L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

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

06 February 2009 Blog Home : All February 2009 Posts : Permalink

20090206 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging

20090206 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
Olive trees in the rain. I'm getting sick of the rain. This is the Cote d'Azur allegedly but right now it's more the Cote de Gris. Hopefully it will be sunny on Sunday because I found some lovely olive trees near Chateauneuf de Grasse that deserve to be pictured on a nice day and I'll be runing past them again then.

As always click on the image to see it enlarged and don't forget to visit of the olive tree blogging archives for further reminders of how nice olive trees are.

06 February 2009 Blog Home : All February 2009 Posts : Permalink

Ebook Readers - Payback and Other Issues

On the Lois M Bujold mailing list the talk has turned, somehow, to ebooks and ebook reading devices. I wrote a couple of replies there that probably deserve amalagamating into a single article.

Firstly on the issue of cost, convenence and where we are in the adoption cycle. This in part is inspired by this post at ars.technica.

We are still in the "early adopter" phase of ebooks. However we may well be crossing the chasm* - assuming the price of
readers drops. I note that the NY Times, in article about google and amazon apparently going after the cellphone ebook market, made the following interesting statement:

Several book reading programs are already available for the iPhone and other mobile devices, including Stanza from Lexcycle and the eReader from Fictionwise. They are quickly growing in popularity.

But just as camera phones have not replaced digital cameras, smartphones are not likely to replace dedicated e-book readers like the Kindle or the Reader from Sony, analysts said. These specialized devices have screens about the size of a paperback book and use a technology that does not require backlighting, which makes them easier to read in most light conditions. They also have longer battery life.

I think ebooks on kindles etc. have reached the basic acceptance level that means that sales are going to go up. People know what they are, people know how they work (more or less) and keen readers can see the advantages, Ebooks still have teething issues. There's the format mess. there's the DRM pile of manure and there's the price of a reader. All these are being solved which is why I reckon we're crossing the chasm and not falling into it.

Programs like calibre (free) are solving the format issue because they make it easy to convert from one format to another and to manage the ebook library even as we get to a huge number of volumes (currently I'm at somewhere between 500 and 1000 in a mix of formats and I need to organize).

The DRM issue is gradually going away because there are now multiple examples (not just Baen) of publishers successfully selling non-DRMed ebooks and not seeing masses (more) of piracy.

The cost issue ditto. Reading an ebook on a smartphone or a netbook means that you can ignore the reader cost. It doesn't work for everyone and the battery life of an LCD screen means that you do tend to be tied to electrical outlets. Low power dedicated readers like the Kindle, Sony and Cybook are basically three times the price they need to be to get mass market traction but I anticipate prices will drop because the only expensive element is the screen. Everything else is about $10-$20 of bog standard components so once prices of screens fall (and they will because there are competing lower power technologies) the ebook reader prices will also fall. Of course in order for it to make sense for people to buy ebooks the book price also has to fall. Morons like Harper Collins who charge hard cover prices simply lose my business.

A note about payback, using myself as an example. I buy - primarily - books from Webscriptions. I just checked and I bought about 120 books last year (depending on how you count duplicates and eARCs) for a total of $381 which works out at less than $3.20 per book**. If I bought all those in paperback for the standard $6.99 - and some would be HC only or more expensive trade paperback - I'd be paying $838.80 for the privilege. The nominal  $458 I saved easily paid for my Cybook. I mentioned eARCs above; I was able to read a bunch of books in eARC form (six at $15 each in 2008) before they became available anywhere else. Excluding the eARCs my expenditure fell to under $300 for 120 books, an average of $2.50 each.

[Wandering off topic slightly. All the eARCs save David Weber's Storm from the Shadows are now published. At the Pirate Bay a search for David Weber (who has we not most of his work available for free) in the ebook section displays a miserable dozen or so hits, none of which are for the eARC. Said eARC has NO DRM so it would be trivial for someone to seed a torrent of it but no one has. I'm positive that the eARC has sold in the hundreds if not thousands]

I actually bought about 20 paper books last year and I have sufficient book shelf issues that fitting them in was a trick. I have no idea where I'd actually PUT these 120 ebooks if I'd bought them in paper!

Moving on to comparisons with the traiditonal book. I note that a lot of people (mostly of the snootier sort) mumble about the dead three experience - the smell of paper, the cool typographical layout yadda yadda - but I think this is the same as the folks 100 years ago complaining about horse experience compared to those nasty smelly automobile things. There are some books (art books for example) that won't work well in a non paper version but the average piece of fiction is just fine. I have all of Lois M Bujold's Sharing Knife books, apart from Horizon, in e and hardcover formats and I agree that HC did a lovely job with the physical layout of them. The covers. The flowers and other thingies on the chapter start pages. The typeface. etc. But I actually read the e-versions more. Even though, since I had to hand deDRM them and convert them to my prefered ebook format, the layout is less than ideal.

E vs P - sizes 1When it comes to Lois' Baen books.. I only have Falling Free and Spirit Ring as a paperbacks because they weren't available in electronic form for ages (Spirit Ring still isn't IIRC). I don't think a $6.99 pbk edition has any benefit compared to the nice Baen ebook versions other than that I can in emergency use it for toilet paper or fire lighter (oh and I can resell it). A cheaply bound massmarket paperback is the sort of thing that falls to pieces after a few years of reading and rouses very few emotions about smell, layout etc.

Indeed when it comes to rereading it is worth noting that I have Lois' Chalion books in paperback for the first 2 and hc for the last one and I flat out don't read them as often as I read my other LMB books. I'm guessing that in part this is because they aren't available on my reader for those times when i've just finished a book and decide I want to read something else.

E vs P - sizes 2 To go back to the paperback vs ebook. The e-ink screen on a Cybook/Kindle/Sony give you (at the font size I prefer to read at) 23 lines per page vs 35 for a mass market paperback (i.e. 2/3rds) with each line approx 90% of the mass market paperback length. So yes you don't get as many words per page. But we're not talking massively fewer.

The ebook screen itself is about 3 quarters the size as the print area of a mass market paperback while the entire device is slightly larger (but MUCH thinner) than a mass market paperback. It is basically book sized and gives you slightly fewer words per page.

E vs P - Screen reading under electric light E vs P - Paper reading under electric light
The screen is dimmer (less contrast) than a paper one but not by much. In reasonable light I find it just as easy as paper and it there is none of the flicker of an LCD screen. Indeed as the illustration above shows the ebook has the distinct advantage of not needing to be held open.

*Crossing the chasm is techno marketing speak for when a product goes from being rare to being common. The chasm is what catches all those products that never make it to mainstream. It originates in a book by Geoff Moore of that name.

**I had no idea how many I'd bought until I did the sums here - I'm shocked!!

14 February 2009 Blog Home : All February 2009 Posts : Permalink

20080213 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging (delayed)

Last Sunday, as I hinted at in the previous olive tree blogging post, I went past this wonderful olive tree root on the side of a road near Châteauneuf de Grasse. The bank is taller than I am and the olive tree appears to have oozed out of the soil. I suspect its been like that for decades if not a century becazse I think this road hasn't ever seen much (or any) widening on this side.
20090213 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
As always click on the image to see it enlarged and don't forget to visit of the olive tree blogging archives for further reminders of how nice olive trees are.

14 February 2009 Blog Home : All February 2009 Posts : Permalink

Mathematical Valentine

Via the hilarious Abstruse Goose.

14 February 2009 Blog Home : All February 2009 Posts : Permalink

690 Against. 9 in Favour.

Along with some 700 other people I gave the FTC feedback on DRM for their upcoming "townhall meeting". Prompted by this article at Teleread, I decided to look at all 707 submissions. In summary I note that the overwhelming majority are against DRM in some form or other. There are a couple of duplicates, a few bizarre off topic posts and the following 9 which exhibit general, if qualified, support for DRM as currently implemented:
The last is from a DRM publisher and his support of DRM is, as with most of the other suporters, distinctly limited!

Reading the 690 anti-DRM posts I was struck by a few things. Most importantly there has been no astroturf. These are separate comments although they do frequently return to the same themes. I also noted that a number of content creators were notably against DRM.

The themes that were repeated were
  1. DRM harms the law-abiding and doesn't affect the pirates
  2. DRM causes unacceptable side-effects
  3. DRM is not clearly labeled and the consequences are unclear
    1. It tends to be hard/impossible to get refunds/help when things go wrong
    2. Phone home DRM relies on the provider keeping his server up
  4. When DRM is clearly expressed and not perceived as coercive people like it (e.g. the Steam interface)
  5. DRM impacts the ability of people to resell stuff and this is resented
  6. DRM shows contempt for your customers and assumes that they are all potential thieves
All in all this has been less boring than I expected thanks to the lack of astroturf. I have no doubt that the DRM inflictors will be responding at some point but apparently they don't feel like replying on a public site where anyone can laugh at their defences. Talking of laughter I thought this PDF was an amusing way to make a valid point.

The raw text if you want to read it is in these seven large HTML documents (you'll have to figure out the PDFlinks yourself)
  1. FTC1
  2. FTC2
  3. FTC3
  4. FTC5
  5. FTC5
  6. FTC6
  7. FTC7

26 February 2009 Blog Home : All February 2009 Posts : Permalink

A Dollar For A Default?

Something I've been wondering about recently is who will buy all the government bonds that the US (and UK etc. but this is primarily a US-centric post) governments will have to issue shortly to pay for all the banks they just bailed out. Once upon a time US banks and other investors used to buy them - perhaps they still will but one wonders how much disposable dosh they have available. Until recently there were a couple of major foreign buyers of US bonds - Asian governments and the sovereign wealth funds of oil-rich states. Both bought because - in large part - that was one way to handle the trade surplusses they had with the world and the US in particular.

[Basic economics says that total currency flows have to balance so if you've just sold a wodge of stuff and got a load of US dollars you have to buy something in US dollars of equal amount (or keep it under the mattress I guess). While global trade is not a zero sum game (see Ricardo et al) currency transactions are, hence the fall of currencies no one wants. Hence, if a state wishes to sell stuff to the US at a good local currency price then it helps if it's currency is relatively weak compared to the US$. One way to make sure the US$ remains relatively strong is to stimulate demand for US$ products like treasury bonds].

But there's a tiddly little problem. The current credit crunch and the resulting recession means that the Asian countries aren't exporting much to the US anymore and the collapse of the oil price means the sovereign wealth funds have less money to invest. So umm the US government, if it wants these people to continue to invest in US goverement bonds it needs to make them more attractive.

Typically thise means increasing the interest rate. But here is where the train starts to derail. The US government (and everyone else) wants low interest rates because high interest rates will be the final nail in the housing market and also kill all those businesses that run an overdraft (which is practically all businesses). So since the government really really wants people to contine to lend to US businesses and would be home owners it has to keep US bonds low because no sane investor is going to lend to a business or individual at a lower rate than it lends to the government (and insane investors with lots of money to invest are thin on the ground).

This is a bit of a bugger. The US government needs lots of people to buy its bonds so that it can stimulate the economy and rescue banks and so on. But it also needs people to continue lending to the rest of America and there's a lot less money floating around looking for a home. And this money is simply looking for the best return at the lowest risk. So if US treasury bonds (risk == 0) are at a higher rate than riskier loans to US homeowners or businesses then no one is going to lend any money to the latter.

Which makes the whole recession thing worse.

The only way I see to square this circle is for the perceived risk of US treasury bonds to be higher than that of deadbeat mortgage borrowers and businesses. And so I'm very very glad to see this Samizdata article warning that under some circumstances the US citizenry might decide to let their government repudiate a chunk of its debt.

Of course if the US government does in fact default on some or all of its debt then we'll be seeing a bunch of painful consequences elsewhere (including the collapse of the US$) so I'm not sure how realistic this sort of warnign is. But if it is sufficiently credible to keep people actually buying US treasury debt its probably worth it,

27 February 2009 Blog Home : All February 2009 Posts : Permalink

20090227 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging

Olive trees above Nice. I figure the ancestors of these trees have been here for around 2000 years
20090227 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
As always click on the image to see it enlarged and don't forget to visit of the olive tree blogging archives for further reminders of how nice olive trees are.