were established it would be fairly straightforward to manage and in this age of internet searches, the registrar could be run on a very limited budget. But again, the law as it stands today, is not written this way and breaking the law as it stands is not, in general, a good way to cause the law to be fixed.

Scribd, as it currently exists, actually harms the argument about free or cheap ebooks because it feeds the paranoia of the bean-counter wings of the publishers. Defending it is an excellent way to get sane people (e.g. Jerry Pournelle) to think you are an idiot. And it is a well known fact that once people think you are an idiot in one area they tend to think you are an idiot in other areas. Hence Mr Pournelle and other sane authors are not going to feel like backing your more correct long term premise that making books available electronically for free or cheap is a good idea.

Let me illustrate: having had a quick look at scribd I'm going to admit that it has introduced me to a writer (Kate Elliot) that I almost certainly would not have read, and that I'm taking advantage of the piracy of scribd to read a book of hers, King's Dragon (and I'm regretting that I hadn't done this before my recent trip to the US). I would buy the book electronically if an electronic version existed, but as far as I can tell, it doesn't. Thus I'm going to read the pirated book and if I like it then when I next go to the US she will be on the list of authors that, if they happen to be in Barnes & Noble or Borders, I will probably buy.

If Daw were like Baen with its Free Library it is likely that the book I'm reading a pirate copy of would be in the free library. I could then read the book without feeling guilty and without having to fight my way through the errors and layout issues of a scanned pirate copy and assuming I enjoyed it buy the remaing six for $5 each or so. In other words I'd be spending $30 total now, a $30 that is almost 100% gross profit. Since the books are not available electronically Ms Elliot and her publisher, Daw, are likely to end up getting their cut of the $7.99 of $15.98 retail price to split between them because the chances are high that the bookshop will only have books 1 and 2. In other words instead of a gross profit of $30, they get a gross profit more like $5. This is not a good result economically speaking.

03 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

Wither the Hugos

Last year I wrote about the utterly dismal electorate for the Hugos. This years ones, as I noted in the No Hugo for Baen post were little better and my hopes of a Baensweep were dashed. Well, them's the breaks. However it might be worth thinking about the value of a Hugo and about whether the Hugo categories are sensible.

First off what does a Hugo mean? Going on the last three years results (I seem to recall looking at earlier years last year but I can't be arsed to repeat that chore) it means that somewhere between about 300 and 600 people vote for each award and, typically the winning entry is positively chosen by around 50-100 people as the first preference round and by the time we get to the fifth round preference that number has reached about 200. So in other words what this means is that about 100 people thought the nomination was really good and another 100, who voted for number 3-5 in the list of preferences thought it was better than the number 2 alternative. This is not, as I said before, a very large electorate.

The only saving grace is that we voters have to pay for the privilege. In other words what it is saying is that only around 500 SF fans (out of the thousands of readers) are willing to pay the money and take the time to vote. In many ways I consider this to be a good thing because it means that only committed people vote, unfortunately it also means that a small clique can control the voting. If they know what they are doing that is fine. If they don't it ain't. I voted for no award in a number of categories because I really had no idea which was the most deserving having watched/read none of the entries (or seen the artwork etc. ). I suspect that some people will simply have voted for the "Oh yes I've heard of this one" or "he's a pal" options regardless of whether the choice made sense. I have to admit I voted for Scalzi as Fan Writer for precisely that reason. I've never read ANY of the others knowingly and he writes well so he got my vote. I suspect that quite a few people are like me in that they have one or two awards that they are clear on the choices and another couple where they have a vague clue and the rest of them they have no clear idea and hence tend to vote for reasons other than informed opinion. This may actually be a downside for paying to vote: you've paid your money so you want your money's worth and hence you vote in many categories even though you have no informed opinion in most of them. I strongly suspect that the Novella, Novelette and Short Story suffer on these grounds. We know that the readership of the various categories of short fiction is far smaller than the readership of novels but yet between 75% and 90% of the voters for best Novel also voted for Best Novella, Novelette or Short Story. This implies that either the votes for Novel are unrepresentative of the larger readership or the votes for the short forms are.

This leads on to the question of the categories themselves. Splitting the Novel category into two: Best SF Novel and Best Fantasy, along with a Best Short Form (Novella, Novelette or Short Story ) and Best Series might be more suited to today's publishing environment. Rules about how we would define the series eligibility could be tricky but trilogies and series are way more popular than they used to be whereas short form fiction is way less popular.

And what about some of the other categories? I'm reasonably happy with the "dramatic presentation" awards although I don't vote in them because I didn't watch any of the nominations. There is an excellent comment at Supergee's LJ about the editor award pointing out that no one knows who the editor(s) are. The same, only more so, for the artists. It would help enormously if the Hugo website provided a list (possibly one from the nominator(s) or nominees) of the works that the award covers and, for the artists, some sort of link to their portfolios.

Then there are the "fan on fan" awards - "semi-prozine, fanzine, fan artist, fan writer." Umm nice to show respect for major fans and their works of dedication but unless I'm much mistaken most of the winners are repeats. David Langford has won Fan Writer for the last 5 years and Frank Wu has been either winner or runner up in the Fan Artist category over the same period. In the 'zines Locus has won semi-prozine four out of five times. In the fanzine the winners have been different but the names of the five nominees look remarkably similar. It is worth noting that the votes for Best Fanzine were just over half the votes for Best Novel (242 vs 471) indicating it isn't a very exciting category. Given that these days a lot of stuff is moving onto the internet maybe we could modify or delete a couple of these so that we have "Best SF related blog or website" as an entry.

So how about some proposals to fix this?

I've already noted modifying the categories to combine the short fiction and split the novel. Best editor (long) might be better as "Best Publisher or Imprint" to avoid the "who is that?" problem. Many people know Ace, Roc, Tor, Baen etc., rather fewer know Nielsen Hayden, Weisskopf etc. Short Editor is OK because in anthologies or magazines it is pretty clear who is the editor is.

I think "Best Fan Blog or Website" would be a good thing instead of best fanzine (if you wanted you could combine fanzine and semi-prozine). I think Best Fan Writer and Artist should simply be abolished - sorry David & Frank - implying that we could have some other categories e.g. Best Fanfic? Best fan forum?

Some other categories? How about best electronic publication? Best pro website? Baen ought to win the latter roughly as often as Locus wins semi-prozine but having an award might actually cause some of the other publishers to get their websites updated slightly more frequently that once a year and get serious about electronic publication and marketing.

More radical? Well "buying a Hugo" fairly blatantly would probably be one way to cause revolution. Done right it would take a couple of years because in the first year you would need to create entries for most categories*. Then in the second year you would buy 200+ supporting memberships and make sure your choices were voted as number 1 by all 200, you might not win in the more popular categories but you'd probably either beat everyone or cause a "No Award" in all the minor awards. You could invest in 500 memberships and pretty much guarantee the nominations would win though...

More seriously the Hugos could benefit from single category voting. If you were allowed to vote for one or two categories for $10 each then you might find considerably more people willing to vote for popular categories such as Best Novel and skip the dull ones. We could have a rule of "No Award" for categories where the total votes are less that two thirds the votes for the most popular category. There may be other possibilities.

The voting scheme tends to select the "compromise" or "least unpopular" candidate. I am not convinced this is a good voting scheme. Best Editor Long, Best Novel and a number of other categories switched between first preference vote and final runoff, a weighted scheme which gave more value for the first preference compared to the runner up preference(s) might be more appropriate. As might ranking the top three in the order they are in after the bottom two (including no award) have been eliminated. You could also have a total of N votes per category and a choice of how to distribute them so that one person could put all N behind one choice and another could split them between different choices. I should note that I found the scheme currently in use confusing in some respects and I would very much like a way to vote "hell no" to certain choices.

PS (especially for those coming from the No Hugo post) I am unclear whether any of the above changes would have got Jim his Hugo. I'm sad that he hasn't but I'd prefer to have a better more popular and representative award rather than have one particular person win.

* If you want to demonstrate the irrelevance of the Hugos it is unfair to vote on actual authors/editors etc. because they would be forever smeared by your tactics.

04 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

Grown Up SF

On my recent trip to the US I went to some bookstores to buy books that are hard (or expensive) to buy over here. [We will ignore the eBooks for $5 rant and settle for the world as it is]

Anyway I bought the third book in Scalzi's Old Man's War series "The Lost Colony" as well as the first three of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game series (Ender's Game, Speaker For The Dead, Xenocide). For reasons that are somewhat obscure, but boil down to DFW's completely crap selection of books, I read Speaker for the Dead first. In his intro to that Orson SC writes that he finds most SF to be written from the perspective of the young adult. The heroes/heroines etc. tend to be young and even if not are rarely encumbered with children or other dependents just like a young person. One can see this in Scalzi's Old Man War (for example) where the hero, despite being a father of 75 gets to restart his life and act young and irresponsible again.

In my fog of jetlag I thought this was a profound statement, and I still think so even now. I note that Scalzi's book 3 (and to some extent book 2) also have parents as major characters. Interestingly Speaker for the Dead's hero - Ender Wiggin - doesn't have children. He's somewhere between 30 and 3000 years old but until this book appears to have had very few if any romantic encounters let alone the chance to become a parent. Mind you the relationship between parents and offspring is rather crucial to the rest of the plot so that lack probably doesn't matter.

Apart from "Lost Colony" I have been wracking my brain to find other books where some of the main characters are parents to see how parenthood affects what the character does. I can think of a few where, for whatever reason, the parents don't have their offspring around to crimp their style. In some of course the children have been kidnapped or otherwise lost and the parent has to get them back (e.g. Eric Flint's "From the Highlands") but more commonly the character is able to somehow offload the offspring on someone else while undertaking the adventures described. In David Weber's Honorverse the heroine becomes unexpectedly pregnant. It will be fascinating to see whether the next Honorverse book deals with the juggling of new parenthood and galactic diplomacy/military action or whether the child spends most of the pages "off screen".

One writer who has a lot of parents as major characters, and where the protection etc.of offspring is a major part of the background if not the plot is Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan works - Barrayar, Komarr and A Civil Campaign being perhaps the most critical. Parenthood is also critical for Niven and Pournelle's mote sequel - The Gripping Hand.

It seems to me that one reason why perents and "grown ups" fail to appear in most SF is that parenthood tends to reduce risk taking and hence parents are less likely to be convincing heroes (or villains). This is, of course, not limited strictly to science fiction (or even other sorts of speculative fiction), but it is interesting given that parenthood is such a key part of the human experience. It isn't as if we don't have lots and lots of subplots concerning the precursors to parenthood: romance, marriage, even striving to become pregnant/give birth; yet despite all that once the family has been formed it seems like it drops off the SF menu, except as depicted from the point of view of the child looking up at his or her parents.

I'm debating whether SF is particularly bad in producing works featuring the point of view of parents or whether it is a lack in all forms of story telling. Certainly the more I think about it the more I realise that any number of popular genres such as romance, western and detective tales also rarely present a parental viewpoint.

04 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

Migrating to eBooks

In the whole scribd/SFWA debate one interesting question is brought up by Jerry Pournelle (in my comment thread woo hoo fanboy squee). The question is how does the book trade cope with the migration to electronic readers.

Actually, I suspect that Eric Flint is right in his contention that display on a pirate site or elsewhere does no harm to sales, and may actually increase paper sales. Whether that holds true for EBOOK sales is not so clear, and as EBOOK sales begin to replace paperback the financial picture may change. For the moment it's more a question of moral rights: do authors have a right to control who gets to put up their works for download?

Eric Flint, and others, are relatively unconcerned about the free availability of ebooks in part because their belief is that the day of the affordable yet usable eReader is some way off and that readers will prefer to read paper anyway. I'm less convinced. The expense at present is the (eInk) screen. Beyond the screen, there is very little to stop extremely cheap readers being created. I am sure that the average MP3 player (available for €34.90 at my local hypermarket) has entirely sufficient horsepower and storage to make an excellent eReader and almost every cellphone currently shipping is likewise suitable. The only question is on the screen price, size, readability and reliability. This is exactly the sort of thing that the electronics industry is good at so I'm fairly sure that within a couple of years a sub $100 eReader will be available that is perfectly acceptable to the average person.

[Sidenote - specs for a decent eReader: 6 inch diagonal eInk screen, wifi, usb/bluetooth, min 1gByte memory 72 hours read time. probably also able to play MP3s, surf the internet, optional GPS. Everything apart from the screen and battery can be made in bulk for $10 or so today (it's a handful of chips on a PCB) plus some plastic moulding. Add in a battery and we're still looking pretty good - say under $25. The catch is that the screen needs to be also in the $20 range and right now its more like over $100]

Hence I believe that we do indeed need to consider what life will be like when an affordable reader shows up. One part of the question is pricing of the content. I believe that $20 eBooks are never going to fly. Baen has shown that $15 eBooks, where the $15 book is unavailable in paper, is OK. It is possible that $15 for the first 60 days of hardback availability may also be sustainable. Beyond that I believe that $15 is too much. The costs of eBook production and distribution are far lower than they are for paperbacks, let alone hardbacks so charging an eBook price above that of a paperback version of the same book is always going to cause issues. I think that the $4-$7 range is about right with books likely gradually decreasing in price over time (i.e. start at $6 after one year $5 after 3 years $4). $7 would IMO be best reseerved for megabestsellers and extremely large eBooks which would retail for $10+ in paperback form (i.e. omnibusses and the like).

The important thing to note is that compared to a $7.99 paperback, a $4 eBook in the same volume would make the publisher more money. A $7.99 paperback sees nearly 50% going to the distribution chain (bookseller etc.) leaving between $4 and $5 for the publisher. Assume that it is $5 (to be generous). The cost of paper, printing and cover is easily another $1 and then there is also the cost of transportation, warehousing etc. meaning that for a publisher his gross profit is no more than $4 and more like $3. In other words on a book that has already earned out the fixed costs of marketing, editing, proofing, and typesetting the publisher has at most $3 to pay for royalties, cover his overheads (rent, salaries...) and keep as profit. A $4 ebook would have practically no distribution chain cut, no warehousing, printing etc. costs and hence would easily make the publisher the same $3. Furthermore unlike the paperback there would be no need to deal with returns or anything else and, critically, there is no such thing as the "used" eBook market or the remainder market that can take away sales. In other words a publisher can make as much money on a $4 ebook as he can on a $8 paperback assuming the two sell in the same volume.

It is also reasonable to assume that marketing, editing, proofing, and typesetting are going to be of similar cost. Typesetting is changed to converting the work to a variety of ebook formats and making sure there are no accent gotchas or other fun and should be cheaper but it is not a trivial amount. Arnold Bailey of Baen indicates that it takes him a few days to generate the electronic versions of the average new eBook so he probably charges around $1000 for each book. I've seen figures (I think they came from the SFWA but maybe from Anna Genoese) that indicate that Typesetting a book costs around $5000. If the publisher wishes to cripple his book with DRM then the DRM formats will add to the $1000 conversion costs. In other words getting an eBook to market has similar one-off fixed costs to getting a paper book to market although it should be generally cheaper and most of the costs can be shared between paper and electronic editions (even if eBooks become popular I doubt they will totally replace paper books for quite a few decades).

So ebooks at $4 look like a potentially attractive market assuming they sell in the same volumes as paperbacks and I suspect (again a certain amount of handwavium and WAGium is involved) that a $6 one would generate similar gross profits to a hardback in equivalent volumes - while the rack price is higher, volumes are lower in hardback and the cost of the printing, paper and cover is higher too.

Hence in theory publishers and authors should not fear eBooks because they allow the same gross unit profit even though their cover price is way lower.

The problem is that, as Dr Pournelle states, the fear is that widespread demand for ebooks will make demand for pirate ebooks greater and raise the quality of these eBooks hence reducing the market for eBooks for pay. This is possible. There is only one way we find out and that is to have widespread availability of eBooks and a decent eBook reader. Until that point is reached all we are doing is sticking a finger in the air and guessing. However there are straws in the wind that indicate that people will pay small sums for decent content - Baen books being the most obvious.

I also think it would help if the publishing industry opened its books up a little with regards to how much royalty an author gets. Unlike the recording industry, which looks like a total racket, authors get a reasonable chunk of each book (I seem to recall royalty rates work out at $0.50 - $1.50 or so per book) and given that, unlike a CD, a book clearly has a significant production cost it isn't so hard to justify that level of royalty given the publisher's overall profit (or lack thereof). The key part of the deal is that purchasers should not go away feeling ripped off. I ranted some time back about Harper Collins and their outrageous ebook pricing and I am absolutely certain that I am not alone in objecting to that sort of price, but a price of $4-$6, especially if we can be sure that the author gets a reasonable chunk (at minimum the same as he'd get from a paperback), is much easier to swallow.

Now whether or not everyone feels that way is to be determined, but I believe that it is likely that they will. The key here is not to count the numbers of people who may decide to pirate the book, the key is to count the number of people who pay. If it ends up that 100,000 people pay (this is excellent sales for the average book) then it really doesn't matter whether 50,000 people or 500,000 people pirated it (or that no one did). The hypothetical pirates are the same as the people who borrow print books, buy them used and so on. Charlie Stross found some figures that indicate that an average of four people read every book sold. In eBook terms that means that for every 100,000 paid eBooks we'd see 300,000 pirate downloads. So long as the pirate downloads also have "buy more of this author's books at www.website.com" clearly contained in them somewhere obvious the pirate books probably count as a marketing loss leader.

05 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

More on Ebooks and Hugos

Dr Pournelle has written his column of the SFWA/Scribd affair, (and linked to this blog so welcome Chaos Manor readers). Probably coincidentally Cory Doctorow has written his latest locus column on ebooks. There is a disconnect. The disconnect it seems to me is driven primarily by the author's income sources and status. Cory Doctorow is, as he admits, a midlist writer. He's a reasonably successful one which means his books have sold a few tens of thousands of books total. He may have sold over 100,000. I doubt he has sold over a million. Jerry Pournelle is one of the bestsellers of SF dom. A single paperback printing of one of his titles is in the 100,000 range. I would estimate total sales of all his books (and his collaborations with Larry Niven) put him in the 5-10 million range of books sold, possibly more. Admittedly this is over a lifetime of some 30-40 years but it's on the order of 100 times as many books as Cory has sold (I'm talking orders of magnitude here it could be 50 times it could be 250 times as many). In summary Jerry Pournelle makes a comfortable living from residual royalties and advances for new works that are anticipated to sell 100,000 or more. Cory Doctorow has to supplement his writing income with boing boing and other gigs and almost certainly doesn't have anything like the total income that Jerry Pournelle does.

The result is that a) Dr Pournelle has a lot more to lose if book stop being bought and b) more incentive to think long term. I think there's a Heinlein saying somewhere (possibly based on Dr Johnson's hanging one) about how needing to survive today means you don't think about the consequences for tomorrow. Doctorow needs to survive today and he can increase his income as a writer today by giving his books away on-line. Dr Pournelle doesn't need to do this, although he does (some of his works do appear on the various Baen CDs and the Free Library), and does need to face the potential of a dramatic loss in income if the paperback market goes titsup.com.

I believe, as I wrote in yesterday, that a combination of some works available for free electronically and others available in non-DRM formats for a reasonable price ($4-$7) is going to be a viable business model. Currently this is "dip a toe in the water" time but Dr Pournelle is certainly dipping his toe in the water; with Baen he has a bundle of his Codominium stories up for sale electronically in precisely this price range (and I bought them even though I have almost all of them in paperback). He also has a few books available free via Baen's Free Library. I'm sure we all await the results of this experiment to see if he gets a reasonably number of sales but it can't be considered the only possible one. The Codominium stories were all written many years ago (I bought the bundle partly because most of my paperbacks were bought second hand and I wanted to actually give the author some money) so success or failure here is merely a question of extracting money for books that have already earned their author a significant amount of money. This is interesting but not critical.

What we need to see is whether the same model can work for newer books; books that not everyone has heard of but which are still likely to be reasonable best sellers. Here is where the Hugos tie in comes. Over the last few days I have bemoaned (again) the state of the Hugos as has Cheryl Morgan over at SFawardswatch.

For those of you reading because you care about ebooks bear with me a second while I recap the Hugo problem. The problem the Hugos have is that relatively few people who could vote bother to do so. One reason for this is that many people feel they should not vote because they haven't read all the entries and cannot therefore make a good judgement. The result is that the Hugos are chosen by a potential clique of some 500 SF fans. There is a comment on someone's live journal that says that you can predict a winning Hugo novel as being not Baen, not a blockbuster and not the recipient of fawning buzz on trendy blogs (I paraphrase possibly inaccurately because I've lost the link but it was something like that). I think that is true and it makes the award rather less meaningful than it should be. There is, I believe, some agreement that this is the case, although people also don't like the idea that the award should go to the "bestseller" simply because it has been most popular and successful. At SFawardswatch there are a number of suggestions such as making the award a con attendee only one, having a prize draw and valid drawbacks for these sugestions (and the bestseller one).

I have (cue Blackadder voice) a cunning plan to use ebooks to widen the Hugo electorate slightly without, as it were, letting in the great unwashed completely. A vote by 500 people is pretty much a clique - although it is better than a jury in some ways - a vote by 5000 people would be about right (and if it went up to 50,000 some years that would be fine too). I think having to pay to vote is a really really GOOD idea, so how do we increase the voters to 5000+ and make sure they are informed?

[sidenote: It also worries me that, as I wrote before, it would be relatively cheap to buy a Hugo. If I, as a fan, were to try and do that then it would be a significant investment in time and money with little hope of a payoff beyond some emotional satisfaction, however a publisher might think that winning a Hugo was better than spending $100,000 or whatever the going rate is to get their lead author's book in a prime position in Borders and Barnes&Noble (and Waterstones in the UK etc.). So far it seems clear that the risk of discovery and the obvious resulting bad publicity means they don't do it, but I can see that a new owner or relatively small newly established publisher might decide to try this, especially if it looked like the choice was this or bankruptcy. ]

My cunning plan is to make the short-listed works available electronically from the Hugo website for worldcon attendees and supporting members. In other words for your $40 as a supporting member you not only get the right to vote you get the right to read the works in competition. This removes the 'haven't read the short-list' excuse. The list comes up in the early part of the year and anyone with a membership is able to read the short-listed works over the next 3 months or so before voting.

As for the price. $40 is not far off the cost of 5 $5 ebooks plus a couple of online magazine subs so it would be easy to justify as a reader becuase you are getting the right to read stuff at a similar price as it would be if bought electronically elsewhere. However $40 is still a significant hurdle and ebooks are not for everyone so it still limits the franchise a bit thereby ensuring that it is the dedicated who read and vote not hoi polloi. It would I think even be possible to raise the price slightly (say $50) assuming that the breakdown of who gets what (e.g. WSFS $10 for admin etc., novel publishers $20, short form publishers $20) is clearly stated.

This would be a great way for publishers to dip a toe in the cheap eBook market without getting too worked up about piracy because it would only be open to relatively few readers (you only get access if you've forked over $40 or $50). Experiments could be done about the acceptability of DRM with some publishers offering their works DRM free and others not. Likewise texts could be offered in a variety of formats and statistics could be gathered to see which format was most popular. Another reason why publishers might like this is that since the award is for works printed the year before it might well help sustain the buzz and sales of the book -typically books sell about 80% of their total sales in the first 6 months after release - and given the dire state of the short fiction market it might help attract more novel reading SF fans back to the short form.

And of course if it turns out that $40 (or $50) is considered a reasonable price for such a bundle then maybe the deal will help to increase the sales of ebook readers and thereby drive the price down for them too. In other words making the Hugo nominees available electronically could significantly increase the sales of the books, the acceptance of ebooks and the sales of ebook readers. Oh and it would make money for publishers and authors, something which I think we all believe is a good thing...

05 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

The Cake Cutting Metaphor

In his interesting book on Copyright “Bounty Hunters”, Greg London has section about "cake cutting" where he describes ways that two people can agree to cut a cake so they each get a fair share:

The basic cake cutting algorithm works like this: There is a cake treated as common property between two people. These two people want to find a way to cut the cake such that both of them get a fair piece. A solution is to have one person of the two cut the cake, and then allow the other person to pick which piece they want.

This is a fairly robust algorithm because it will produce a fair result under most circumstances, regardless of how selfish or selfless the actors are. The person cutting the cake has incentive to cut fairly because if one piece is noticeably bigger, the other person will naturally tend to pick that piece, and the person who cut the cake will get a smaller piece. Selfish cake cutters are given incentive to cut fairly.

But there are other algorithms that you could use to cut the cake. For example, you could have one person cut the cake and pick which piece they get. This produces a fair result only if the cake-cutter is a reasonably fair person. The model shows that this algorithm will produce an unfair result if the cake-cutter serves only their self-interest.

Another approach is to bring in a third person to act as an impartial cake-cutter, have them cut the cake, and distribute it accordingly. This is also subject to abuse when unfair players are in the system. The third person acting as impartial cake cutter is an actor the same as any of the other players, and could be filled by various people across the spectrum of selfish to selfless.

A model that relies on finding a “fair” or “impartial” individual for the algorithm to achieve a fair result is not nearly as robust as an algorithm that doesn't care about the internal drives of the players but achieves a fair result anyway.

It occurs to me that, as a rough approximation, the "one person cuts, the other chooses" algorithm describes the market based approach where you have roughly equal numebrs of buyers and sellers, the "one person cuts AND chooses" one describes a mnopoly (or monopsony) and the "third party decides" one descibes the classic government intervention case.

The more I think about it the more I realise that the metaphor is surprisingly good. All of these algorthms can scale quite well to handle cases where the number of parties is greater than 2 without much thought and all of them have sufficient relationship to real life that it becomes easy to imagine that an unfair player can find a way to get more than he should. It is easiest of course in the monopoly case but it is quite easy to imagine a crooked "neutral party" in the third choice and a person who threatens his opposite number(s) in the first choice - "You want me to use this knife on you too? no? well pick the smaller portion ok?"

But it occurs to me that the metaphor also explains nicely why socialism and big government doesn't work. These two rely on a neutral third party for goodness and it should be obvious that neutral third parties, even if perfect and impartial, do not come for free. In other words they must somehow take a rake off to survive and that explains why the government solution is only to be preferred as a last resort - it is inherently wasteful.

06 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

iPod Touch - eBook Reader?

A year and a half a go when the Nokia 770 showed up I thought it might make a decent eBook reader. The problem was that it cost too much and had poor battery life. The N800 seemed to improve things a bit but it is still costly and the battery life still isn't exactly wonderful.

[But you say - it isn't an eReader it doesn't have the software. Oh yes it does. It's called a web browser... sensible companies like Baen make books available as HTML, as does Project Gutenberg, and many illegal DRM stripping tools also convert to HTML. So not having an application specifically dedicated to being an eBook reader is not a major drawback. I should note that I actually tried using a 770 to read the Baen Free Library and it worked well.]

Now we have the Apple equivalent - the iPod Touch. Price is pretty much the same. Battery life is better. Memory is much better (but isn't expandable). Screen a bit more than half the size (3.5" diagonal vs ~5.5") and less than half the resolution (480x320 instead of 800x480). Also no Skype and no doubt lots and lots of Apple proprietary guff that would need to be deleted. To be honest it clearly isn't designed to be a reader but it does have the safari browser and safari can read Baen books just fine.

I see two potential drawbacks
  1. The screen size may be too small to read comfortably. I need to actually try it first
  2. It is unclear whether you can save HTML pages in its 8Gb memory and use the browser to access them. One would hope you can but my experience with Apple products is that sometimes there are inexplicable gaps.
potential drawback 2 is the sort of thing that is fixable once the crackers get going to figure out how to access more of the internals than Apple wish to expose so I am less worried by that. Thus the question boils down to screen size and whether the safari browser on the phone has a skinny mode to gove me the maximum reading area or not.

I had been considering buying an N800, but the lack of battery life made me hesitate. The Apple clearly has a much better battery life (it will display 5 hours of VIDEO let alone anything relatively static like text) and it is cheaper (€299 vs €399). Something tells me I'm going to be paying close attention to both in the run up to Christmas to see whether any improvements occur.

06 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

Archos 605 or Palm TX eBook Reader?

Having written about the Apple iPod Touch and wondered about its suitability as a ebook reader, now the Register has a review of the Archos 605 wifi which looks like a grown up N800. You have to pay extra for the web browser (why?) but a 4GB flash version is still cheaper than an iPod or an N800 and it would take a lot of books.

Unlike the iPod I have no doubt about the screen resolution on this - it is the same as the N800 and may even be identical in size. If not it's is about 1cm diagonal smaller. Like the iPod and unlike the N800 it seems to have decent battery life. It looks pretty good to me and is something that I will definitely be having a look at assuming they are at IBC next week.

In the comments to the previous post the Palm TX is recommended. This seems to suffer from iPod touch screen resolution and N800 lack of memory. It is also more expensive than the 4GB Archos costing about as much as the 30GB one (although right this second it has a €60 rebate if bought on line). On the other hand it does a lot more office PDA things and doesn't play videos. One benefit that I can see is that it supports bluetooth which should make syncing it with a laptop rather simpler and of course it has a real keyboard as an accessory which I could see being useful for tasks other than reading books.

Choices choices choices. The really really good news is that portable devices capable of being eReaders are becoming ever more affordable although the eInk ones still cost a fortune.

07 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

Again a photo from the archives - this time from February 2006.
20070907 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
Just a nice olive grove on a hill outside St Cézaire sur Siagne (approximately here). As always click to enlarge and do visit the Olive Tree Blogging Archives if you haven't been here before.

07 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

The Latest on Scribd

I got an email from the folks at scribd because they seem to have decided to object to the idea that users should be able to publicly categorize some works as copyright violations by creating a group of that name. I'm going to quote and fisk (sorry Jared) the email because I think it is still being economical with the actualité and because I have some concrete alternative proposals and suggestions. Here goes:
   I am writing to explain our response to the group which you joined
on Scribd to highlight potential copyright violations.  First, I would
like to applaud your concern for copyright holders.  Contrary to what
you may believe, all of us at Scribd are strong supporters of
copyright and do not wish to see infringing material on Scribd.
First it is nice to have a response and I do sincerely mean that even though I suspect someone passed the email through a lawyer before it went out. Secondly I'm glad you say you support copyright. I just wonder why it took such an almighty explosion of interest to get you to remove some of the more egregious infringements.
  I thought that your group was a very clever way of reporting
documents as potential violations. We never expected our groups
feature to be used in that way! After some internal discussion,
however, we've come to the conclusion that while reporting infringing
material through groups is clever, it is not the best way to do this
OK. I should note the group wasn't my idea initially. But I thought it was a very good one too. One reason being that it made it publicly clear that a document appeared to be infringing. Given the feedback I got about documents that were incorrectly labeled as in violation I think the public view was good although I agree the groups concept as created by scribd is not ideal for this task.
 The problem with using groups to report copyright violations is that
it allows any user to remove a huge number of documents from Scribd
with only a few mouse clicks, for any reason. Scribd does not have
the time or ability to determine whether documents are infringing, so
if we used a copyright group to determine this, we would need to
simply remove every document added to the group. This gives users an
enormous amount of power. For example, it would not take long at all
for some joker to add every document on Scribd to the copyright
violation group. What would we do then?
Firstly the documents are NOT being removed. All that happens is that the viewers see that the document is a member of the group and they are gathered in one place to make it easy for scribd and/or the copyright owners to check whether the documents are in violation or not. There seems to be no reason, other than simple bloodymindedness or a desire to avoid bad publicity, why scribd should feel obliged to remove every document listed in a group called "copyright violation". The one thing that I do note is that it is in fact hard to remove a document from a group, the only person who can do it is the person who added the document to the group and there may be a problem if two or more people add the doc to the group.
 It is for this reason that Scribd has a user flagging system.  The
way the user flagging system works is simple. When a document has
been flagged as a violation 3 times, it is removed. The author is
contacted and asked to file a counter-notification if they do own the
rights to the document. I like to think that this system strikes the
right balance, by giving users the power to help us police the site
without allowing any one user to abuse our process.
Well I've tried it out. As of early today it was easy to find a selection of Asimov works on scribd which were almost certainly up in violation of copyright (see this image). The first thing to note is that the image shows that 'flag as inappropriate' is very small and grey and not immediately obvious. The second thing to note is there is no "This looks like a copyright infringement" option, merely "Other TOS Violation" which is less than obvious, especially given that there is a nice link saying that copyright owners should read the copyright FAQ (which is either new or much more visible than it used to be). [Problem three is that the scribd web2.0 stuff doesn't cope well with browsers less than 1024 pixels wide.]

I think the biggest problem here is that there is now no way to tell publicly whether a document has been flagged as a violator or not. My view is that the document should be visibly marked somehow but that the uploader should have a method of clearly (and publicly) asserting that the document is not in violation. In other words instead of some hidden system scribd should allow two clear flags on the left one a warning saying "Possible Copyright violator" and another saying "Uploader confirms no copyright violation". And those two flags should somehow be searchable. I personally would not mind if the "Possibly violator" flag had an identifier showing who claimed it was a violation and a way to go from there to a list of documents marked as violations by the user.
 As a gesture of goodwill, we have removed all the documents added to
the copyright violation group. I have since been contacted by users
who asserted that some of the documents which were in the group were
their intellectual property and were not infringing. In the future,
we will not be allowing groups whose sole purpose is to highlight
potential copyright violations on Scribd, as the potential for abuse
of such a system is simply too great.
Good will towards whom? Obviously not the estate of Dr Asimov since his books, which I'm pretty sure I added to the group, are still available on your site with no indication that the uploads almost certainly infringe his copyright.
  If in the future you would like to help remove potentially
infringing material from Scribd using our user-flagging system, such
assistance would be greatly appreciated. My thanks for your time and
interest in Scribd.
Have done some flagging. It will be interesting to see how many flagged documents remain available for how long. Currently a search on "Asimov" lists 91 documents, the first 7 of which are almost certainly in violation of copyright.
In related news, since Eric Flint has been quoted by various people in the whole scribd debate I'm going to excerpt part of what he wrote last weekend about Scribd:

I have for years, as everyone knows, strongly supported the principle that publishers and authors should not treat their customers as crooks.

The corollary, however, is also true. My customers have no right to treat me like one of their serfs or one of their sharecroppers. Lounging back on their virandas sipping mint juleps and telling me that maybe they'll get around to paying me my pittance if it's not too much bother for them. And if I'm not too uppity.

[...] As far as I'm concerned, SCRIBD is a sleazebag operation run by weasels and tapeworms. Period.

The proprietors of Scribd need to find a better way to police their site so that isn't such a blatant and obvious "rip-off-pository" and can become the "wripositiry" they claim they want it to be.

07 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

Secure Mobipocket Decoder

When the Mobipocket server died last month it obviously caused a few people to have second thoughts about the mobipocket format and as I noted at the time seemed to spur people onto developing ways to extract the content from mobipocket's format. Well now it is done and it is possible to purchase a mobipocket DRMed book and convert it to standard HTML.

Unfortunately the program requires a couple of Java libraries (jars) from the iLiad iRex, which are only obtainable if you can find an internet archive of them (I can't help you here), have an iRex or have a MyiRex account. They are "irex.jar" and "MobipocketCoreReader.jar".

07 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

More eBook Buzz

For reasons that are unclear, maybe its just that the time has come? I'm getting quite a few hits from ebook related google searches and seeing comment in other places that seems to indicate that there is significant interest, assuming that the price is right. On that note, this comment from excellent author Michael Z Williamsom at Charlie Stross' blog seems appropriate:

"To read our books, you must buy a 'reader' that costs $300."

"Hmm...no one is buying our $300 reader. Therefore, the consumer has no interest in our books."

I can't even begin to address the stupidity of that paradigm.

Especially when what can be bought to be read on that $300 reader costs $20 and the paper version is cheaper.

The NY Times (yesterday) and Business Week (a week or so ago) write about the Sony reader and the rumoured amazon one. The Sony reader, it seems to me, is a classic dinosaur because it locks you in to Sony. For that reason alone I would never buy the thing, the fact that Sony also have this charming habit of giving their customers rootkits is merely icing and a cherry on top. Sony have lost me as a customer until I see some sign that they grasp "open" and "don't assume your customers are crooks". One thing that cracked me up about Sony was this bit from the BW aticle:

Sony is offering new buyers, who are also registered Connect users, credit for 100 free classic titles, such as Great Expectations and Moby-Dick. "In terms of timing, with people going back to school, there is a lot of interest in classic literature," said Jim Malcolm, director of marketing for Sony Electronics. "It gives people an incentive to buy."

If Sony had an open reader that could read standard HTML then Project Gutenberg would be able to supply Sony customers with thousands of "classic titles" including the very excellent SF bookshelf. It is in fact far from impossible that Sony has simply taken the 100 titles it is distributing from PG and converted them itself.

According to the NY Times, the Amazon reader appears to be outrageously overpriced.

In October, the online retailer Amazon.com will unveil the Kindle, an electronic book reader that has been the subject of industry speculation for a year, according to several people who have tried the device and are familiar with Amazon’s plans. The Kindle will be priced at $400 to $500 and will wirelessly connect to an e-book store on Amazon’s site.

One assumes the Kindle will use the "ever reliable" Mobipocket DRM since Amazon owns Mobipocket. It is also entirely possible that the Kindle will simply be a rebadged Bookeen or iRex. Given the price, there had better be a significant bundle of ebooks included because otherwise Mike's words above apply in spades.

I say the Amazon is outrageously overpriced because Amazon's reader is going to be more expensive than the semi prototype reader inspired by Baen fans - the NAEB - despite having but one advantage: wifi. The NAEB reader is basically a Bookeen with a bit of software customization and it is currently being built for early adopters who expect to be Appled if demand picks up. The current price is a price for small volumes and will clearly drop if volumes rise. My understanding is that the NAEB will have some 200-300 early adopters (including me if I have the money) and should be an open system inviting the early users to add, debug etc.

09 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

The Riviera Expat View

A couple of things here. I suppose if I weren't an idle sod I'd make two separate posts, but since I am, I won't.

Firstly the Foot and Mouth outbreak in the UK, caused, we now know, by the "ever caring, ever hepful" government,
has had a fascinating ripple. We expats are being deprived of our bacon. The French, who are of course wonderful when it comes to wine, olive oil and all sorts of other gourmet delights, have never really figured out the breakfast thing. Hence if you want to have a proper fried English breakfast in all its artery hardening goodness you are required to get yourself to the nearest emporium dedicated to ripping off the homesick expat community and purchase the required bacon, sausages (optional), baked beans etc.

Well the beans are still available, as is the Marmite and the Rose's marmalade for the toast afterwards, but ever since the outbrak of foot and mouth proper back bacon has been almost unavailable. There is the non-smoked frozen variety in our local emporium, but the smoked refrigerated stuff, which I find better because it doesn't have all the white crud, has not been for sale. This despite the fact that said bacon is called "Danepak" and 'øriginætes' from Denmark. Well it turns out that the EU rules for meat meant that as a result of the Foot & Mouth outbreak all meat exports from the UK were banned. This included (by some logic that utterly escapes me) meat that was packed in Denmark and imported to the UK. I'm sure some Eurocratic jobsworth can explain the logic but its been causing me major hassle and, I would guess, a significant number of other expats too.

Secondly water. A fellow expat friend of mine makes plastic pipes (to be more accurate he runs factories that make pipes). He noted that as far as he is concerned as a manufacturer there is no difference between a water pipe and a gas pipe in terms of its construction and ability to not leak. In fact he sells the same pipes to both industries. Oddly enough though gas companies are able to prevent the widespread leakage of gas from their pipe network, while water companies seem incapable of preventing amazing amounts of water from disappearing from their network. He and I speculate that metered water would not just provide an incentive to consumers but would also make the provider keener on not throwing the stuff away because the more he has the more he can charge for. I'm sure that politically metering water in the UK is going to be unpopular but,as we both noted, we have metered water here in France (and IIRC on the Côte d'Azur two separate tariffs - one for summer and one for winter) and there are fewer leaks and far more care and attention paid to the water system here. Unlike in the UK water here is a limited commodity and particularly at this time of year, the lack of recent rain makes it clear who irrigates their lawns and who goes for the "natural" look. Me? I'm in the natural camp. I haven't had to mow the lawn for 3 months...

12 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

Six Years On

I spent the afternoon and evening of September 11 in Schipol airport along with a few thousand other people, it was intereesting to comapre it with September 11, 2001, when I was in Zurich airport heading Japanwards and watching the towers collpase on live TV.

Nothing so exciting occured in Schipol, but the security measures that have been introduced to stop Al Qaeda and its fellow terrorist scumbags did cause us all a certain amount of pain. We bitched about the enormous queue to get through security - it took half an hour even though the line moved relatively fast (having hundreds if not thousands of visitors to a tradeshow all check in at once to go home will do that) and we moaned about the no liquids etc. rules. We've all noticed that one set of people love that rule - the guys who run the shops on the far side of security. And we compared the queues here to the queues in Heathrow, LAX, Frankfurt and other hub airports. At least, we commented, Schipol has some nice bars once you get through security.

In fact the most exciting thing that happened, and the reason why this post is dated Sept 12, is that our plane had a dent in the side and so they decided to move us to a different one halfway across the airport after we had all boarded it. This delayed the plane sufficiently that I got home about midnight and had no appetite for switching the computer on and sending this post.

The only other event of note occured two hundred Km south or so where the Brussels police decided to arrest the leaders of the Vlaams Belang and others who wished to protest against the creeping Islamization of Europe (and particularly Brussels itself).

12 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

Abe Quits

Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe has decided to quit and let someone else lead the LDP and the country. He says he quit because of his inability to get an anti-terror bill renewed in November. I suspect that is partially true, as are the other reasons given in many places - the series of corruption scandals that have enveoped his government and the election loss in July. However I supect the real reason is that, unlike his predecessor Koizumi, Abe has never had proper control of the LDP itself which has seen a return the factional infighting traditional is the years before Koizumi. Koizumi had such charisma that he could win elections having thrown his opponants out of the LDP but Abe never had the same touch and the party swiftly returned to its old ways. At the same time the Democratic Party of Japan, formed mostly by former LDPers kicked out by Koizumi, managed to paper over its cracks and present itself as a new party despite the fact that it is really just another wing of the LDP.

If the LDP have any decent strategists they will be calling for a lower house election and then expecting to lose it to the DPJ. The DPJ will probably have to govern in some sort of coalition and will almost certainly be as bad as the Abe LDP. Meanwhile the LDP could spend the opposition years pointing out that the DPJ is, in many ways, the unreformed LDP and also searching for another charismatic leader in the Koizumi mould. Done right this would allow the LDP to regain its support amongst those parts of Japan that have traditionally supported it - the countryside for example - and usher in another decade or so of LDP rule again, just as the brief non-LDP government in the mid 1990s did. It should be noted that the LDP's core voters, even people who have been members of the LDP for years such as my father-in-law, voted against the party at the last election for a number of reasons that included disgust at the perceived cynical behaviour of the LDP leadership with its cronyism as well as its inability to actually communicate what it was doing and why. I suspect many of these can be wooed back by a communicator once the opposition has a chance to show that it is no better than the LDP when it is in charge.

Unfortunately I doubt the LDP has this kind of long term thinking available to it so it will probably attempt to cling onto power for too long and permanently damage itself in the process. This, it seems to me, would be a pity because I have absolutely no confidence in the DPJ or any other Japanese political party doing anything other than maintaining the current (and IMO unsustainable) status quo. The problems that Japan faces - mostly fall out from the aging population and low birthrate - are going to need some fairly radical fixes and those can only be done by a charismatic leader such as Koizumi (no he wasn't perfect but he was popular and he had many good ideas abot how to fix things) and I don't see any of the current set of political leaders able to repeat the Koizumi role. In fact most are likely to reverse some of his reforms and led the country back into recession IMO.

14 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

Friday Olive Tree Blogging

A little tree I found on the Ile de Porquerolles today. What I find interesting is that such a little tree - it was no more than 5 foot/1.5 m high - has quite a lot of olives on it.
20070914 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
Interestingly many of the "grown up" trees around it were distinctly lacking in olives. As always you can click on the image to see it larger and you are invited to visit the olive tree blogging archives if you're a new reader.

29 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

Late Friay Olive Tree Blogging

As last year, the olives this year seem to ripening sooner than they should and this is likely to be due to the olive fly (and not global warming). BTW This isn't one of my trees, its one that passed on a recent stroll nearby.
20070928 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
As always you can click on the image to see it larger and you are invited to visit the olive tree blogging archives if you're a new reader.

30 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

The Authoritarians

Thanks to a comment on a thread at making light I came across a book by a Professor Robert Altemeyer called "The Authoritarians". I found the book interesting and well worth reading, which isn't to say that I accepted everything written as "gospel". In fact I agreed with certain large chunks of it and yet found that other parts made me want to slap the author with a clue by four - repeatedly and with extreme prejudice. The book is about the people who become authoritarian leaders and, even more, about the people who support such leaders and, for various reasons, the leaders/followers studied are typically on the conservative/right end of the political spectrum. The author, Dr Bob, has been studying this phenomenon for quite a while and has mucho results of surveys, tests etc etc to back up what he writes and the results are very very interesting.

I believe this book should be read by everyone including the religious right that the book analyses. I also think that the book would be vastly improved if it didn't rant on about George W and his evil theocons quite so much because a lot of the rant is likely to look, IMO, damn stupid in a few years. However I can say that aside from the rants, and I'm going to attack those specifically in a moment, the book crystalized and explained a lot of the things that have confused me about the American religious right. In other words I can say that certain chunks of this book rang absolutely true with my own experience and I would very much like the opinion of religious right wing bloggers on the book because I'd love to know what the people who match up to Dr Bob's definitions of Right Wing Authoritarians (RWAs) think of how he perceives them.

To start with the book gives the reader a chance to identify how much of an authoritarian he or she is by adding up numbers on a personality test. I scored what I believe is an unusually low number on the test (55) because Dr Bob says that:

The lowest total possible would be 20, and the highest, 180, but real scores are almost never that extreme. Introductory psychology students at my Canadian university average about 75. Their parents average about 90. Both scores are below the mid-point of the scale, which is 100, so most people in these groups are not authoritarian followers in absolute terms. Neither are most Americans, it seems. Mick McWilliams and Jeremy Keil administered the RWA scale to a reasonably representative sample of 1000 Americans in 2005 for the Libertarian Party and discovered an average score of 90.

In other words, and not at all to my surprise since I class myself politically as some combo of libertarian/ capitalist/ anarchist, I am not an authoritarian. Yet, and this is where I begin to have reservations about some of the blanket statements made later on, I found myself finding places where I would actually adopt the seriously authoritarian answer, in fact in some cases you could put me up at the willing stormtrooper end of the scale. For example there is the "posse" question concerning the danger of religious cults:

Suppose the federal government, some time in the future, passed a law outlawing various religious cults. Government officials then stated that the law would only be effective if it were vigorously enforced at the local level and appealed to everyone to aid in the fight against these cults.

Please respond to the following statements according to the following scale:

-4 indicates the statement is extremely untrue of you.
-3 indicates the statement is very untrue of you.
etc. to:
+4 indicates the statement is extremely true of you.

  1. I would tell my friends and neighbors it was a good law.
  2. I would tell the police about any religious cults I knew.
  3. If asked by the police, I would help hunt down and arrest members of religious cults.
  4. I would participate in attacks on religious cult meeting places if organized by the proper authorities.
  5. I would support the use of physical force to make cult members reveal the identity of other cult members.
  6. I would support the execution of religious cult leaders if he government insisted it was necessary to protect the country.
I can think of plausible cases e.g. Hamas/Hezbollah or Wahhabi Islam, or militant enviromentalism (which I class as a religion), or for that matter potentially some militant fundamentalist Christian offshoot, where I'd probably be saying yes in various degrees to these questions. Now this has to be tempered with a large chunk of "it depends on the details" because I wouldn't go along with this just because the government passed the law and I could also imagine cases where I'd be running underground railroads etc etc to protect persecuted believers too but under some circumstances I could be one of the storm-troopers. The issue is that I wouldn't do it because the government said so, I'd do it because I agreed with the government's position. However Dr Bob writes:

I’ll assume, because I know what a fine person you are, that you would respond to each of these statements with a -4 or a -3. Most people do. But not authoritarian followers. They typically answer with -2s and -1s, and sometimes even say, “Yes I would.” If that shocks you, remember that the premise behind “Posse” runs right down Main Street in the authoritarian aggression mind-set. When the authorities say, “Go get ‘em,” the high RWAs saddle up.

In other words Dr Bob may well be in danger of overgeneralizing. Having said that Dr Bob goes on to explain that he asks the same or similar question for groups other than religions and there I suspect I'd quite often fall in the more normal category and I agree that his overall point that authoritarians are likely to go along with something because the "government" says it is a good idea even if they harbour disagreements about the underlying truth.

This, in fact, is where the book is good. Whether you like the name "Right Wing Authoritarian" or you prefer to call them something else (religious sheeple for example) is irrelevant. There is undoubtedly a part of humanity (and it is not, as Dr Bob sometimes seems to hint, purely a North American phenomenon) who like their lives regular and regulated and who don't want things too complicated. For these people religion makes a great framework because it provides them with a simple set of rules for life, a simple way to judge other people and so on. This does not mean, and Dr Bob makes clear he doesn't think it does, that all (fundamentalist) religious people are of this sort. Nor does it mean (and again Dr Bob makes this clear) that said folk are unredeemably bad. They aren't. They are in fact generous with their time and money to causes that they agree with and are precisely the sorts of people who organize the scouts, the sports leagues and all the other things that make places into communities. The issue, and here again I agree with Dr Bob, is when they get caught following the wrong leader.

Unfortunately this is also where I start to disagree with Dr Bob because this is where he becomes far too parochial - for people reading the book this is chapter 5 and beyond. But let us start with the agreement bit. Dr Bob reports that other researchers have identified a separate group of amoral power hungry folk (the Social Dominance Orientation group) and that people who score highly on either Dr Bob's RWA scale or this SDO scale tended to score highly in tests to identify prejudice, discrimination and a host of other relatively unpleasant traits. Interstingly though the SDO and RWA tests have only a weak correlation so that in fact it looks like the tests are identifying two mostly spearate groups of bigots. No matter what Dr Bob says the SDO scale seems to be measuring what I'd call elitism and in many cases these days it looks to me like it correlates highly with politicians of all stripes as well as with groups such as MoveOn.org and other frothing moonbats. However as Dr Bob points out there are some people who score fairly highly on both the SDO scale and the RWA scale and these, Dr Bob claims (and I tend to agree) are the people who become fundamentalist leaders.

These people are scary. They mouth (and even convince themselves to some degree) the same religious dogmas of their RWA followers but unlike their followers they are amoral power hungry scum who think rules apply to the others. These people Dr Bob suggests are the leaders of the "religious right/christian coalition" and have infiltrated the US Republican party and are going to lead it towards a future as the party with an authoritarian jackboot trampling over the liberties of the US constitution etc. etc. Well maybe. But going on my reading of right wing and religious blogs they may try but their hypocrisy will always catch them out and since RWA followers tend to be intolerant of hypocrites once properly exposed they are doomed. Now Dr Bob does state, and I can see evidence for this, that RWA followers tend to be more easy going on the foibles of their leaders than they are on other people but that is a question of degree not an absolute and if enough groups of different political persuasions combine then it looks to me like RWAs will chuck their former leaders out on their ear with little or no chance for rehabilitation. Hence in the USA, unlike Dr Bob's beliefs in Chpater 7, I think the dangers of a takeover by a bunch of religious RWAs and their amoral leaders is remote because there is far too much free speech around.

Outside the USA (and Canada) we have a problem. Because I see nothing in Dr Bob's research that would not also apply to other religious/political groups; for example ones that originate in the third middle-eastern monotheirstic religion - Islam. Ahmadinejad, Arafat, Nasrallah, Bin Laden, to name just a few, seem like classic "double tops" in Dr Bob's nomenclature - i.e. people who score highly on both the RWA and SDO scales. Unlike the Western world their followers are unused to free speech, frequently they are borderline illiterate, and the leaders are not exposed to the sort of scrutiny that catches out the US's "double tops". This ought to be far more scary to a rational mind than worrying about Bushitler but Dr Bob doesn't seem to think so, and that to my mind is where his book falls down.

In fact even ignoring the scummy leaders, fundamentalist Islam as a religion would seem to appeal directly to the RWAs throughout the world which may well explain why Wahhabism has spread quite effectively once it started to get serious Saudi funding. Fundamentalist Islam is far more intolerant of infidels, women, blacks, gays etc. than (almost) any Christian sect today and combines these qualities with breathtaking arrogance that claims that non-believers owe the believer a living and so on. Religion, as Heinlein said somewhere, is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. The fact that some, perhaps many, believers are strong people who do not need the crutch does not, IMO, detract from the basic accuracy of this statement. In the decadent "post religious" society of Western Europe it should not be a surprise that fundamentalist Islam is popular amongst the parts of society that our glorious leaders pretend do not exist - the unassimilated drug dealing immigrants and other rejects from society.

I'll put it simply - if Dr Bob is right in his science - and it looks highly plausible to me, because it reflects a lot of what I have observed about Americans and humanity in general, then Dr Bob's Chapter 7 where he rails on about Bushitler is a classic case of not seeing the wood for the trees. The Religious Right in the USA is not the main threat. As Dr Bob points out RWAs who meet and interact with individuals of the sorts they claim to despise tend to come out of that more tolerant than they used to be. In the USA it is easy for RWAs to knowing interact with a whole spectrum of other sorts of people and hence their tolerance for others will tend to increase which, in turn, means that the religious right is not going to actually implement the jackbooted theocratic tyranny Dr Bob fears. Outside the USA this is far from the case. Indeed Saudi Arabia and Iran are precisely what Dr Bob fears that the US will become and other nations and ghettos in Western Europe are heading that way.

I'll close with a more positive note. Dr Bob says that Iraq was a mistake and quagmire etc. etc. If current trends on casualties and so on continue then this will not be quite as obvious as Dr Bob claims. Indeed if we look at the Anbar Awakening and the surger in general what we are seeing is that the Iraqi people, having experienced both fascist dictatorship (under Saddam) and theorcratic tyranny (under Al Qaeda etc.) are now able to see that the US option of democracy and freedom is better. If this trend continues than Dr Bob's arch "double top" demon will be the person who removes the worst threat of theocracy in the world...

30 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

The Cringing American

This really annoys me. Americans over here in Europe who apologise for being American and having Pres GW Bush as a leader. I can just about cope with people who dislike Bush and are American, I mean it would be hard for me to say more than about one good word about G Brown, but I don't see why I should bring this up in the first 5 seconds of conversation. However two or three times in the last month I've been introduced to Americans who state during the inital "who are you, where are you from" kind of discussion, that they apologise for come from America because it has GWB as president.

I find this bizarre. Do many of my fellow Europeans immediately jump out and call them Neo-imperialists or worse unless they put this disclaimer out or are they just sufferers of "Bush Derangement Syndrome" and think that this means that any non American will blame them for their leader because he's so bad? I mean really this doesn't pass the smell test. Ask almost any European what he thinks of his president/prime minister and you'll get criticism - OK except for Belgians because they don't have a PM to criticise right now -  in many cases vicious about how the incompetant corrupt scumbag is lining his pockets or those of his cronies or soemthing similar. Of course quite often if you ask who the PM/President is the answer given is the previous scumbag not the current one because really its hard to tell one pompous git in a suit from another but the comment stands.

Indeed I'd say Bush has better name recognition in Europe than most European pols. I'm pretty sure that if you asked a sample of British, Germans, French, Italians etc. who the US president is and who the PM/pres of UK, Germany, France, Italy etc. are I expect they'd identify Bush more accurately than they identify the leaders of other European countries if not their own. I'm absolutely positive that Bush wins in comparison to our glorious EU commissars. Ask if Delors, Barroso, Barel, Prodi or someone else is the current president of the European Commission and I reckon you'd end up with a score very little different from random guesswork.

So Americans stop cringing, you've got nothing to be ashamed of except your own cringing.

30 September 2007 Blog Home : All September 2007 Posts : Permalink

Not Paying For EU

One thng that I've never really understood about British politicians post Mrs T is their deference to Brussels. Time and again we see the pol head off to Brussels with a bunch of red lines and non-negotiable demands which then crumble in the face of opposition from the rest, even if, as frequently happens, the UK has some allies for parts of what it wants. The deal here is that the UK is one of two (Germany being the other) major contributors to the EU budget and in almost all places appart from the corridors of power in Brussels the folk who pay hold the whip hand. In other words if the UK decides not to agree to something it could quite simply say it won't contribute to the EU until this particular item is resolved in a way that is acceptable to the UK. Take the CAP for example. A courageous UK government would simply say, if you don't reform the CAP the way we want we won't pay for any of it. Since, even with the rebate, the UK contributes rather a lot to the CAP budget this would get their attention, and of course if they didn't do what the UK wanted they would be free to make up the shortfall in subsidy on their own.

So what could the EU do if Britain (or any other contributor nation) acted this way? Clearly they could stop EU money going to the UK. But this probably wouldn't make much difference because the UK government could simply finance whatever shortfall from the money it would normally have paid.

What else could they do. Impose trade sanctions or tariffs? Well they could try. I think there would be a certain amount of blowback from EU manufacturers and traders. They'd also lose in any WTO hearing and the borders would be so porous that I doubt it would be enforceable anyway. Throw the UK out of certain development partnerships. Again more likely to hurt the EU than the UK who would simply concentrate on the US market. Close EU skies to lowcost UK based airlines. Watch the hoteliers, estate agents etc etc around the med howl in protest and watch the UK drunks fly to Croatia and Turkey. Remove the automatic right to residency for UK citizens in the rest of the EU. Watch the property market around the med collapse like a stone. etc. They might try and steer trade to the PAris and Frankfurt exchanges instead of London. All this would do would add to the costs because traders woudl take what they got at the Paris and Frankfurt exchanges and tradethem in London (and vice versa). Etc.

Similar arguments, it seems to me, would apply to countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark or Flanders if it were to split from the rest of Belgium. And of course if one country stops paying and gets away with it then others might too. We can always hope....