L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

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

01 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

Rebutting DRM defenders

Over at Teleread, Chris Matthews has an update on the FTC DRM comments. As he notes the latest batch is rather more balanced that the astoundingly lopsided 99% against DRM 1% for that I noted a couple of weeks ago. I'm listing in a file (FTC8) all the non PDF comments from contributions 708 to 852, however this time there are a fair number of PDF comments, many of which are from the more (self) important organizations. Some of these are not just PDFed but full of lawyerly doublespeak which deserves a wider audience - and criticism. This is what I am spending the rest of this post on, however I will note that the vast majority of comments - even in this latest section - are anti-DRM and that this
includes some of the lawyerly PDF articles.

The first comment that seems worthy of having holes poked in it is Intel's one. The first thing to note about this is that if you aren't paying attention you think almost the entire comment is "About Intel" because it isn't clear that "About Intel" is merely one early paragraph. Beyond that the comment begins by boasting about Intel's leadership role in creating DRM systems and explaining that it really should not be dissuaded from such development by legislative fiat, but the market and consumer demand should be the driving factor. All of this is fair enough but then ir concludes with these two parapgraphs

Intel also supports veridical innovators and seeks to enable an interoperable home consumer experience regardless of content source. Media is being delivered into the consumer’s home through a broad range of mechanisms, including conditional access systems (cable, satellite and broadcast TV), optical media (DVD, Blu-ray Disc, etc.) and a wide range of DRMs. In that context, Intel has worked with content providers, service providers, and device makers to enable in-home interoperability. For example, Intel has developed and licensed into the horizontal market High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) to protect decompressed content from any source device (set top box, PC, game console, DVD/Blu-ray player, Mobile Internet Device, peripheral, etc.) to any digital display, and Digital Transmission Content Protection (DTCP) to move compressed content among devices in the home network. These basic, interoperable content protection technologies are the foundation for a healthy and innovative digital content ecosystem.

Another critical ingredient of a well-functioning digital market is consumer knowledge. Consumers must be able to make fully-informed marketplace decisions, and should not be surprised by DRM functionality. Industry should be encouraged to adopt voluntary approaches to effective consumer notice whenever possible.

The first paragraph's claims about the wonders of Intel's HDCP DRM interoperability stuff is kind of shot in the foot by comment 539814-00759:

Due to the movie industries love of all things DRM, I am unable to *legally* watch my legally-purchased blu-ray movies on my legally-purchased blu-ray player on my HDCP-compatible PC through my HDCP-compliant receiver to my HDCP-compatible HDTV.

and comment 539814-00804:

Several Blu-Ray discs fail to be playable on certain players because the DRM keys require firmware updates, and the firmware updates do not become available for months, if ever, after the Blu-Ray disc gets released.

This leads us to the last paragraph, where I find myself in partial agreement with Intel. Consumers "should not be surprised by DRM", but since they frequently still seem to be, perhaps the "voluntary approaches to effective consumer notice" don't work and a mandatory legislative one is required?

Intel's comment mainly seems to be blather which is a pity since it could have said a lot more.

Then there is the SIIA comment. This pretty much falls to the ground when you realize that it is written by inhabitants of a parallel universe. Really there seems to be no other way to explain the following tables on page 2 (in case it isn't obvious the third columns are my additions):

Within each type of protection system, there are varying degrees of protection. For example, different types of access control systems include:

Type of Protection Level of Protection Actual level of protection in this universe
Encryption High Level of Protection None
Subscription Medium Level of Protection None
Registration/Password Medium-Low Level of Protection None
Click-through Agreement Low Level of Protection None

For systems using use control functions:

Type of Protection Level of Protection Actual level of protection in this universe
Read-only High Level of Protection None
Read & Print rights Medium Level of Protection None
Full Access Low Level of Protection None

For systems using tracking functions:

Type of Protection Level of Protection Actual level of protection in this universe
Watermarking/Digital Footprints High Level of Protection None
Online/electronic Clearinghouse Medium Level of Protection None
Voluntary User Compliance Low Level of Protection None

Since the SIIA's entire argument depends on the idea that Encryption etc. actually provides some kind of effective protection (which both my own researchs and dozens of FTC comments dispute in detail) we can ignore the entire thing.

This leads us to the egregious comment 539814-00711 written by lawyers for
As with the SIIA one is led to wonder precisely which parallel universe these people occupy since they define DRM rather differently to the FTC and most other people;

For purposes of the Town Hall event, the Commission has defined digital rights management, or "DRM," as "technologies typically used by hardware manufacturers, publishers, and copyright holders to attempt to control how consumers access and use media and entertainment content." Id. On behalf of the wide range of creators, copyright owners, and U.S. copyright-based industries that are represented by our organizations, we believe this definition is at best incomplete. DRM should also be viewed as the technologies that facilitate broader consumer access to copyrighted works, and that reflect the parameters of the bargains entered into between owners of content and consumers who purchase access to it. DRM also offers greater flexibility, allowing copyright owners (and their licensees) to tailor their offerings to the specific distribution rights they possess, to offer more granular options to consumers, to experiment with different price points, different roles for advertising, and different time limits for use -in short, to better meet the diverse needs of diverse audiences. As a result, DRM technologies undergird business models that have enabled copyright owners to make more creative works available to more consumers, through more distribution channels, in more fomts, under more flexible terms of use, and at a wider range of price points, than ever before. This comment provides many illustrative examples of products and services that make use of DRM to facilitate and broaden consumer access to these works. We urge the Commission to keep this context fmly in mind as it explores the many complex and challenging issues listed as topics for the Town Hall.

Allow me to rewrite some sentences:

... DRM should also be viewed as the technologies that hinder consumer access to copyright works and that enforce misunderstood bargains entered into between owners of content and consumers who think they have bought it. DRM also offers greater flexibility, allowing copyright owners (and their licensees) different ways to irritate their customers, to experiment with different ways of going bankrupt, to waste money on various ineffective, incompatible protection schemes and - in short, to illustrate that they consider all their customers to be thieves. As a result, DRM technologies undergird business models that have failed in the presence of the internet

On the next page there is this comment about the DMCA:

Congress's 1998 prediction has come true. The use of DRM systems has proven to be '"use-facilitating," and consumers have been the beneficiaries of the broad and expanding range of consumer uses of copyrighted materials that DRM makes possible.4 The remainder of this comment provides some illustrative examples from all the copyright industry sectors represented by the commenters.

This is contradicted by this paragraph from the comment from the CCIA:

Digital rights management or “DRM” is a general term describing technology deployed in relation to copyrighted content in digital form, ostensibly to reduce the unauthorized exercise of a copyright-holder’s exclusive statutory rights with respect to the protected work. Digital rights management was at one time viewed as the future of digital content. Arguably, it has yet to meet these expectations. A 1995 government report produced by an interagency working group stated that “[i]f content providers cannot be assured that they will be able to realize a commercial gain from the sale and use of their products using the NII [“national information infrastructure” – essentially, the Internet], they will have little incentive to use it.” This reasoning supported a conclusion that “content providers must have secure and reliable means for delivering information products and services to consumers.”1 In reality, however, extraordinary amounts of legitimate, non-infringing information products and services are available via the Internet today and are neither secured nor encrypted in any fashion. This reflects the embrace of business models unlike the traditional copyrighted content distribution model for the monetization of information products.

While the latter is talking about the "Internet" rather than DRM I think it is a reasonable rebuttal. DRM has done very little to be use-facilitating whereas the Internet has been extremely useful in helping consumers enjoy more content in more ways than ever before.

Later on the comment talks about "protecting content". Just as with the SIIA comment this is a statement which is not in fact borne out by the observable facts. This means that when the comment tries to give credit to DRM for permitting things like streaming downloads it is, not to put too fine a point on it, lying. DRM in fact has been a roadblock that has prevented people from downloading content. What the comment is trying to say, but never quite sums up the courage to blurt out, is that DRM is a way that publishers attempt to reduce the problem of free-loaders by only allowing genuine customers to decrypt etc. the content. The problem with the comment is that this has demonstrably not worked and the freeloaders have not notably been inconvenienced by DRM.

The whole "looking glass" worldview of this report is perhaps best illustarted by footnote 35 which refers to EA (and presumably to to secuROM - the link doesn't work so I can't confirm this). I would say that EA and Sony are the two companies most mentioned in the other 800+ comments and none of the mentions are positive.

Finally the comment mentions that Amazon's Kindle has helped fire up the ebook market and seeks to credit DRM for this fact. I would say that DRM has actually been more of a stumbling block to the ebook market than a facilitator and I'll note that comments on internet forums like mobileread tend to discuss how to work around DRM and handle the fact that book 1 is available for reader A while book 2 is only available for reader S. In other words how to handle the incompatibilities that DRM causes.

01 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

MPs, Contracts, the Court (of Public Opinion)

Harriet Harperson and, it seems, other ZANU Labour Apparachiks want to strip Fred the Shred of his pension. A pension which, while big, was part of a signed contract between the Royal Bank of Scotland's board (including treasury minister Lord Myners) and Sir Fred. I personally hope Sir Fred somehow manages to end up in utter penury because he's already invested the lump sum somewhere safe and reliable like Bernie Madoff's funds but that's beside the point. The BBC reports:

Harriet Harman has said former Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) chief Sir Fred Goodwin should not "count on" keeping his full £650,000 a year pension.[...]The sum was unacceptable in "the court of public opinion," she told the BBC, and the government "would step in".

And it turns out that this is also (accoding to the harridan) her boss's view too:

"The prime minister has said that it is not acceptable and therefore it will not be accepted," she told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show.

I'm sure these ZANU Labour ministers are all in agreement that if you maanage something into the ground you don't deserve a pension afterwards because it is unacceptable to the cours of public opinion. I therefore have a suggestion that they will of course agree to.

When the Harridan and her fellow ZANU labourites quit being MPs they would normally expect to receive a generous final salary pension no matter what they did while in parliament. Seeing as the UK as a whole is now almost as broke as RBS it seems only fair that these ministers forfeit their pensions because they mismanaged the economy so badly over the last decade or so.

I have no doubt Harriert Harperson, Comrade Brown and co will agree. After all rewarding these political scum for their bad decisions would be "unacceptable in the court of public opinion,"

02 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

Ebooks and (Dis)intermediation

Websites are classic tools used by consumers together with companies such as Amazon to cut out the middleman distributoes - or at least to drastically reduce the distribution chain. A distribution chain that, in the physical world goes
manufacturer-> wholesaler-> distributor-> retailer-> customer
tends, on-line to be reduced to
manufacturer-> retailer-> customer if not
manufacturer-> customer
The idea is that since Google & co allow anyone to search anywhere the stocking and distribtion features of the traditional chain can be cut away and the savings passed on to the consumer (and some also to the retailer or manufacturer).

Ebooks are sold exclusively by websites (at least I've never ever heard of a physical shop where you can buy an ebook). So naively one might expect ebooks to likewise be distributed by a chain that is at worst
author-> publisher-> retailer-> customer
and more frequently
author-> publisher-> customer
or perhaps
author-> retailer-> customer

However, while the second one is the Baen/Webscription model, it is not, apparently the standard for other ebook retailers. As we learned from the Fictionwise/Overdrive brouhaha publishers such as Harper Collins employ distributors so that the typical chain for a Harper Collins ebook looks like
author-> publisher-> distributor-> retailer-> customer

Naively I assumed that this was due to the well-know fact that Harper Collins are clueless morons. However it appears that HC are not alone in the lack of clue department (and no I'm not refering to their major publishing house rivals). These two Teleread posts show that actually leading ebook retailers WANT a distribution middleman too:

Publisher Lida Quillen was hoping to upload a nonDRMed Mobipocket copy of The Solomon Scandals for Mobipocket to imagedistribute to Diesel eBooks. Diesel’s hardworking owner, Scott Redford, plans to promote Scandals on his home page, just as Books on Board, another independent e-bookstore, has been on its own site. But guess what. Mobi’s distribution arm apparently won’t do business with Twilight unless Scandals and other books appear with DRM.

Forget, for a moment, the DRM insistence of Mobipocket (which is nucking futs) and look at this. Twilight Times, a minor publishing house, is forced to use a distribution channel to get its books in front of major "independent" e-bookstores. Why? From the posts it seems like Twilight (and the author) have been in direct negotiation with these e-bookstores to get them to sell the book so what possible value does the distributor add to the process?

Ahh yes. Typically, as we recall from Fictionwise/Overdrive, it handles the DRMing because publishers and e-bookstores are too stupid to do this themselves. And in classic middleman style it then requires this optional step so that even if you don't want to add DRM you have to.

If you want a reason why Baen makes money at this ebook lark selling books at $5 a pop and other publishers have problems, even with prices over $15 then this could be why.

02 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

Pricing eBooks

So there is (again) wibbling on book/publishing blogs about the price of ebooks. This is in part inspired by this post from HarperStudio where the boss claims that ebooks only save the publisher about $2 compared to regular printed books. This has caused some interesting responses. It occurs to me, and I know I am not alone in this, that we might do better working backwards.

There seems to be good evidence that consumers are willing to pay $9.99 for an ebook. There is also evidence (see O'Reilly's iPhone book stats) that many more people buy the book at $4.99 than they do at $9.99:

The book, which sells for $24.99, was initially offered as an iPhone app for $4.99. When the publisher raised the price to $9.99, sales fell 75 percent. O’Reilly quickly dropped the price back down to the lower level.

“This audience is very price sensitive,” Mr. Savikas said.

So even if all content doesn’t have to be free, it may well have to be cheap.

As someone who has been ma jor buyer of Baen ebooks at ~$5 a pop and a major critic of Harper Collins for $20 pricing this is not news to me. As SB Sarah says,

I will pay more than paperback prices for an ebook if I know that I am getting exclusive content not available in print, or if I were to be rewarded with membership points or rebate dollars for paying the extra dollars. The reason I’m ranting about this now, when it’s obviously been discussed before, is that, since Angela James twittered the variations in price for the eBook of JD Robb’s new book ranged from $10 on the Kindle to $20 on FictionWise, all the way up to $24.93 at Powell’s online.

I'll add to her list that I will pay more if I'm buying a book before it is available in hardback (Baen's devious eARCs) and I'm somewhat less interested in loyalty programs but we're in basic agreement.

The iphone evidence above suggests that an acceptable price for an ebook is $5 which, amazingly enough, is slap bang in the middle of Baen's pricing and slightly more than I pay since I tend to get bulk discounts. Even more amazingly enough this is not a million miles from the $2 less than paper estimate from Bob Miller of HarperStudio when you look at ebooks vs mass market paperbacks (Bob unfortunately seems to be talking about HC so he's got himself a problem).

Now in the previous post I just noted that the ebook market is somewhat inefficient with a middleman layer in there to suck up profits. Well it turns out we can figure out how much profit these drones absorb thanks to this post at galleycat:

"The large publishing houses' cut is generally 45-55% of the book's list price (this is split with the author whose cut is 15% of list price). Distributors are generally taking 10% or more of list price. Amazingly, the less expensive the book, the distributor cut can grow pretty dramatically because almost all distributors include a minimum charge. DRM providers are generally taking 3-5% (and in the case of less expensive books even more) of list price. The credit card processors, even with micropayments, take 3-6% of the sales price."

If we take assume that an ebook is listed as $5 and that the publisher/author get 50% of the list then this is how it breaks down:

Credit card
Now if the book were actually "listed" at $6 but sold a $5 as a discount then the sums work out at

%age of list
Credit card
In this case the retailer's margin drops pretty swiftly. If the CC processor and the DRM provider had minimum charges of $0.50 (which is entirely plausible) and the distributor has a minimum charge of $1 then the retailer cannot sell the book for $5 and make a profit. He can sell it at a $6 list price and make a gross profit of $1.

If there were no DRM and nor distributor then even the list price $6, actual price $5 book makes $1.50 in profit even when the credit card processor takes his cut. If the book sells at a list price of $5 then he makes a $2 even with the CC processor.

So here's a simple way to increase the profits to the retailer (and/or publisher) cut out the DRM and the distributor you foosl!

03 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink


This blog has just arrived on Twitter. Henceforth - with a bit of luck - my twitter feed will update automagically with title and URL of every post I make. One advantage of rolling your own blog code is that you can add stuff like this very easily...

I'm quite impressed with the Twitter API and I'm writing stuff to make my own twitter aggregator thingy. Compared to Facebook, which irritates me enormously in lots of ways, Twitter is a joy to tinker with and that may well in part explain why programmer people like it. I have to admit I'm not sure what the real use of it is beyond acting as a kind of very short RSS feed thingy but no doubt all will become clear as I use it more.

04 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

Free Ebook Sites = Internet Marketing Fail

One of the most successful ways that Baen has driven sales of its books is via its Free Library, whereat authors make certian of their books available for free download in a variety of ebook formats. It has frequently amazed me that other publishers have failed, hitherto, to jump on to the band wagon.

Well this might be changing. Although, at time of writing, the sites I'm writing about seem more like Marketing Fail than Sales Tool.

The first is the Suvudu free library from Random House/Spectre/Del Ray which is announced in this promising way:

Welcome to the Suvudu Free Book Library. We know it can be hard to navigate the countless fantasy and science fiction series out there and figure out which ones are right for you. Well, we're here to make those tough decisions a bit easier on you. With the Suvudu Free Book Library, you can read the first book in some of our most acclaimed series absolutely free! We're kicking off the library with five full-length novels for you to sample, but we'll be adding new titles on a regular basis, so be sure to sign up for our newsletter so you're the first to find out what our newest free offerings are!

Enough of the intro -- start downloading, and start reading!

Unfortunately there's a minor problemette. The FREE DOWNLOAD images and "Download Now" links don't work. Also, oddly, the announcement on the main suvudu.com page seems to have disappeared although Google shows it there:
Suvudu announcement in google
Perhaps they kicked it off too early and are reconsidering - though perhaps not because there is a scribd group with the books and download from there works (once you login to scribd). Unfortunately you can only download the book(s) as PDF - grrr - which is, IMO, potentially even more of a fail than the current "are they there or aren't they" thing.

This isn't the only fail. I also note that the Random House clutzes have got at least one of their links wrong (the text link to "His Majesty's Dragon" actually points to "Red Mars") and, for that matter, since this this site is supposed to be all about ebooks, it's kind of weird that all the links point to the dead tree edition of the book not the ebook edition.

Finally there's the question of how to buy a book if you decide that the free first book of the series was so good you want more. We'll glide lightly over the fact that "see other books in this series" simply points you to a list of all books by the author - or at least it does for all authors bar Turtledove - and the fact that we're still in paper first mode to note the utter idiocy.

When you click "buy now" you can't actually buy the book directly from Random House. A little window pops up suggesting that you might want to buy from Amazon, Sony, other with appropriate links. Well kind of fair enough except that when you click on the links you get a "search page" not the item itself. In amazon's case the search seems to work. At the sony site in at least one case you are told that Your Search For: "9780345484628" returned 0 results. If you don't like those choices and click on "other" you get a page like this pointless page of links.

All in all I'll put that in the "must try harder" category perhaps with a note added about "premature release" issues.

Still its better than Faber over in the UK who annouced in the Grauniad (picked up by booktrade yesterday) that:

Two years after Radiohead's pay-what-you-like album, In Rainbows, the independent UK publisher Faber is launching its own digital experiment, giving readers the chance to pay what they deem appropriate for historian Ben Wilson's latest book, fittingly titled What Price Liberty?

You know something's amiss when the Groan article fails to provide a link and when googling "Faber Rainbows" doesn't pull up the site. If you do eventually make it to http://www.whatpriceliberty.co.uk/ you learn that we're suffering from really ridiculously "premature release" syndrome because (at time of writing) we are told that the campaign starts in 55 days and invitation to

Sign up to receive details as the conversation unfolds.

with email address etc.

How about wating to announce this thing when the book is actually available you idiots! as it is the buzz is going to fade away prematurely.

04 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

The BNP and the Poles

Much chortling around the UK news and blogosphere (also here and more news at google) as it emerges that the nationalist anti-immigration BNP used a picture of a Battle of Britain Spitfire from a Polish Squadron to launch their European election campaign this year.

Well I spent a few moments modifying their poster and the result is below:
Polish Plumbers Party not BNP
Enjoy - and feel ever so free to improve on my abysmal GIMP hackery if you wish.

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

20090306 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging

Similar to last week, here is an olive tree above Nice. This one is in the Mont Vinaigrier park and given the thickness of its trunk has presumably been there for some centuries.
20090306 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging
(actually last week's must have been just adjacent to the park and was also half way up Mont Vinaigrier).

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 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

Mighty Hunter Blogging

Our cat decided that we hadn't been feeding him with food appropriate to his age and importance. Our error was that we continued to feed him beef chunks when we should ahve know that beef was a 2008 preference. It's now spring 2009 and certain sorts of fish are the only catfood acceptable in this season, apparently (although the neighbours dry catfood is also marginally acceptable - but only if consumed as the spoils of victory).

Anyway yesterday he decided to show us that if we didn't feed him right it was no skin of his nose, him being a highly experienced predator etc. etc.
Mighty Hunter Mighty Hunter

Mighty Hunter Mighty Hunter
Shortly after showing off to us he ate it all except the head, which he left on the doormat as a momento and reminder to us to feed him properly henceforth.

PS No I don't exactly know what he caught. I think it might be a dormouse.

09 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

The Up and Downside of Paper. A Post for Ebook Week

Read an ebook weekBy coincidence I reread The Deed of Paksenarrion last week in paper. I have the enormous 1000+ page single volume paperback version and reading it was interesting as I haven't read such a large paperback book for a while. In fact this was the second paper book I've read this year (the first was Lois M Bujold's Horizon) whereas I've read a dozen or more ebooks (I haven't consciously listed them).

Just for fun I thought it might be interesting to compare the reading experience of paper compared to electrons.
eInk (Bookeen Cybook3)
Boot up time in 0-10 seconds
(depending in whether reader remembered to put in his bookmark)
Boot up time 30-40 seconds. Bookmarks always there (for me at least).
Readable in sunlight. Not readable in the dark
ditto - see comparison shots on my flickr page.
One handed reading nearly impossible (and no I'm not referring to the pr0n sense!)
One handed reading is normal.
Book is heavy, hence tend to rest it on knee, table. This may cause feline lapwarmer to complain a) that book is taking up valuable lapspace or b) book is too heavy to be rested on feline lapwarmer
Cabook3 is light no need to rest it anywhere and if rested on feline lapwarmer then he doesn't mind
Book is bulky. Cannot readily be taken to the shop for reading in checkout queue. Or pulled out while waiting for airport security theatre
Cybook3 is slim enough to fit in large pocket. Easily to take and read anywhere.
Book can have doodling in the margins
No doodling
Switching between books (e.g. when finished with one) takes minutes at best, and can be hours if you aren't at home or near a book store
Switching between books takes seconds as long as the book is on the reader. If laptop is on the copying a new book is c. 60 seconds
Skipping pages is easy. Skipping to a specific chapter can be a bit harder
Skipping to a specific chapter is generally easier that skipping 10 pages
Font size fixed. OK for me. Bad for someone older
Fonts and font size massively customizable.
Price - Deed of P costs $13.14 from Amazon.com and £12.41 (=c.$17) from Book Depository.
The cybook costs $350 or £200. The ebook costs $6 from webscriptions.

When I started the list I thought one was going to be the clear winner. But actually I think its more of a horses for courses thing. One thing I have noted is that my habits change and I read more with the ebook reader. Some of the changes are subtle. e.g. I get used to working around the 30s boot time thing by switching it on slightly ahead of time. So, for example, when I'm about to get in the security theatre line I've already hit the on button.

The reading more thing needs some expansion. Though I do tend to read more at times when I have nothing much specific to do (on the train, bus, waiting for same...), it might be more correct to say I spend less time reading throwaway newspapers and airline magazines and more reading books.

The pricing is also interesting. By buying the ebook version I'm able to save about $10 on the purchase price in this case. Now that isn't the sort of price difference I would always expect - in the case of Horizon the prices are probably about equal (mutter mutter). Still if you buy a lot of books, as I do then even $5 savings quickly add up. And there's the instant gratification thing. Now it is true that if I go to a bookstore I get instant G too but I tend to have to pay even more for it. The wonderful thing about ebooks is that you cna buy them whenever, get them immediately and usually more cheaply than the real paper ones.

13 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

20090313 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging

One of the recurring themes of this series is that "you can't kill an Olive tree". Or, to be strictly accurate, it's extremely hard to kill one as even stumps sprout when left alone. However I recently returned to a place where I've photographed olive tree stumps before (here and here). I regret to report that the first stump is definitely dead. The second however, as can be seen in this picture - isn't.
30090313 - 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.

13 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink


Amazon would very much prefer it if you buy all your Kindle books from Amazon's Kindle store. That way they make more money off their suckers customers. In particular they make it very difficult to buy DRM-infested books from anywhere other than their Kindle store by obfuscating the key for the Mobipocket format DRM used and by setting a magic bit somehwere. Neither of these facts is terribly difficult to reverse engineer and indeed someone did so quite a while ago. The resulting python code has been very useful and linked to on a variety of sites such as mobileread.

In a classic case of DMCA abuse, however Amazon has sent mobileread a DMCA takedown notice to which they have complied despite reservations:

As some of you may already know, this week we received a DMCA take-down notice from Amazon requesting the removal of the tool kindlepid.py and instructions associated with it. Although we never hosted this tool (contrary to their claim), nor believe that this tool is used to remove technological measures (contrary to their claim), we decided, due to the vagueness of the DMCA law and our intention to remain in good relation with Amazon, to voluntarily follow their request and remove links and detailed instructions related to it.

It should be noted that Amazon seems to have changed its mind as initially it was rather more relaxed about hacking the Kindle. One wonders whether this is something to do with the Kindle 2 launch as the K2 is clearly a far less open product than its predecessor.

I don't really understand the logic behind this request though unless Amazon are trying to become a monopolist. As is noted on the mobileread thread I linked to above, Amazon owns Mobipocket and hence sells the DRM that other ebooksellers use for DRM-infested mobipocket. From previous research we know that Amazon gets a 5% of the list price for all books sold with Mobipocket's DRM so it's not like Amazon is failing to get any money from these other publishers. Indeed the ebooksellers that Amazon doesn't get money from are the ones that eschew DRM such as Webscriptions.

In fact Amazon ought to be making it easier for these other ebooksellers to provide Kindle content by allowing these ebooksellers to also create Kindle DRMed books, unless of course Amazon actually wanta to put these other sites out of business, If so then that looks like something that the FTC might want to discuss as David Rothman points out because it looks to me like a potential abuse of the DMCA and/or antitrust laws.

My suspicion is that the reason why they are doing this is not because it allows people to read Mobileread DRMed books on the Kindle but because it potentially allows people to read Kindle books on non-kindle readers (even though KindlePID.py does not, of itself, remove the DRM).

This bullying approach has had one clear negative effect. There are some 14 pages of commentary to the initial post on mobileread and most of it is negative. Mobileread is probably the main place where the early adopter ebook reading folk hang out on the web so annoying them looks like a PR booboo since these people are likely to recommend something else to their friends and relations. It has also now shown up at BoingBoing and probably will show up on other sites too. I should note that I personally will now be linking to BookDepository and other sites when I refer to books and that I will not be buying anything from Amazon if there is an alternative source. Furthermore I think it would be a good thing if this were copied elsewhere so that Mr Google's little workers make it easy to find and hard to remove from the internet.

I therefore present an unofficial mirror of the latest .zip from "reversing everything" and a suggestion that people bittorrent it.

13 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

A Qualified Journalist

Over at WattsUpWithThat they have linked to a report in the Grauniad on the Heartland organized ICCC 2009 event. The report is interesting in many ways but not as far as reporting what went on there. Let us start with the writer. Suzanne Goldenberg is, according to her bio, well qualified to write about Science and Environmental affairs. She has a BSc in Applied Mathematics and Statistics and a PhD in Predictive Analysis. Actually that last sentence is almost certainly a complete lie. The website that pushes her book "Madame President" about Hilary Clinton says:

Suzanne Goldenberg is an award-winning journalist for The Guardian and has been the newspaper's US Correspondent since 2002. In January 2003, she based herself in Baghdad to cover the last days of Saddam Hussein's rule and the US invasion of Iraq. She was among a small group of reporters who covered the war from the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad.

In addition to Iraq, she covered the war in Lebanon in 2006, the Palestinian uprising from 2000-2002, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1996, and the wars in Chechnya, Georgia, and Nagorno Karabakh in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

She has reported from the remotest corners of India and Pakistan -- including the world's highest battlefield, the Siachen glacier. She has travelled with the Karen rebels in Burma, and interviewed the Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, when she was being kept under house arrest.

Goldenberg won the Bayeux prize for war reporting for her coverage of Iraq. She has won the prize of Reporter of the Year from What the Papers Say, the Foreign Press Association, and the London Press Club for her coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She has also won the James Cameron award. She was nominated for an award for her coverage of the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Goldenberg was born and raised in Canada. After joining the Guardian in London in 1988, she was the paper's South Asia Correspondent, and Middle East Correspondent, before her move to the US. She is the author of "Pride of Small Nations: the Caucasus and Post-Soviet Disorder" (1994) and co-author of "Transcaucasian Boundaries" with John F. R. Wright, and Richard Schofield (1995). She lives in Washington, DC with her family.

In other words Ms Goldenberg is a war correspondent and political journalist who has absolutely no background in science what so ever. Googling her name shows her to be apparently pro-Palestinians, anti-Bush, anti-Israel and so on - i.e. a typical Guardianista - and shows no concern about the Environment until she got moved onto the Environment beat after the US elections in 2008.

Still her experience with Pallywood and sympathy with the actorsvictims in the occupied territories which, it is alleged, led her to be disinvited from Israel stands her in good stead here. Now she is able to apply the same skills of agit prop and pseudo-balanced hackery to discredit the "deniers". You get a flavour of her contempt in the first sentences:

It is 8.50am in a windowless room in a hotel off New York's Times Square and the speaker is rounding off a talk called "Climate change and extreme events: lies, damned lies and statistics". There are nearly 100 people in the room. "How many people understood that statistical discussion?" he asks. Half a dozen hands go up. In the last row, a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is regarded as a luminary by climate change revisionists, sits with mouth wide open and head tilted back, asleep.

I'm pretty sure that the journalist was not one of those with her hand up. Certainly the rest of the article has no science in it what so ever. Rather she seems more interested in painting the attendees as wild-eyed loons in the pay of EEEEVIL OIL COMPANIES and FUNDAMENTALIST CHRISTIANS:

It would be easy to dismiss this gathering as a pity party for people on the fringes of modern thought. The contrast with the America embodied by Obama's election is stark. The 600 attendees (by the organisers' count) are almost entirely white males, and many, if not most, are past retirement age. Only two women and one African-American man figure on the programme of more than 70 speakers. Aside from a smattering of academics from well-known universities, they are affiliated with rightwing thinktanks, such as the Ayn Rand Institute, the Carbon Sense Coalition, or the scarily named Committee for A Constructive Tomorrow, that operate far outside the mainstream of public discourse.

Unlike Obama, who owed his victory to millions of supporters and donors, the climate change deniers operate within narrow bands of support: the conservative wing of the Republican party and the extreme end of the Christian Right. According to DeSmogblog, an environmentalist website, the 50 or so thinktanks linked to this conference between them have received $47m in funds over the years from Exxon and the Koch and Scaife families, who are the leading patrons of conservative causes in America. Both families made their first fortunes in the oil business.

No doubt she is partly right that those skeptical of climate change - "deniers" according to la G - tend to the right but at least a part of the reason why the "denier" movement is so fragmented is that the participants have many different agendas. Steve McIntyre (who oddly doesn't get mentioned) is a by his own admission a rabid pinko, so is Bjorn Lomborg (also not mentioned, but then he apparently didn't attend); Vaclav Klaus, who does get mentioned, is certainly not a fundamentalist christian and so on.

And then there is the agist sexist racism issue. Apparently "deniers" are not to be trusted because they are nearly all white, male and old. As WUWT notes if the same profiling were to turn out almost any other way Ms Goldenberg would be laying herself open to being accused of a hate crime. Fortunately it seems you can't be guilty of a hate-crime if you pick on old caucasian men.

Finally, after her discussion of all the short comings and disorganization of the "deniers", she seeks some balance by talking to a few greens who are able to reassure her that the "deniers" are total whackoes outside the pale of public discourse who can't even get funding for oil companies these days. Which is fortunate for Suzanne because it means she doesn't have to make any effort to understand their objections to the "consensus" or even report with any pretence at balance or accuracy.

15 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

Kindlepid and the Amazon Business Model

I wrote my initial post about KindlePID.py on Friday because it seemed to me to be important that mirrors of the program show up swiftly to point out the idiocy of Amazon's actions. This seems to have worked because there was quite a lot of coverage in the online trade press. E.g. at The Register, Techdirt, engadget, cnet and PCworld as well as at /. . In addition, I was clearly not the only person to think that spreading the this was a good idea, amongst other efforts, someone decided to twitter the kindlepid source. Over at Teleread, Chris Meadows has a thoughtful post about what this says for the future of non Kindle mobipocket DRMed ebooks. It's a read the whole thing article but I think this is the key:

So, let’s review. Amazon has “embraced and extended” the Mobipocket format so that the Kindle is not compatible with other Mobi-DRM-selling stores without the aid of certain Python scripts. It has DMCA’d those Python scripts, indicating in no uncertain terms this was no accident.

Amazon has apparently prevented Mobipocket from releasing an official, Mobi-DRM-compatible client for the iPhone—while it has itself released a Kindle-DRM-compatible client for the iPhone.

Amazon owns both its Kindle-DRM, and (through its subsidiary) everybody else’s Mobi-DRM. Amazon has already shown it does not want Mobi-DRM being read on its Kindle hardwae platform. It has begun to expand beyond that hardware platform into other hardware platforms (the iPhone is only the first) that already have their own e-book apps.

I think that, as a format for DRM-protected e-publishing, Mobipocket’s day is basically done. Just as with iPhone, I do not expect to see Mobipocket apps released for Android, or the Palm Pre, or any of the other new platforms that people are asking about on the Mobipocket forums. I don’t expect to see much further maintenance of Mobipocket apps for existing platforms. I do expect to see (Mobi-incompatible) Amazon Kindle clients come out for all of them.

I expect Amazon will weasel out of renewing the Mobi DRM contracts with Overdrive and other such licensees just as soon as it reasonably can (if it can) without inciting anti-trust scrutiny. And given how widespread the Mobipocket format is in stores that use encryption, and given the print publishing industry’s widespread insistence on encryption, if this happens it could be a major blow to non-Amazon e-book stores.

What I also find interesting is that there is a thread on Amazon's Kindle forum about it and, as elsewhere, the majority seems to be against Amazon although there are quite a few who seem content to live in an Amazon walled garden. This walled garden could well be what Amazon is aiming for, much as Apple aimed for the same with iPods and iTunes. Basically they pay lipservice to the idea that you can get your content from some other source but they make it hard to do so and trust that most consumers will stay with the easy path. Evidence that this approach may work comes from comments on the Amazon thread and from a question that has popped up a few times at Baen about whether Baen books will be available for the Kindle (answer hell yes and has been so since the launch of the Kindle).

To me this implies a potential bifurcation of the ebook scene, much as iTunes led to a bifurcation of the music scene. On the one hand we'll have Amazon and its Kindle store and on the other hand we'll have everyone else. There are however differences. Firstly, for a variety of reasons, the Kindle is a US only product. True the US is probably the largest single market for (English language) reading but the non US market for English language reading is not insignificant and the non-US market for non English language reading is even bigger. It is worth recalling that India has some 200 million middle class professionals who can read and write very good English and that there are over a billion people who read Chinese. The iTunes websites and the iPod were quickly rolled out to the rest of the world. Amazon is not yet showing signs of doing the same with the Kindle. There may be good technical/business reasons for this - for example the non-US Kindle would need a WCDMA/HSPA interface instead of the CDMA2000/EV-DO one in the US and handling roaming charges would be a bugger - but it does seem to indicate that Amazon will not get the global mindshare that Apple has.

Now Amazon's top management are not stupid so why would they apparently decide to ignore a large chunk of their potential market? I think the answer to this is simple. It is a question of content suppliers and margins. Publishing, especially outside the US, is very fragmented whereas, for Apple, the same few record labels could provide content pretty much everywhere. Hence for Apple it was just as easy to sign up content worldwide as it was for the US alone, but for Amazon it will be a lot harder.

More importantly I think it may also be a question of how the retail price gets divvied up between the publisher and Amazon. I recall reading that Apple doesn't get a large chunk of the $0.99 that an iTunes track retails at. In fact IIRC it gets no more than 20% and more like 10%. Apple therefore makes its money in large part on the hardware - selling a $200 iPod that costs it $20 to manufacture. Amazon on the other hand seems to be demanding 30% or more of the price of an ebook sold in the Kindle Store while, thanks to the price of eInk screens, the cost of the WhisperNet and so on, the margin to Amazon of each Kindle is far less than the iPod margin is to Apple. Hence, in order for Amazon to get maximum revenue from each Kindle purchaser it needs to ensure that they stay in the walled garden.

This also makes sense given the scarcity of eInk displays. Amazon may have decided to forego global sales until both the Kindle BOM is reduced and it actually has an oversupply of Kindles in the US. Currently it seems that US demand is outstripping Amazon's ability to supply so there is no need for them to look at the non-US market. Instead Amazon keeps its Kindle customers on the reservation and entices US-based iPhone users (and perhaps in the future other trendy gadget users) onto the same reservation while making it as difficult as possible for them to leave. It probably won't work in the long run, but in the short to medium term it seems like the best way to maximise Amazon's ebook revenues.

16 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

Rich Galen Spouts Idiocy

I get Rich Galen's Mullings email every few days. Normally they are good. Sometimes excellent even. However today's one can best be described as pile of $#!+. He's going on about the bank bailout etc. and in particular about the federal rescue of AIG. First the retention bonuses
Now if any of those bonuses are for future years then I'm in agreement that they shouldn't be paid, and indeed I'm not clear why the folk in question haven't joined the dole queues. But bonuses for 2008 have to be paid because its basic contract law and governments really really do not want to go there (see Fred the Shred commentary). If governments start unilaterally canceling terms in contracts then the world learns not to trust government contracts, which means they start charging govermnents more if they want to borrow money (as a risk premium) and things like that. And in turn this probably leads to the financial collapse we've all been desperately trying to avoid.

As an anarchist kind of person I don't have too much of a problem with that but people like Rich Galen who think government is a good thing (OK he's a small government person but small government is not the same as no government), would probably prefer it if the US dollar were not considered to be about as trustworthy as the Zimbabweaon one.

However that bit of populist rabble rousing is not the worst.
Let me explain this as simply as I can.

The "I" in AIG stands for "Insurance". AIG wrote policies that these banks bought. When the US housing market (note country) went kersplat these banks (and many others) discovered that they weren't getting all the payments they were due from the mortgage backed CDO thingies they'd bought. Fortunately for them, they'd taken out insurance against this eventuality with a company called AIG. This insurance didn't necessarily pay out their entire investment but it did underpin the losses they would make.

So they asked AIG to make the payments it was contractually obliged to make. Now it turns out AIG insured rather too many of these CDO thingies because it's mathematical geniuses got their sums wrong when they predicted that the chances of simultaneous mass default was highly unlikely. The US government bailed out AIG specifically so that it could make these payments because if AIG didn't have to pay out on these insurance claims it would not in fact be bust. And if AIG went bust then all sorts of other insurance claims etc. would suddenly need to be paid out and the whole house of cards which is the current financial system woulf collapse. This was why the US goverment bailed out AIG in the first place.

If the US markets had not sold a bunch of these CDO thingies and insurance to foreign banks then all these CDOs would have been bought by the US financial sector alone, which as Rich Galen is well aware, is practically bust. With these added it seems likely the US banking system would have collapsed, thanks to globalization some of the risk was spread onto banks in Europe and some of those banks in Europe spread some of the risk back onto AIG. The European banks have all made terrible losses, even with these insurance claims, and many have been bailed out to some extent by their taxpayers. However, not unreasonably, the European governments don't see why they should pay their banks money that they are owed by AIG and which replaces mortgage payments that US residents should have been making.

Let me add here that the US really wants foreigners to continue to buy US bonds, particularly government bonds. If foreigners don't buy these bonds then it is not clear who will and if no one does then the US joins countries like Argentina and Zimbabwe in the "economic failure" category. I'm pretty sure Mr Galen does not want this because it will mean that everything he buys that is imported from abroad (from wine to gadgets) will cost a LOT more and the US will likely experience inflation and other economic dislocations that mean that all his savings will be worthless.

I could go on and explain protectionism, which is next on the slippery slope this column starts out on, but I won't. I'll just say note that the list of bad things that would come from having governments meddle in commercial contracts is extremely long and that I'm not aware of any nation actually benefitting from this kind of action.

16 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

Judgement and Crooked Underlings

Tim O'Reilly, Micah Sifry and others seem to think that Vivek Kundra ought to remain as Barack Obama's CTO despite the arrest of one of his employees at his previous job on corruption charges. If you reaf their side of the story the crook, Yusuf Acar who is

a mid-level staffer from the DC Office of the CTO (OCTO) on corruption charges. Kundra is, according to all reports, not implicated in the case, and the FBI affidavit outlining the government's evidence makes no mention of him.

This is true. I don't think anyone believes that Mr Kundra had anything to do with the scam. However if you read the charges you learn that this "mid-level staffer" has been on the take for somewhere between one and four years (the arrest warrant doesn't specify how long but does make it clear that stuff has been happening since 2006).

So what? one may ask. How can this affect Mr Kundra? indeed Sifry quotes Kundra as saying that

"Innovation not only solves problems, it’s one of the best deterrents to corruption. Accountability and innovation keep processes, and personnel, from becoming so entrenched that an individual can beat the system by knowing every process, and every person, down to the tiniest detail and then exploiting them."

"....Central to our culture of innovation is regular 'TechStat' sessions. In these sessions, modeled on the citywide CapStat sessions, we use an interdisciplinary team to delve into particular programs and major problems. By bringing together representatives from the program, procurement, finance, HR, and upper management, we’re finding solutions to problems and ways to operate more efficiently and effectively. TechStat also helps deter fraud by probing every program on a regular basis, and often changing processes. So someone who wants exploit weaknesses in a process will know up front that the process can change at any time, foiling the scheme and maybe exposing it."

The implication being that Mr Kundra's policies perhaps helped identify the wrongdoing.

This, at least from my reading of the arrest warrant affidavit is not the case. Indeed it seems like it was someone in the Inspector General department that raised the alarm. Again one may ask "so what?" Sifry is merely putting a positive gloss on speculation and that's it.

Well here's the catch. Brad Reese has two Network World blog posts that point out a few little issues. Firstly there is this from the DC Examiner:

Yusuf Acar, the technology manager facing allegations of fraud, was consistently promoted by his boss, Vivek Kundra, receiving with each move increasing authority over sensitive information and operating with little supervision, according to government sources familiar with activities inside the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, or OCTO.

"Vivek promoted the guy three times in the last year," said one of at least five knowledgeable government and business sources who, like the others I spoke with, requested anonymity, citing ongoing investigations.

"[Acar] was God," another government source said, noting the tech security shop was "small" and "secretive," monitoring "every keystroke, every tech message, e-mail."

Indeed Reese claims that Acar was Chief Security Officer (CSO) and/or Information Systems Security Officer (ISSO) and hence not a mid-level staffer but a direct report to Kundra. So in fact Acar is not just one workabee in the OCTO hive but apparently a trusted lieutenant of Kundra's, perhaps even a protégé of his. Now one can of course claim that Acar was hiding his crooked side from his boss but one would hope that he showed some sort of reason to be such a preferred subordinate.

Unfortunately Acar seems to be woefully underqualified for the role according to his resume as of c.2002. I'm not one for mindless credentialism but Acar shows hardly any exposure to security equipment in that resume and clearly looks like a network engineer/admin hire not a security hire. Indeed the "objective" on his resume is

To secure a position as a Network Engineer, specializing in LAN/WAN Telecommunications Information Systems utilizing acquired knowledge and experience in achallenging environment.

In fact I'd assert that I personally have more experience than Acar does according to that resume (and I would not consider myself CSO/ISSO material). Of course there are people who teach themselves and there's some 5 years from that resume to when he becamse CSO so he could have learned but absolutely nothing in that resume shows the kind of spirit that likes learning on the job or seeks new challenges.

So there's the question of judgement. Why exactly did Kundra promote this corrupt and not obviously qualified person to increasingly senior positions in his organization?

And since Sifry brought it up. Why did this wonderful openness project take over two years to not find some very  straightforward criminality - signing off on invoices billing the DC government for goods and services that were not in fact delivered and splitting the take. I hope there's something I'm missing but Kundra sounds to me more like a proponant of buzzwords than a producer of real achievements.

17 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

Arctic Ice and Poverty - Linked

The brave explorers (and they are either brave or foolhardy) who are towing a radar ice thickness thingy with them as they head to the North Pole have an intermittent blog on the BBC's website. On it their leader writes:

[C]limate change and the loss of the sea ice up here will affect everybody on the planet - unpredictable weather changes, rises in sea levels are all linked to food shortages and poverty.

Obviously what he means is that if global warming continues we'll get food shortages and poverty. This is a possibility. However the real certain link between Arctic Sea Ice and poverty is actually the opposite. If we implement all these enviromentalist ideas of cutting carbon emissions now then we will sink into poverty and probably into food shortages (at least in the UK which has not been able to feed itself for a couple of centuries).

Let me illustrate: if we (for example) cut out the fuel used in British Agriculture and reduce imports then we'll have to replace that fuel with something else. Cows and horses fart too much so we should in fact use human labour. And of course we'll be farming organicly because that's even more "sustainable". If we look at communities that go that route then instead of about 3% of the workforce feeding the other 97% we have about 50% working in the fields. All day. Six days a week. And that means we'll have needed to move some 50% of city dwellers out into the villages. And there aren't enough schools, hospitals etc. there so education and health standards will drop unless we also move out doctors and teachers. And then the question is where to put all these new rural dwellers. I suppose we can put them in tents (made of sustainable canvas or evil nylon?) for the summer but the word squalid comes to mind. Also words like unhygenic, dysentry and cholera. And then we have the British winter. Are these people expected to huddle up together 25 to a tent while the rain leaks in? or?

I'm sure Britain could indeed cut carbon emissions but I suspect we'd see much of the country return to at best a 1900s standard of living and that, to me, sounds like poverty and food shortages.

20 March 2009 Blog Home : All March 2009 Posts : Permalink

20090320 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging

A couple of the olive trees in our garden and the lovely early spring wildflowers that mean we don't have to mow the lawn for a while. Well that's my excuse anyway ...
20090320 - 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.