L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

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

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

The Frstapr eBook Reader

I don't normally break tech news on this blog but it looks like I'm going to break this story. I've been involved in the marketing development and no one asked me to sign an NDA so I figure I might as well let the cat out of the bag.

The development group producing the Txtr reader split up after a row recently and a new breakaway product team has been formed. The new team will be using almost exactly the same hardware but they have made two critical changes, which I'll get to later, and of course the upper levels of the software will be drastically revised in order to meet their deaing goals - goals that the original Txtr team could not support.

The new team, Frstapr, doesn't quite have a website yet and the name is not exactly set in stone - if I told you that the 3 developers have first names of Franz, Stephan and Pieter then you might be able to figure out how they came up with Frstapr - but it fits in with recent naming trends (flickr, tumblr, twitt(e)r) and ties in with one of their two target markets.

OK so now I've whetted your appetite what exactly are the two target markets and design goals. Simple. Frstapr noted that all current ebook readers are aimed at the dextrous adult market. They have tiny buttons, tinier memory cards (the txtr will use pin sized micro-SD cards) and many of them seem to require bizarre gestures to do things like turn a page. And if you get the gesture wrong you turn two pages or exit the book or something. Furthermore they are notoriously fragile - a trawl of the mobileread forums will turn up any number of stories of expensive ebook readers with cracked screens and other defects.

Frstapr is therefore developing a more robust reader with larger buttons, a robust plastic instead of glass eink substrate and is sticking to the standard SD card format. It is also adding far better support for illustrations and supporting really really large text fonts. These rquirements are key since Frstapr is trying to become the ebook reader for children. That's what I mean about the name tying in with a target market as Frstapr could also stand for First Application Reader. There have in fact been some preliminary discussions with a charity called Looflirpa which provides books to kindergartens and grade schools in Germany about providing the Frstapr to all German schoolchildren on the first day of school.

However while they want to get involved in the child reader market that is, as I say, only one of their target areas. And, realistically, it's going to take a while for any momentum to build up there so they are now looking at the other area as the launch market. The other area is basically the other end of the age spectrum, that is to say the elderly, and trust me jokes about second childhood did fly around when we came up with this strategy. The reason being that the elderly have many of the same requirements and are likely to buy it themselves and so give feedback on what doesn't work.

Elderly readers frequently have problems with small text - that is after all one major driver of existing ebook reader sales - but many current ebook readers still do not display text in large enough font sizes. The frstapr team did a little market research and discovered that font sizes of 32, 40 and 48 point would be popular with the elderly but that neither the Sony nor the Kindle (nor the Txtr) could sensibly display text at these sizes. The problem is not just the ability to display the appropriate font, the Txtr could do that (as can the Bookeen Cybook3), it is to do with hyphenation and long words. At 48 point you are looking at around 20 characters per line (32 gets you about 30) and without proper hyphenation support you either get very short lines or you get bizarrely hypehenated words that require the reader to think about what he has just read. This is a special problem in German where you have words like "Geschwindigkeitsbeschrankung" to deal with...

Elderly readers are also likely to appreciate the big buttons and shockproofness. Just ask any of the more mature people you know about "childproof" medicine bottles and the clumsiness that arthritis, parkinsons and other age related maladies can cause. I'm sure the easy to use SD card slot will also be appreciated too, though that's probably the most fiddly part of the device. The developered are aware of this and did think of trying for something bigger but unfortunately there aren't really any popular flsh card formats that are larger.

Obviously they will be doing a lot more publicity later but since there's been a flurry of recent annoucements (e.g. the foxit and this plastic logic one) I thought the time was right to get some initial word out on this product which could take the world by storm one niche at a time.

PS format support: PDF, RTF, ePub, Mobi (non DRM), HTML and plain text for now.

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

Dirt Cheap Home Computing

Via the Inquirer I've found an Italian purveyor of dirt cheap computers. They have a computer for sale for €99 (plus P&P). Admitedly for €99 you aren't getting much of a computer by today's standards:
Processor Intel Atom 230 Single Core 1.6 Ghz
Ram 512 MB, Kingston DDR2 667Mhz (1 slot, max 2GB)
Hard disk 4 GB Kingston Compact Flash
Optical Opzional
Video Intel GMA 950
Audio Realtek ALC662 con supp. 5.1 canali HD
Network Ethernet 10/100
Slot PCI 1 slot PCI
Rear Port

VGA, Serial, parallel, PS/2 for Tastiera & Mouse,
3 port audio reconfigurable, 4 port USB

Front Ports
Audio out & microphone, 2 port USB
The OS is Xubuntu and you have to assemble it yourself. It also omits keyboard, mouse and screen but I have those anyway so this is not a major drawback...

This configuration is not notably inferior to the original 4G Asus eee that I have as a portable machine and which handles basic web-surfing, email and word processing just fine. So it is in fact a perfectly adequate machine. It is also enormously superior to the current home server machine I have (also running linux) which has a inferior CPU and memory stats and far fewer USB ports and which cost rather more when new a few years back. That machine originally ran Windows 2000 and other 512MB machines run win XP so if I want to pay Microsoft I could install a Microsoft OS on it successfully.

More interestingly, and what I am almost certain to do if I buy from these people, is to add some €65 to the price tag and upgrade it to 2GB Ram and 500GB disk. At this point it becomes an excellent print and file server and will also be able to play MP3s etc. etc.

If the first one works out well I might even buy two and thereby give myself some critical redundancy as well as 1TB of disk space. I have problems with understanding what I could possibly want to do with 1TB of storage but I have no doubt that if it becomes available I'll fill it.

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

20090403 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging

The forum in Rome has gone downhill in 2000 years. Nowadays they have olive trees growing in it obscuring the view and incomoding the tourists.
20090403 - 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.

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

Free Speech Means Defending the Vile

There are a lot of people who claim to support free speech but tend to qualify it with weasel words about "harming children" or "offending minorities" or other blather which boils down to not supporting free speech at all. Now is the point where the usual Free Speech column inserts a disclaimer but this one doesn't. Supporting Free Speech means you don't want to prohibit people saying things like:
etc. (I think that covers most of the grievance groups but I'll welcome additions).

No government ought to stop anyone from standing up on street corners or creating pages on the Internet saying any of the above. Of course no government ought mandate any of these as education or pass laws in favour of any (hello Iran) but any government that believes in liberty for its citizens will not attempt to censor people who say these things or anything else.

The right, as someone (Christopher Hitchens?) said, to free speech is the right to be insulted. And of course the right to insult back. This is so basic that it worries me when apparently sensible people such as the chap who writes Letters From A Tory get it wrong. LFAT descibes the following with approval:

I still think the state is justified in intervening in the activities of individuals in some circumstances.  Yesterday’s news reports of a far-right group being banned in Germany after allegedly organising activities that promoted racist and Nazi ideologies to children raises some difficult questions that appear to expose the dangers of laissez-faire government.

The German interior ministry stepped in after they found evidence that the Homeland-Faithful German Youth (HDJ) was teaching children as young as six that foreigners and Jews were a threat to the “German nation”.  Police also raided the offices and houses of the group’s leaders in connection with the ban.  The HDJ said it was a “youth group for environment, community and homeland” but at its special holiday camps, children were taught elements of “racial ideology”, including the “purity of blood” and “the continuation of the German race”, with the aim of forming a neo-Nazi elite, according to the government.

LFAT defends this censorship on the grounds that it protects the children:

While I believe that free speech is crucial, children do not have the same ability to distinguish between different viewpoints that free speech fosters and are therefore vulnerable to some extent - hence the need for some protection.

Part of the problem here is that LFAC is showing the sorts of micro-managing paternalistic instincts that experience shows us is the start of a slippery slope. Yes governments have some responsibility for the children of their nation but only in totalitarian regimes should we expect governments to concern themselves with the mental welfare of every single child. The same error is what leads people to expect 100% perfection from social workers and so on. (Question: is it worse to indoctrinate a child or to kill him gradually over a period of months?) Children are indeed vulnerable to adults and Western European paternalist governments try to protect every single one of the little darlings with indifferent success. One wonders whether the police time and money spent on the HDJ would not have been better spent investigating (say) forced marriages of German teenagers of turkish origin - and yes that is deliberately provocative.

Another part of the problem is that we know that "martyrdom" is a great way to increase recuitment. Especially in today's Internet world, being shut down by the government is almost a badge of honour to help you recruit other dissatisfied individuals. Furthermore, as this response points out, by publicly banning these sorts of thing you drive it underground where you can't keep track of who is indoctrinating whom, how widespread it is and so on.

But those are just the direct effects. There is also, as Ezra Levant illustrates in his book, there is also the issue that once you get into this sort of censorship the government ends up providing more publicity for the extremists and may even end up paying people to incite extremism by writing objectionable material. In fact I'd suggest that anyone who wants to know where things will end up once the government gets involved read the book or at the least watch the Youtube links of Mr Levant's appearance on the Michael Coren show (Mr Levant for those who don't know initially got in trouble for publishing the Mohammed Cartoons that upset so many religious bigots).

Finally such censorship also gives encouragement to the really non-liberal governments. The ones who recently managed to get the UN describe defamation of religion as a human rights violation for example.

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

A Good Idea For a Bad Reason

Saul Griffith who is a gentleman I've never heard of before, but seems fairly smart, is giving the following advice to young people:

"Son, you should refuse to pay into my health care system. You should refuse to pay into my Social Security system. Encourage the rest of your generation to refuse to pay into the benefits systems of their parents and previous generations."

Unfortunately the reason why he wants the young people to do this is:

"Unless you can convince us, the Madoff generation, to immediately heed your demands on climate change action. You shouldn't be expected to support our future if we are not supporting yours."

Which is where Mr G & I have to disagree, You see Mr G is convinced that

Every generation so far has expected the next generation to absorb its carbon investment into the atmosphere. Speaking not just as a scientist but as a new father, I'd wager that the next generation--my son's generation--faces a Madoff-like moment when the system collapses, the environment collapses, and very likely we'll have a whole load of civil unrest and other nasty consequences.

Furthermore, and this is where I was glad I wasn't actually drinking my wine as I read it, he beleives that:

Funn[il]y enough, we understand the global climate system better than we understand financial markets. We can see this eco-Madoff moment coming, but it doesn't look like we are willing to take measures to ward it off. Much like Madoff's investors, we're soothed by numbers backed by scanty auditing and happy to soak up the "benefits" of continuing our CO2 heavy lifestyle. We're not eager to pay the cost of say, additional regulation or restrictions that might rein in the excesses and stop this Ponzi scheme from running amuck.

Let me quibble with the "understand the global climate system" bit. I do not beleive we properly understand the global climate system. Why? Because we have no models of the global climate system that are accurately representing reality. The link shows  a selection of models used in the IPCC's AR4 and the actual GISS reported temperatures for the last 100 years. It is blindingly obvious that the models a) disagree with each other and b) fail miserably to predict the actual temperature. Should that link be a tad confusing, the same blog has numerous other posts such as this one, which illustrate just how badly the models are at predicting reality. Since 2001 the actual global temperature trend has been flat to (very slightly) negative whereas all models predict rises. This difference cannot be blamed on volcanism as there have been no major eruptions since Jan 2001 so there is no "excuse" for the models to be overshooting so far that statistical tests of confidence fail miserably. Hence I am forced to conclude that the models are wrong. If the models are wrong then it seems unlikely that we understand the global climate system because one good way to demonstrate understanding is to make models that predict the future.

Now it is, I suppose, possible that we understand financial markets less than we understand the climate but if so this is very very worrying because as I've just shown it doesn't look like we understand global climate at all. Intuitively one feels that 200+ years of economic and financial modelling from the time of Adam Smith ought to make it more likely that we understand the financial system than the climate given that that people have been trying to study the latter for no more than 50 years or so but maybe I'm wrong.

Hence (QED) if we do not understand the climate system we do not know the sensitivity of the earth to CO2 and hence whether or not continuing to create it is a bad thing. Hence we have no idea whether the environment will "collapse" or not.

Anyway whether or not the environment collapses I'm pretty sure that the Ponzi scheme that is government funded pensions, healthcare etc. is indeed headed for a collapse and I think we probably ought to stop paying for it all now. So therefore, for the wrong reasons Mr Griffith is right, Rather than pay taxes to support another few trillion dollars of spending on a broken financial system and unsustainable social security IOUs the young people of today ought to refuse to pay any and all taxes and let the government wither away. The old people will have to either rely on their existing savings or work (as child minders for their grandkids perhaps) or starve.

07 April 2009 Blog Home : All April 2009 Posts : Permalink

Credo v 2.0

Almost 5 years ago I wrote a post called Credo. I just reread it because I wanted to write a post with the same title and realized that I was in danger of repeating myself. Fortunately there is still plenty that I can write about that wasn't in that post, also fortunately I don't see anything in that post that I wish to change beyond a bit of emphasis here and there.

So here is Credo 2.0 looking at more personal issues than the original post did. This post was inspired by some moronic Facebook test of my political position, which claimed I was a "moderate liberal", and I hope this explains why that test result was wrong. I should note that I don't expect many of the positions I state below to be actually implemented by any government I live under.

In my political beliefs, I am a libertarian minarchist - in fact practically an anarchist (not that the average "ransack RBS" anarchist would give me the time of day or vice versa). National government should maintain defence of their citizens from external assault, maintain an impartial judicial system and property title registry. It also probably ought to maintain some kind of standards body and some sort of criminal investigative force. I don't see why a national government should do anything else, however I'm willing to go with the flow and let governments do other things if the citizenry agree.

One way to tell whether the citizenry agree is to make all taxes beyond that necessary for the above armed forces and judiciary voluntary. With a twist which I'll get onto when I touch on representation. This may not be in this post though because I want to look at more personal matters here.

I believe anyone has the right to do whatever they please on their own land so long as they don't inconvenience others. If their neighbours object then a local jury ought to hear the case and decide. To a large degree I'm in favour of the same in public places too. You want to walk down the street naked then go right ahead. On the other hand if the outraged residents of the street complain and dissuade you from so doing by threats or actual violence that's your problem.

Needless to say I'm in favour of the legalization of any and all drugs, prostitution gambling etc. I'm also entirely in favour of local ordinances prohibiting the same within certain areas.

The  same goes for free speech and censorship. I'm quite happy to permit anyone to say, write etc. anything they feel like, with the caveats regarding "Fire" in a theatre, inciting actual violence and plotting to overthrow the state by force. Note that plotting to overturn the state by non violent means is fine by me. I'm also happy for protestors to have to defend themselves if they make their free speech in the wrong place.

I am, of course, entirely happy with an armed citizenry. Indeed about the only educational fiat I would require is that everyone learn how to safely handle firearms because if you can do that you can defend yourself.

I am quite happy with a death penalty. I want it not as a deterrent so much as a way to remove hazards from society. I think pleas for leniency for mental incapacity etc. are bogus. If you can't control yourself then you are a danger to society and hence, if you commit a crime that merits death, you get executed. Crimes that warrent the death penalty in my book are premeditated murder, attempted murder and aggravated rape, however I believe that not all such offences necessarily require death and that the benefit of the doubt should apply, particularly when the only evidence is a single witness.

I am quite happy with corporal punishment too in a strictly limited manner. Essentially I think that corporal punishment should be only used for crimes of violence. I'm also happy with the idea of branding certain varieties of criminal.

I am not happy with speed limits, drunk driving rules and so on. Drivers should be trusted to drive but they should of course also take responsibility. Hence I think that reckless driving should be punished when it causes an accident. Severely if the accident is severe. A person who has a second severe reckless driving accident and kills someone in one of them is, IMO, potentially guilty of premeditated murder and hence liable for the death penalty.

Abortion. Definitely a woman's choice. I would not outlaw any abortion per se, but I do think that beyond a certain point (say 6 months of pregnancy) aborting a fetus should potentially lay the mother and doctors open to a charge of murder. Not that they would necessarily be found guilty of murder, or even necessarily tried for murder, but they should be aware of possible consequences.

Euthanasia, assisted suicide etc. In the presence of a living will that details the circumstances clearly I'm quite happy with euthanasia, I'm also quite happy with assisted suicide for people who wish to end their life early rather than continue to suffer. But I want these deaths to be carefully overseen to prove that death is indeed in accordance with current or prior wishes.

Copyright and patent law. For the most part I think we should at least try not having any. Certainly if we do patents should last longer than copyrights and both should be of short duration. Also any patent/copyright law needs to be carefully drafted so that the benefits flow to the creator not some rent-seeking middleman.

I think that'e enough to be getting on with. So my ideas on government will have to wait.

08 April 2009 Blog Home : All April 2009 Posts : Permalink

AP,Newspapers Announce Suicide Pact

That's the only conclusion I can come to after reading stuff like this. Let me summarise: AP and its newpaper owners say they want internet readers to pay for access and they plan to implment schemes to make us do so.

Actually, I think they are trying this as a sort of bluff - kind of like the guy who puts a gun to his own head and threatens to pull the trigger if we don't immediately show our love for him. At least that is my assumption because I can't actually see most people being willing to actually sign up, I suspect they are aiming this not as the general internet surfing public but at some large company beginning with G. It seems to me that what they really want is for Google to pay them to let us read and maybe for other search engines and news aggregators to do so too. As Danny Sullivan points out in this article, the chances of google blinking first in what the AP/news folk think is a game of chicken is slim: Google doesn't really have much to lose whereas if they block Google they stand to lose a heck of a lot.

So let us assume that the media folk do in fact attempt to call Google's bluff and pull the trigger. What is going to happen?

The first thing that will happen is that 95%* of the world's internet users - the ones who don't read or blog about current affairs - notice no difference. Perhaps if some of the celebrity gossip rags join in they notice something and maybe if a few of the sports sites do. But other than that it's the sound of crickets chirping in a distant forest when you live next door to a freeway and the neighbor has the TV turned up loud all day anyway.

Then there is the remaining 5%. Who blog and twitter and so on about the death throes. And when they want to comment on news stories link to the BBC or China Daily or whomever (You don't actually think that the BBC or Pravda or newspapers in Karachi, Durban or Beijing are going to join the AP boycott do you? ). So news still gets commented on. Perhaps not the best unbiased sources but bloggers are quite good at detecting and routing around bias so that isn't a problem. And of course sites like Pajamas Media will gain visitors for news stories written by their pajama-clad correspondents.

Then some sneaky person will then get server logs from a site like the NY Times and point out in a widely read blog linked to by Drudge, Instapundit etc. that page views fell off a cliff when they implemented the policy. All the advertisers who were paying to advertise on the NYT website read this and decide that really it isn't worth it and fail to renew. All their google adsense traffic stopped anyway. In fact their online presence now becomes a pure cost center as opposed to kinda sorta breaking even. And of course these folks have got massive cash reserves so they can easily support this cost center until subscriptions pick up - NOT!

And then probably some newspaper like the Strib from Mineapolis which is desperate to stay alive will break ranks. And that's when the newspapers discover that people didn't actually miss them. And now that they've come back they actually have to offer something extra and .... they can't. Not enough to get enough of the traffic back at least.

I don't actually think this will happen because I'm pretty sure that in their heart of hearts the newspapers and AP know this so they are just desperately trying a bluff and are going to be called on it real soon now.

*statistic made up on the spot in true journalistic style

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

A Little Sand in the Database Engine

The British government, bless their hearts, have decided to insist that all UK ISPs will track and store data about where their subscribers have surfed. The idea seems to be to that this is the first step in the creation of a monitoring system to rival the great firewall of China (and it seems like they are busily 'blaming' Brussels as a way to divert attention).

Anyway the current solution is apparently rather simpler just tracking IP addresses of where you go, which means that the mischevious may wish to add a little grit to the records being ground into criminal innuendo. One obvious way to do this is to follow the advice of Raedwald and use Tor to access the internet, this makes it hard for the Government to work out who you're doing to what or vice versa. You can download a Tor plugin for Firefox which seems like a really nice idea and if you've got a reasonable amount of bandwidth and (ideally) a home server you might want to help Tor out by becoming a relay yourself.

Another way to fight the system is to add a lot of junk. The way to do this is for lots of people to appear to visit random sites that may or may not be under suspicion. The pervious link includes a python script that will do the trick but, unfortunately, many people don't have python. On the other hand they usually do have web browsers and web browsers can be told to go and apparently visit all sorts of places. Hence I have come up with a webpage that visits random places on the web and downloads the favicon. I call it the idle visitor page. What you do is simply open a browser window from a browser that doesn't use Tor navigate to the page and leave it sitting in the background - minimized if you wish - all the time. People who run Microsoft Windows and sensibly use Firefox/Tor for their secure browsing could use Internet Exploder to load the idle visitor page. By the way you are strongly invited to save the page, link to it, copy it, modify it, improve it and, of course, tell everyone you know about it too.

PS I've put a sitecounter at the bottom to scratch an itch about how popular it is, if you make a copy don't feel obliged to leave that in, and note that the sitecounter is counting more than just this one page.

10 April 2009 Blog Home : All April 2009 Posts : Permalink

20090410 (Good) Friday Olive Tree Blogging

On the way back from Rome last month we stopped near Firenze. To my amazement I saw that the olive trees there were still burdened with ripe olives waiting to be picked (or in the case of the one in the photo to fall off). On the Riviera the olives, even without the accursed olive fly, fall off by the end of January if they aren't picked. I'd guess these olives weren't even ripe in January.
20090410 Good 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.

10 April 2009 Blog Home : All April 2009 Posts : Permalink

The Abstruse Goose Book

The guy behind the webcomic Abstruse Goose has announced that he has created a book of the first 100 strips. What he doesn't say is that he's added a LOT of commentary on them. my_million_dollar_idea
Since many of the strips are making jokes about maths, quantum mechanics and other similar scientific stuff this is good stuff. Currently the book is definitely a v1.0 book (actually I'd say its more like v0.9) as there are a few links back from notes to cartoons missing and a lot of "I plan to add something here" messages and so on.

But none the less it is good and well worth downloading - it's a 19MB PDF so it takes a while and, for me at least, it caused Adobe Reader to go into fits when I tried to read it in the browser as opposed to downloading and opening.

Oh and do contribute to his Feed the Goose fund if you like it.

12 April 2009 Blog Home : All April 2009 Posts : Permalink

TSC Books - Timemachines, Scammers and Conmen?

A couple of authors I follow on LiveJournal noted that a certain Amazon affiliated used book seller called TSC Books was offering for sale "used" copies of as yet unpublished books for $1000 a throw. This, as they note, is quite a trick and in the comments it has been suggested that TSC books either owns a book-sized time machine or is attempting to scam die-hard fans. The story was also picked up at Dear Author who noted that there seemed to be a bunch of these "books" on sale:

TSCBooks is offering unpublished works of authors like Maya Banks, Michelle Sagara, Stephenie Meyer, Maria Snyder and the like.  These are books that are not published and some are not even in ARC form but the seller has them offered for $1,000.00.   There are additional books such as Green Eggs & Ham and The Foot Book offered for $1,000.00 as well.

Well someone claiming to be TSC books (and who probably is) replied that the reason was:

there was a database error during a database merge that caused a few ISBN's in my multi-million book inventory to get corrupted. When that file was loaded into an Amazon server, it listed some books for sale that I do not have. A built-in safety measure increased the price of these items (items for which my inventory management system cannot verify the existence of in any of our warehouses). The prices were raised up high enough to prevent anyone from ever considering buying the items, then when a live person (not an automated inventory management system) verifies the error in the inventory, that suspect item will be removed from our master database.

And there is some support for this position from a commenter at Dear Author who notes that Amazon tends to require an enormous catalog upload followed by pruning as a way to do things. So maybe it was indeed a booboo. However I do find the explanation slightly weak. Why? because of this:

A built-in safety measure increased the price of these items (items for which my inventory management system cannot verify the existence of in any of our warehouses).

If the built in safety measure could filter these items and increase the price surely it could also filter these items and remove them from the list of products currently available. It seems to me that the honest way to do this is to have a filter that lists these books as "out of stock" and either removes them from Amazon or notes it on the automated Amazon generated page so that people don't try and buy them. Subsequently the human can go through the "out of stock" tags and determine whether these are valid ISBNs of books that could be in inventory or an ISBN corruption error as claimed in a follow up comment:

The problem was an erroneous ISBN uploaded into an inventory database - it just happened to be that the ISBN submitted did actually exist, it was the ISBN of this yet to be released book.

It should be noted that ISBNs have a check digit at the end so for an ISBN to be corrupted and to refer to a valid book requires more than one digit to be wrong in the 10 (or 13) digit sequence. As Lady Bracknell might have commented: "To have one corrupt ISBN may be regarded as a misfortune, to have more than one looks like carelessness". Since most or all of these cases involve books that are all yet to be published it also looks very very suspicious. Why it looks suspicious is the justification at the start of the  next sentence: 

The prices were raised up high enough to prevent anyone from ever considering buying the items

Actually there is evidence that this statement is false. Dedicated fans of any number of authors will indeed pay large sums of money to read the ARC of their next work a few months early. I suspect very few are willing to pay $1000 but I'm not surprised that some will. I would imagine that a Harry Potter ARC might have sold for rather more than that, for example.

Hence, if TSC Books were attempting a scam, then one way they might plan to do this and actually supply the purchaser with the book is to post the price of $1000 and undertake to buy the ARC on ebay for something like $119. They could then deliver the ARC at a very nice profit to the purchaser. If they were to lose the ebay auction, or the price reached $900, then they could of course refund the money with an explanation that the book was sold to another customer and it would probably be accepted. I don't say that this is what TSC Books were actually doing but it is entirely plausible and TSC Books needs to really really sort out the database filtering so as to not lay themselves open to accusations of this sort of thing in the future.

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

The Labour Party Unveiled

The well deserved outing of Damien McBride and Derek Draper as the scum that they are is telling in any number of ways. Firstly there is the support that they are receiving from their colleagues and superiors. The first rule of politics is "thou shalt not get caught" and these two got caught in a big way. Not surprisingly therefore no one is willing to admit to knowing anything about their dirty tricks campaign or to take responsibility for their actions. Yet on the other hand McPoison resigned.

McBride, it must be noted, is a civil servant - albeit a special sort of one - which is even worse because it indicates just how soviet the ZANU labour government has become. Traditionally in Britian civil servants are neutral advisors and implementers of policy. Party political hacks are not civil servants in the UK, that is something that only applies in communist and fascist dicatorships where being a party member is in fact required for certain positions.

But to go back a bit. McPoison resigned. Undoubtedly he was told to resign, but he did officially resign. He should have been given 10 minutes to clean out his desk and escorted out of Downing Street on Thursday, as soon as it became clear that he was going to be exposed. The fact that he wasn't just shows how badly the Brown regime has lost its moral compass.

In fact, seeing that he CCed various other 10 Downing Street apparatchiks on the mails themselves really he should have been fired when they were written in January not when they were exposed but I don't think anyone really expects politicians and their flunkies to blow the whistle on their fellows unless they were pushed.

Which thought leads us on to the question of honour and reputation - so famously defined by Aral Vorkosigan:

"Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself."

An honourable politician would not, it seems to me, tolerate someone who span these kinds of stories and would removed him years ago. One that was dishonourable and had no worry about his reputation would still employ him today, he might even give him a payrise. But one who was dishonourable but yet worried about his reputation would act precisely as Gordon Brown has done - deny all knowledge and act as though this was a sudden aberration.

The problem for G Brown & Co is that this is not credible and casts severe doubt on Brown's previous reputation as the dour honest son of the Manse. Nadine Dorries explains it thusly:

Damian McBride – also known as McPoison – reports directly to the Prime Minister, no one else. He takes his instruction from the Prime Minister and works within the Prime Minister's private office in the heart of 10 Downing Street.

Are we really expected to believe that the Prime Minister knew nothing of this?

As our country's economic standing worsens day by day, and it becomes nigh-impossible for the Labour Party to make itself re-electable, the desperate tactic appears to be to diminish the standing of the Conservatives and make Labour the least unattractive option. Is this how a "son of the manse" runs his office, his staff and the country?

McBride has claimed the scalps of more Labour MPs and ministers than he has Conservative frontbenchers. He is almost universally disliked in the Labour Party. His resignation does not close down the story because McBride and the PM were as one. The Government was spinning desperately yesterday, attempting to distance the PM from McBride. That just isn't doable: they have been glued at the hip since their early days at the Treasury.

And don't let us forget this bit of classic spin:

“It is the Prime Minister’s view that there is no place in politics for the dissemination or publication of material of this kind, which is why it is right that Mr McBride and Mr Draper took the decision not to publish this material and regrettable that others are choosing to do so.”

Mr McBride added: “I have already apologised for the inappropriate and juvenile content of my e-mails, and the offence they have caused, but I did not want these stories in the public domain – it is because Paul Staines has put them there, and I am sickened that he has done so.

“However, we all know that when a backroom adviser becomes the story, their position becomes untenable, so I have willingly offered my resignation.”

The slanders were not juvenile they were the calculated work of an adult and contrary to his claims, at one point at least, McBride certainly did want their content in the public domain. What he actually means is he didn't want their content traced back to him.

Fortunately Tom Harris shows that some labour MPs still care about their honour, otherwise one would have to consign the whole party to the scrapheap. However one does have to wonder about the judgement of the leadership. McBride is just a thuggish enforcer. His partner in crime, Derek Draper, is a coke snorting petty thief into BDSM who seems to enjoy talking dirty to attractive juniors and who is economical with the truth of his qualifications as a psychotherapist.

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

#amazonfail is a Symptom

A regular twitstorm occured this Easter weekend concerning Amazon's failure to rank certain sorts book causing them not to show up in bestseller lists etc.

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Amazon blames the whole thing on a "glitch", which isn't an explanation so much as an admission. As numerous people noted it wasn't "adult" material as a whole which was being excluded so much as non-heterosexual material and this speculative post suggests that the reason for this is some kind of organized bansturbation by the "religious right".

It's obvious Amazon has some sort of automatic mechanism that marks a book as "adult" after too many people have complained about it. It's also obvious that there aren't too many people using this feature, as indicated by the easy availability (and search ranking) of pornography and sex toys and other seemingly "objectionable" materials, otherwise almost all of those items would have been flagged by this point. So somebody is going around and very deliberately flagging only LGBT(QQI)/feminist/survivor content on Amazon until it is unranked and becomes much more difficult to find. To the outside world, this looks like deliberate censorship on the part of Amazon, since Amazon operates the web application in question. To me, this looks like one of two things:

  1. Some "Family"-type organization astroturfing Amazon in an attempt to rid the world of EVIL PRO-HOMOSEXUAL FILTH!!
  2. Bantown
I find that to be highly plausible and, as I say, symtomatic of Amazon as it stands today. There have been other examples such as the TCS Books issue that I commented on yesterday and the automatic banning of certain users. Basically Amazon has hit a scalability problem and a monopolist problem.

Scalability first. Amazon's business secret has been that it allows its customers and partners to help it provide content and advice to other customers and that it heavily relies on computer automation to take this 3rd party provided content and turn it into the stuff that its visitors see. The problem is that with a bit of effort, once the algorithm has been figured out, humans can game the system. This, I believe, is what happened here: a bunch of people figured out that if enough people complained then they could get books marked as "adult" and removed from the general ranking. The catch for amazon is that the problem almost certainly highlights a fundamental data-structure assumption that now needs to be corrected and thus I predict that a bunch of Amazon programmer serfs are now going to be pulling all nighters to correctly implement "safe search" as opposed to the current solution because the current method as explained in the top quote is clearly not acceptable.

I suspect that the TCS issue is partly the same in that TCS books gets extra Amazon brownie points/recognition etc. for the breadth of its inventory. This means that TCS has a large incentive to claim that it has titles that it doesn't have and it also knows that Amazon has no way of detecting these fakes unless a visitor reports them. And making this sort of a report can be tricky as it isn't always clear what the right channel is.

This leads us onto the banning users issue. One of Amazon's problems is the difficulty one now faces of talking to a real person if one has a problem that can't be resolved by a call to their low level customer service folks. If you are a publisher you have better access but even so you can't get to a real human being much of the time and a regular customer, particularly one who has been "banned" finds it next to impossible. I suspect the reason for this is a deliberate choice by Amazon because otherwise they would have to employ a lot more human beings in various support roles. This adds costs to Amazon's business model without directly increasing turnover and thus it isn't going to happen. Unfortunately Amazon is now so big and so influential that its every move is analysed by the great unwashed.

Furthermore because Amazon is so big and influential - it is the major sales channel of many publishers - there is a huge incentive for people to game their system. It doesn't matter whether the people gaming the system are (as it seems in this case) the religious right or whether they are the loony left, other evil corporations or someone else. The problem is that because Amazon is such a large storefront if a group can game the system to remove things they disagree with or inflate the rank of things they do agree with it can seriously affect the sales of the products in question.

This is the start of its monopolist problem. Amazon, like Google, has tended to be seen as mostly benign but events like this give it the PR black eyes that erode that "mostly benign" perception into "just another nasty monopoly". Since Amazon, particularly with regards to the Kindle, is indeed acting like a nasty monopoly (see Kindlepid.py) this should not be surprising but it does leave amazon with a potential problem. The problem is twofold.

Firstly because it is so influential it needs to invest heavily in humans to oversee the computers and react when things go wrong. These humans need to be reachable when needed and be empowered to speak for the company without legal obfuscation or other buck-passing. They also need to be able to implement policy to make changes to resolve the problems identified. This, as I noted above, will add significantly to Amazon's cost base without directly increasing sales - in fact the business case is more that these people are needed to stop a decline in sales which is always a hard sell inside a company.

The second part of the problem is that "nasty monopolists" are treated differently by their customers than nice companies are. People tend to behave well towards companies that they perceive as treating them well and fairly and they tend to abuse companies that they perceive as ripping them off. If Amazon becomes generally perceived as a nasty monopoly then I predict it is going to have a lot more people putting them in column B. Not only will this likely reduce sales as people look for alternative suppliers it also seems likely to lead to customers feeling that it is acceptable to scam Amazon and take advantage of offers of "free shipping" and "free returns" to borrow stuff for a short while. Amazon will no doubt detect these scammers and start banning them but this, in turn, will lead to more negative publicity and the vicious circle will continue.

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

Follow Up 1 - Brown, McBride etc.

As the week has progressed we've learned more about Gordon Brown and his pack of rabid pitbull-rottweiler crosses spin doctors. And really it just gets nastier. The spectacle of the last day or two has been the MSM's lobby journalists managing to overcome their previous shyness and start kicking Brown's pack. As Guido points out, it would have been nice if they'd done this before, but the MSM has never done this. Think of all those hacks who covered up the misdemeanors of middle eastern tyrants in order to continue to receive "access". In fact I think that the last few days have perfectly the weakness of the MSM and the "prisoner's dilemma" they face. Despite the blather MSM journalists don't dare "speak truth to power" when power can exclude them from getting more news later. The only time they gather up the courage is when they are sure that the rest of the herd will do the same thing - usually because the person/government whatever that they are attacking is either out of power or clearly about to lose it. At that point of course they work in typical mob fashion and kick their target while he's down and keep piling on in the hopes that no one notices how quiet they were earlier.

If ever there was a sign that G Brown and ZANU labour are toast it is this. Almost all the westminster journalists are revealing how revolting they are and how many other politicians the G Brown pack has attacked.

Furthermore, despite the attempts by G himself to distance himself from his pack the MSM (and it seems to me the politically aware public) aren't buying it. Depsite all the criticism above, the MSM do help to get the word out and they can turn a phrase, as Mary Riddle does here:

From the outside, the spectacle of HMS Gord distancing itself from its rogue spin doctor didn't seem like the speediest of manoeuvres: unkinder critics might say it resembled a sinking ship leaving a rat.

The "sinking ship leaving the rat" is so perfect it deserves to be spread far and wide.

Onto other fallout. I'd never heard of Nadine Dorries (a.k.a. Mad Nad apparently) before McPoison decided to try and spread stories about her. So I did a quick search via google to see what the fuss was about and found this which helps partly explain what I gather was the planned smear - namely that she had left a sex toy in a hotel room she'd shared with another (male, married) MP. To wit this linked anecdote:

This rather puts me in mind of a story I heard recently about the MP Nadine Dorries, who accidentally left behind in her room her Ladyshave after a Tory MPs’ away-day at the end of June at Latimer Place.

Following the away-day, a member of hotel staff cleaning her room found the Ladyshave, and the hotel passed it on to officials from CCHQ to be returned to Nadine. According to insiders, both the hotel staff and the CCHQ officials mistook the item for an implement of personal massage. The Ladyshave was returned to Nadine in a plastic bag in the Tory whips’ office in the House of Commons.

Naturally the story has gone around Tory circles and Nadine is reported to have told colleagues: “I think I know the difference between a dildo and a Ladyshave”.

Beyond that Ms Dorries, on balance, seems to be a reasonably clue-free Cameroonian who I probably wouldn't vote for. But pretty harmless all things considered and definitely one who is smart enough to note the G Brown slopey shoulders trick.

Although not directly connected there is also the Damien Green affair fallout. Essentially despite arresting the MP and searching (without a warrent) his parliamentary office, no charges are to be filed, In part this would seem to be because, as an investigating Select Committee noted:

civil servants had "exaggerated" the importance of the information passed across in order to prompt an investigation.

In fact the Director of Public Prosecutions' statement makes it clear the information "leaked" was pretty minor and not even particularly confidential:

In this case, therefore, I have considered whether there is evidence of any additional damage caused by the leaks in question. I have concluded that the information leaked was not secret information or information affecting national security:

It did not relate to military, policing or intelligence matters. It did not expose anyone to a risk of injury or death. Nor, in many respects, was it highly confidential. Much of it was known to others outside the civil service, for example, in the security industry or the Labour Party or Parliament. Moreover, some of the information leaked undoubtedly touched on matters of legitimate public interest, which were reported in the press.

So err in fact Mr Green was in fact doing his job. Unlike the civil servants who insisted the police arrest him.

It seems quite likely to me that the "exaggerations" in this case and the flat out lies in the McPoison case  are going to become mixed for many people who believe that the ZANU labour government and its civil servants should all be fired ASAP.

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

Follow Up 2 - #amazonfail (but not #sorryamazon)

So they weren't in fact trolled or hacked - it was a cock up by an employee. However I think my comments on Amazon's scalability and monopoly problems still stand.

Firstly on the scalability issue. It is pretty clear from some of the reporting - e.g.the first link above - that Amazon's smooth front end conceals the software equivalent of a number of Heath Robinson devices held together with Duct tape. It is to be hoped that the fall out from this affair will involve a radical redsign but I doubt it because
  1. it will be very long and difficult
  2. they think they dodged the bullet in PR terms
This is in fact pretty much what Mike Daisey says here where he also brings up the monoply issue:

More interesting is that everyone in publishing entrusts their rankings and status to a single provider. That's the story no one likes thinking about in publishing.

Indeed it isn't just publishing as Barron's reports Amazon is responsible for about a third of all online eCommerce in the US. This is why Amazon needs to think carefully about how to react to this sort of thing in the future. Amazon currently is pretty cavalier about these sorts of issues and believes that they will get forgotten about. That may be true of each specific case but each one of these hits erodes the Amazon's reputation with its customers. After enough erosion we could easily see some other competitor (or competitors) arise to take market share away just as fast as Amazon gained it in the first place. I don't think there's any point in expecting the publishers to do this themselves - going on the ebook thing the one thing you can be sure of is that the publishers have innovative spirit as a sedimentary rock - but I expect someone else will because the more of these things we see the more vulnerable Amazon becomes to more agile competition with less of a hacked together website.

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

Brown 'sorry' & more...

I really ought to recheck the news / blogs before I hit post. My update on McBride, Brown etc. needs another one because amongst other developments G Brown said "sorry" (The scare quotes aren't mine they are the BBCs). As Samizdata notes:

The BBC gets a lot of flak from right-wing bloggers, but the BBC is now objectively anti-Brown. Just by solemnly reporting everything that this ghastly and now absurd man says, with or without any further comment, they are destroying him.

I'd go further. In the linked article, as well as the 'scare quotes' headline we also have phrases like:

Making a fresh attempt to close down the row...

Which reads like the BBC writer wants to add a few words (making yet another surely doomed fresh attempt..) and the caption under the video "Mr Brown said he was working to clean up British politics", which also deserves a blogger like NOT at the end. I think the BBC is joining the rest of the British MSM and giving Mr Brown a good kicking now that he's looking wobbly.

But to go back to the sinking Gordon deserting his rat, I thought it was amusing that he gave his 'apology' in a dockyard. Perhaps he was looking for tips on boat repairs since ZANU labour's Ship of State seems to have sprung some serious leaks.

The seaworthiness of the Ship of State isn't exactly helped by the fact that, as Samizdata (and Guido's commenters), note the "apology" managed to include a beautiful piece of logical inconsistency:

"I take full responsibility for what happened. That's why the person who was responsible went immediately."

Strangely Mr Brown went on to neither announce his own resignation or to call a general election. And of course the words "went immediately" are beautifully non-judgemental. Despite the fact that Gordon claims to have been "horrified" and "very angry", he didn't actually sack McBride. Instead, some 24 hours later McBride was allowed to resign, This is not the action of someone "very angry" unless what they were "horrified" and "very angry" about was that their smearing had been found out...

In fact rather than announce his own resignation what he then does is follow the example of his beloved predecessor A Blair and attempt to "move on" to serious matters like the upcoming "budget for jobs". It occurs to me that this is an excellent hostage to fortune and one that will probably allow the Cameroons to resurrect an old poster when he finally summons up enough courage to call the election.
Labour isn't working

PS In regard to the "budget for jobs" this Spectator blog piece explains why it is insane in an Einsteinian sense.

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

Scotch Non-Nuclear Hot Air

As anyone who reads this blog must be aware my opinion of Her Majesty's Goevrnment is about as low as it gets. Yet every now and again I read something that makes me realize that, in some respects, ZANU Labour are not actually as bad as it is possible to get. Take, for example, the numbskulls of the Scottish National Party (and if you do, please throw them into Loch Ness attached to large heavy boulders).

ZANU Labour have, after a decade or more of dodging the question, finally realized that the UK really really needs to build some new Nuclear power stations unless the country wants to suffer Iraqi style rolling blackouts. Unfortunately, as the Torygraph reports, the SNP disagree:

Despite energy matters being reserved to Westminster, SNP ministers have vowed to use their control over planning applications to block any proposals for new atomic plants in Scotland.

The Government yesterday published a shortlist of 11 potential sites for new nuclear stations, but were forced to include only England and Wales....

The SNP wants wind and wave power instead:

Mr Salmond has insisted that Scotland can generate far more energy than it needs, and export the excess, thanks to a massive expansion in power from renewable sources.

Twenty wind and tidal farms have been given the go-ahead since he came to power, and green energy now accounts for about a fifth of the country's electricity needs.

One assumes that one of the wind farms has been installed in the Scottish Parliament building to capture all their hot air - though oddly this is not mentioned. Going on the official numbers here, that 20% is mostly made up of hydroelectric power which isn't either wind or tidal power. However there's no point in telling the SNP that:

Mr Salmond highlighted 500 jobs created over the past few weeks building offshore wind farms.

He said: "These are actual jobs which are being created now in technologies which are being deployed now and technologies where Scotland has a huge substantial, natural advantage as opposed to nuclear technologies where Scotland has no advantage whatsoever."

Let me start with the 500 jobs. These jobs will be over in about 3 years when the wind farms have been built. At least I hope they will be. Or is the idea to put a scot at the bottom of each wind generator to turn it around on those days when there isn't enough wind?

Now let's look at the advantage thing and point out how stupid this is by analagy.

Q: You have contestants A and B. A can run faster than B over a 10km race. If you want to send a message to London from Edinburgh carried by one of them, which one do you choose?
A: Which ever one is the faster driver.

Perhaps Scotland has a competive natural adbabtage when it comes to renewable technologies but somehow I'm highly skeptical that these technologies can replace the 80% non-renewable electrical generation capability. And in that case if, as the SNP seem to be, sincere believers in reducing CO2 then you might want to consider nuclear power (which generates no CO2) as an alternative to coal, oil and gas which are the alternatives.

It seems to me that the Scotch deserve to get their independence and the rest of the UK can laugh at them as they collapse into third world chaos. The only problem is we'd have to put a fence across the border to stop them coming south once they realize they don't have any money, any energy or any exports people want apart from whisky* ...

*OK that's a bit unfair there are other things that Scotland make that others want.

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

20090417 Friday Olive Tree Blogging

A lovely old tree somewhere on the borders of Opio and Le Rouret in the Alpes Maritimes
20090417 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.

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

Tea Partying on Tax Day

I've been mostly concentrating on political fun and games this side of the pond recently but I really ought to at least note the fun and games that took place on Wednesday all across the USA. I think it is fair to say that the protest was a resounding success despite (or perhaps because of) MSM and lefty attempts to diss it. And of course it didn't help that some newscasters seemed unable to grasp the difference between journalism and advocacy.

Let's look at the figures: There were over 300,000 total attendees - possibly as many as half a million - depending on who made the estimates at each location and how many locations have reported in some 500 plus events (again this number is growing). At time of writing the relevant PJTV page reports
Even taking the more pessimistic numbers that means that more than 1 in 1000 of all US residents joined the protest (US population is c. 300 million). That's a pretty amazing number. As is the fact that there were 500+ separate events loosely coordinated.

Beyond the participants there was clear interest as shown by the fact that the news channel that covered the protests the most (fox) saw its share of the ratings - both in the 25-54 demographic (the one with money mostly) and overall - pretty much equal the other 3 cable news channels combined for the whole evening.:
25-54 demographic: (L +SD)

Total day: FNC: 444 | CNN: 207 | MSNBC: 150 | HLN: 173

Prime: FNC: 864 | CNN: 290 | MSNBC: 388 | HLN: 334
  5p: 6p: 7p: 8p: 9p: 10p: 11p:

FNC Beck: Baier: Shep: O'Reilly: Hannity: Greta: O'Reilly:
  841 541 531 927 866 799 741

CNN Blitzer: Blitzer: Dobbs: Brown: King: Cooper: Cooper:
  226 280 265 209 349 311 214

MSNBC Matthews: EdShow: Matthews: Olbermann: Maddow: Olbermann: Maddow:
  105 118 182 483 363 317 231

HLN Prime: Prime: VMitchell: Grace: Dobbs: Grace: Showbiz:
  70 135 226 454 189 379 290

Data by Nielsen Media Research. Live and same day (DVR) data.

Total Viewers: (L +SD)

Total day: FNC: 1589 | CNN: 711 | MSNBC: 479 | HLN: 400

Prime: FNC: 3390 | CNN: 1070 | MSNBC: 1210 | HLN: 909
  5p: 6p: 7p: 8p: 9p: 10p: 11p:

FNC Beck: Baier: Shep: O'Reilly: Hannity: Greta: O'Reilly:
  2740 2401 2185 3980 3239 2947 2090

CNN Blitzer: Blitzer: Dobbs: Brown: King: Cooper: Cooper:
  1056 942 870 892 1292 1026 663

MSNBC Matthews: EdShow: Matthews: Olbermann: Maddow: Olbermann: Maddow:
  533 563 737 1499 1149 981 609

HLN Prime: Prime: VMitchell: Grace: Dobbs: Grace: Showbiz:
  253 341 644 1336 590 848 561

Data by Nielsen Media Research. Live and same day (DVR) data.

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

Nice - Grasse: the Slow Way

I don't normally blog about tourism on the Riviera (or even elsewhere) but I think this one might be worthwhile. Most people who visit the Côte d'Azur stay on that section between the A8 Autoroute and the Mediterranean Sea which is, it has to be said, a blessing for everyone else who doesn't have to visit that bit.

However there is a whole "arrière pays" in land that really ought to be visited so here is a suggestion of (increasingly indirect) ways to do this for those visitors who have a car, motorbike or even (for the really dedicated) a bicycle. All these ways start in Nice airport and end in Grasse. I'm providing Google Maps links so you can make your own variations - click on the picture to go to the maps page for that route.

Route 1 - St Paul de Vence, Roquefort

This is the route to take where you want to get there in reasonable time while avoiding most of the autoroute and so on. You can of course stop here and there to visit places including (of course) the touristy St Paul de Vence - maybe not best done in high summer. Whether you stop or not the drive up the Loup valley from La Colle to Roquefort is very pleasant. In addition to St Paul, it is possible to walk down the lower Loup gorge by La Colle and to hike up the ridge above Le Rouret to see Le Camp Romain which is a Roman/pre-Roman era fort. From the fort you also get a magnificent view of Gourdon, Pont du Loup and the upper Loup Gorge. Finally (and this applies to the other routes) Chateauneuf and Magagnosc are worth stopping at and enjoying the views from.

Route 2 - The Former Tramway Route Gattieres, Vence, Tourrettes, Bar/Loup

This route is pretty much the route that the old railway line from Nice to Grasse took. You will be driving on the (former) line for some of the way and you can add more former rail line if you slightly change the route. Note that you should take care when ascending to Gattieres to not accidentally drive into Carros le Neuf which is one of France's infamous suburbs where they dump the unemployed immigrants. It's almost certainly safe in daytime but it is grim and not something that really belongs on a scenic tourist drive.

The view down the Var valley from the perched village of Gattieres is amazing and a slight detour to adjacent perched village of "Carros village" also allows you to look up the Var valley too towards the Mercontour. It really is very pretty indeed. St Jeannet has the spectacular cliffs above it although you see them better as you look back from nearer Vence. Just as you enter Vence you pass the Matisse Chapel on your left and it is worth stopping to visit - as indeed is old Vence itself. The next town along, Tourrettes, is also photogenic and the provider of excellent views down to the coast. You can think of it as a St Paul de Vence without all the tourists, At Pont du Loup you see the pillars of the former railway viaduct above you and the entrance to the Gorges du Loup. A better view of the gorge comes if you stop in Bar sur Loup and look back. Families may want to let their children stop at the Pont du Loup sweet factory ...

Route 3 Gattieres, Vence, Col de Vence, Bar/Loup

This is the first of the real "back country" routes as it takes you up the Col de Vence and back down the Gorges du Loup.
The drive is the same as Route 3 except for the bit between Vence and Pont du Loup. The drive up the Col de Vence is filled with hairpin bends and a favourite of cyclists so care should be taken but the views you get from the top make it worthwhile. Once up on the plateau there are numerous spots where hikes may be taken and picnics eaten. The drive from there towards Gréolières is wonderful with the view of the upper Loup valley above the Gorge. Continuing into Gréolières is a worthwhile detour but not necessary. Finally you drive down the spectacular Gorges du Loup and emerge at Pont du Loup.

Route 4 Carros, Coursegoules, Cipières, Gourdon

This is more or less the route I drove yesterday which inspired me to write this post. The first part up to Le Broc (or perhaps slightly further on) gives great views of the Var valley and the Mercantour. Stopping and taking photos is highly recommended. The drive from there to Coursegoules is crammed with spectacular mountains and cliffs some of which may be easily hiked on if you want a break from driving - the Bouyon to Bezaudun bit has a number of paths off and lots and lots of spectacular scenery. Somewhere after Bezaudun the road settles down as the major hairpins have been left behind. This, and the first part of the section between Coursegoules and Gréolières, is a road that cries out for a high performance car or motorbike - and passengers who don't suffer from motion sickness. The road is almost always empty so it is relatively safe to push the envelope a bit but that doesn't mean you have freedom to drive like a moron. If you do you'll almost certainly come to grief on an unexpected bend and probably end up in a pile of rocks a few dozen meters below the road level. And of course "almost always empty" does not mean no traffic at all. You'll almost certainly encounter something coming the other way, quite possibly at speed, so don't try and re-enact your favourite rally stage. Finally at Gréolières this route goes to Cipières and Gourdon so you get to look down into the Gorges du Loup instead of driving down it as the previous route suggests. Do definitely consider stopping at suitable points and walking to the cliff edge for better views. I think this route is more satisfactory - especially Gourdon itself - but the road in the gorge is good and you can skip Cipieres if you want and going up at the obvious Y junction where Gourdon is signed,

Route 5 Carros, Coursegoules, Gréolières, Gourdon, St Vallier

The ultimate back country route. Essentially this is the same as the previous one until you get to Gréolières and then it goes a little mad by continuing up the Loup valley. The disadvantage of this route is you skip the Gorges du Loup but this is partly compensated for by the very spectacular upper Loup valley that hardly anyone ever drives along. The climbs to get out of the valley at the far end and then over a couple of Ridges before you drop down to St Vallier are pretty amazing, as are the views - particularly the one where you are above the route Napolean just before you start the descent to St Vallier, but I will admit that I think while the drive is more fun the views are somewhat less spectacular. I should also note that you don't have to descnd from Gréolières, it is also fesible to stay on the D2 and go past the turn off to the ski station of Gréolières les Neiges (and that ski station is one of the hidden gems of the Riviera in a good season such as this one has been).

21 April 2009 Blog Home : All April 2009 Posts : Permalink

Contact With Chaos

Michael Z Williamson is one of my favourite authors. Contact with Chaos is his fifth SF book (he has a few other non SF ones) and cements his place in my list of favourite authors. If does indeed confirm MZW as one of the authors whose books are worth rereading as they contain lots of layers of stuff to make you think.

I've reviewed two of the previous 4 (Freehold reviewed here and The Weapon reviewed here). I probably ought to have reviewed the other two but haven't. Bad me. Contact is set in the same universe as Freehold and the Weapon (and Better to Beg Forgiveness) but it should stand on its own quite well. Now I personally think both the above books are excellent and worth reading so it won't do you any harm to read them first but don't let that stop you going out and buying this one.

[Probably all the background you need is this: Freehold (in the Baen Free Library - text linked to above) is a tale about how a libertarian/minarchist world might stack up against a much larger statist world very similar to the one we see developing on earth today. During Freehold, war breaks out and megadeaths occur before statist Earth finally agrees to peace. The Weapon covers pretty much the same time period but from a different perspective and its hero is the father of one of the characters in Contact.]

OK now back to the subject. Contact With Chaos is a "first contact with aliens" story. While the main protagonist of Contact is from the Freehold system and some of the plot threads involve how governments interact with and rein in rapacious corporations under such a minarchist system, the main point of the story is the alien culture. I'm going to try not to give away spoilers but I don't think I give anything away by stating that the major issue of the book is to determine how advanced the alien culture is.

Initially it looks like the aliens should be basically stone age because, due to a lack of meteorites and vulcanism, the planet has no metals that can be readily exploited. The interesting question therefore is to wonder how far a non metal using race can progress. Note that the metals are present, its just that they are present solely in chemical compounds and thus the intelligent species has no idea how useful they can be when present in elemental form. About the only spoiler I'm going to drop is this: you can in fact do a lot with ceramics, glasses and organic chemistry. Needless to say failing to understand this causes the humans some surprises. As another writer put it "Check your assumptions in at the door". However as the author himself points out in this Big Idea post, a lot of what we think of as "iron age" technology actually doesn't use iron or any other metal so you can go a very long way with alternatives if you don't have metal readily to hand.

One of the interesting parts of the book is how the protagonist tries to get his fellow humans to present a common face to the aliens. This, it seems to me, is very very true to life and it is a major strength of the book that we get to see the factions and disunity between the human explorers and just how bemusing this might be to an alien society which is probably slightly more regulated. The motivations of scientists, business people, diplomats, priests, journalists and so on are necessarily very different and the conflicts between their motivations allows for a a lot of interesting plot twists.

While the plot is good, and the idea better, I don't think this is necessarily his best book when it comes to the characters - perhaps because the book had to be finished up while the author was serving in the USAF in the sunny Middle East. I never really quite formed a rapport with the prime POV character and because of the way the story is told we never get inside the alien mindset which is a bit of a pity. The aliens are quite well done if you want to have not very alien aliens. We're talking a more or less avian/dinosaur/lizard sort of bipedal alien. Yes they are different but they aren't methane breathing blobs and they clearly have many of the same viewpoints of humanity. The culture(s) are different of course but recognisably similar to human ones. This is a good thing if we ever do encounter aliens because that gives us points of contact that we won't have with cultures that have no similarities.

However while the characterizations aren't perfect this is a book that like so much classic SF doesn't need strong characters to engage the reader's interest. The book fascinates on many levels and, like many another good book, leaves us wishing for more even though all the major loose ends are tied up. Given that so many authors nd their publishers seem to delight in ending on cliff hangers it is a true joy to read a basically stand alone book.

23 April 2009 Blog Home : All April 2009 Posts : Permalink

St George and William Shakespeare

Flag of St GeorgeToday is St George's day. His feast day is April 23rd because that was the day he was martyred in 303 AD by the Empreror Diocletian. St George is considered to be the patron saint of England, amongst many other places, depsite having no connection whatsoever with England during his short life. April 23rd is also the birthday of England's greatest playwright - William Shakespeare - who was born on this day in 1564.

In today's Wapping Liar, Roy Hattersley suggests we English (British?) should celebrate the latter and not the former.

That is why today we should not be celebrating the feast day of an obscure Roman soldier, but the birthday of the transcendental genius who helped to make us what we are.

I'm quite happy with celebrating Shakespeare's birth but I don't see a reason why the need to make this an either/or thing. Why should we not celebrate both?

Indeed it seems to me that those like Roy who want to dismiss St George probably have some kind of hidden agenda. Consider that St George was martyred for "Speaking Truth to Power" and being unwilling to compromise his honour in a lie about his religions beliefs. For those unfamiliar with the life of this "obscure Roman soldier", he was killed after the Emperor Diocletian insisted that all Roman soldiers should make sacrifice to pagan gods and renounce Christianity. George, who was a tribune in the army (roughly equivalent to a regimental colonel today I guess) and the son of one of Diocletian's counselors, refused and indeed said so publicly at the emperor's court. For this he was, after various attempts to make him change his mind, executed in the usual gory Roman way. Even if we ignore the legend of St George and the dragon there is plenty to admire about George as an honourable and competant soldier, loyal to his faith and his nation, rather than to a particular ruler.

William Shakespeare on the other hand is undoubtedly not only the greatest playwright but one of the better propagandists of the world. Were it not for Willy S, we might have less veneration for the Tudor dynasty and rather more for Richard III. I think it is good to celebrate Shakespeare's birth and legacy but we ought to recall the negative aspects of that as well as the positive.

It occurs to me that politicians would of course prefer that we celebrate a wordsmith to a soldier who refused to bow to governmental pressure. It seems to me that England today needs more people who have the stubborn integrity of St George and a few less pretenders to the governmental propagandist aspect of William Shakespeare.

23 April 2009 Blog Home : All April 2009 Posts : Permalink

Fictional Numbers and Budgets

The Tories and others (e.g. the Wapping Liar) have, quite reasonably, been criticising the Chancellor's budget yesterday for the panglossian optimisitc implausibility of some of the figures quoted:

[... A]n entirely optimistic forecast of future economic growth. In years to come the best-remembered feature of this Budget may be its reliance on implausibly hopeful assumptions about future tax revenues. When these assumptions are revised, as they will surely have to be, they will reveal the need for far more strenuous efforts to curb public spending.

However what may have been missed is that this is not the first time this month that the government has spun the figures in the way that it wants. The other, possibly even more serious time, occured when it released a Cost Benefit Analysis (PDF) on the UK Climate Change bill. Roger Pielke, Jr pointed out the holes in the CBA in a recent blog post:

The cost-benefit analysis is a spectacularly good example of how CBA can be twisted to say just about anything (not a surprise to many, I’m sure). Taking the analysis at face value says that the benefits of the Climate Change Act to the UK taxpayer are about 0.06 Pounds ($0.08) for every Pound ($1.40) in cost. And this assumes that the entire world acts in concert with the UK. Otherwise, the benefits are even closer to zero.

[...]There are several important flaws in this reasoning. The report assumes that the costs of the Act are assumed to be borne by the UK, but the benefits are global, and then further assumes that the benefits should be calculated assuming that the world is on a 450 ppm emissions trajectory by 2050. But even assuming that the world is on a 450 ppm trajectory, the UK share of global benefits would be only 2.3% of the world total (assuming UK GDP growth to 2050 of 2.0% per year and global GDP growth of 3.0%, with benefits received proportional to GDP), or 22.7 billion Pounds ($31.8 billion).

Comparing UK benefits to UK costs gives a benefit-cost ratio for the UK taxpayer of 0.06, taking the reports cost estimates at face value. If the world is not on a 450 ppm trajectory the benefit-cost ratio is even lower, and easily could be zero, meaning no benefit to the UK or the world.

The report is amazing for the convoluted effort that it goes to in order to try to show a positive value to the Climate Change Act. However, a close look shows that even under the very dubious assumptions on both the cost and benefit sides of the analysis, the UK taxpayer receives almost no benefit for a remarkably large investment. The UK government must assume that no one will notice or care.

The only MP to have actually paid any attention appears to be Peter Lilley. He has written a letter to Ed Milliband (also here) where he points out just how shoddy this CBA has been. It starts out in good form:

Dear Secretary of State

You recently slipped out, without notifying Parliament, a massive revision of the estimated costs and benefits of the Climate Change Act.

I hope that on consideration, you will agree that changes amounting to nearly £1 trillion require both discussion in, and explanation to, Parliament. This is particularly important given the extraordinary way the government treated its own original estimates of the costs and benefits of the Climate Change Bill during the Bill’s passage through Parliament.

You will recall that your original estimates of costs and benefits of the Climate Change Bill showed that its potential costs at some £205 billion were almost twice the maximum benefits of £110 billion. This was embarrassing for you because the reason governments are required to publish an Impact Assessment giving estimates of costs and benefits of any Bill is to enable Parliament to “determine whether the benefits justify the costs” .

He goes in style to make many good points including this bit:

As recently as your last departmental question time on 5th March your Minister of State, Joan Ruddock, suggested to me that the original estimate of potential costs of up to £205 billion might be too high. She said “We are likely to find that the costs, which covered a very large range, were exaggerated…” Yet despite correcting for any previous downward bias the revised figures you have now published are not lower but substantially higher. The bottom of the new range for costs is in fact £324 billion – nearly 60% higher than the highest figure I have been quoting. And the top of the range is now £404 billion.

In other words the government now estimates that the Climate Change Act will cost every household in the country between £16,000 and £20,000 each.

When it comes to your revised estimates of the benefits, however, we enter Alice in Wonderland territory. Even though costs have broadly doubled, the embarrassment of them exceeding your own estimate of the maximum benefits has been eliminated. The benefits have been dramatically increased tenfold from £105 billion to over £1 trillion. I congratulate on finding nearly £1 trillion of benefits which had previously escaped your notice.

[...] I support sensible measures to reduce CO2 emissions, economise on hydrocarbon use and help the poorest countries adapt to adverse climate change whatever it cause – as long as the measures we adopt are sensible and cost effective. But we cannot judge what is sensible and cost effective if we do not have reliable figures, and subject them to proper parliamentary scrutiny.

When the Department slips out figures which it appears to be unable to explain, unwilling to debate and which are so flaky they vary by a factor of ten - it can only provoke scepticism.

One might hope that other MPs will join him in requesting a bit of clarity in these figures. After all some of them have been complaining recently about how little they have to do.

24 April 2009 Blog Home : All April 2009 Posts : Permalink

20090424 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging

Olives are still on the tree in France too. You may recall I recently noted my surprise that olives had remained on the tree in Italy until late March. Well last weekend on a road between Le Broc and Carros I saw that a certain variety of olive tree here in France has also retained its olives into spring as it retained them in the middle of April which I find frankly amazing.
20090424 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging - 2
Interestingly though this was clearly a particular olive variety as the leaves were longer and thinner than most other trees in the area, and the others with the short fatter leaves had no olives remaining on the branches. The second picture today, of a nice old olive tree in the same place more or less, shows a more typical "Riviera" olive tree without its olives in April
20090424 - Friday Olive Tree Blogging - 1
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.

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

Swine Flu and Web 2.0

Starting with the useful. There is this google map of swine flu outbreaks:

I should note that google's map API seems to be very very easy to use so now I'm looking for other excuses to use it.

On the less useful side there is the twitter #swineflu and Swine Flu tags which are so masterfully parodied by XKCD today:

Swine Flu

28 April 2009 Blog Home : All April 2009 Posts : Permalink

Glasnost for the Book Trade

Twenty some years ago President Gorbachev introduced "Glasnost" to the hitherto secretive Soviet Union. As well as being secretive the Soviet Union was also, gradually, collapsing. Today Russia can be accused of many things but collapse isn't one of them.

I believe that the book trade could use a similar dose of Glasnost. So much of what seeps out of the various author and publisher blogs, trade press etc. etc. is rumor and gossip. Numbers, when they get mentioned, are frequently misleading, out of date, applicable only to very specific circumstances or combinations of the above. Take the much debated price of an ebook (or a paper one for that matter). When I make posts estimating costs, revenues and so on I'm guessing. I have no idea whether a particular ebook sells 100 copies or 100,000. I can guess as advances and royalty rates but I don't know for sure. I can guess at publishing costs and printing costs. I can guess what the marketing budget might be. But I don't know. This means that when I read a post like this (or some of its predecessors) or one like this it is hard for me to grasp the precise implications to the author.

There are a couple of posts where we get more clue - this one about a NY Bestseller royalty statement and this one talking about how little of the cover price of a book ends up in the author's pocket:

Of that new author's paperback... of the cover price _94.9%_ goes to someone else. But like the cotton-pickers we're wholly dependent on the plantation owners. There are lots more desperate cotton pickers out there. Dis the plantation owner, the shipper, or manufacturer, or the retailer and you're going to be jobless (of course each step up the chain has the same problem with the next). The problem is that the public have little sympathy for the parts of the chain claiming 94.9% of the income. But they often like and want to support the writer. So: therefore it has become de riguer to claim that the 'pirate' is robbing the little bloke getting his 54 cents from that paperback. As the little bloke is an entirely dependent "client" of the blokes getting the the other 94.9% he has very little choice about being a front-man, even if his sympathy lies on the other side of the fence - so we end with a sore crotch and... losing that liking.

And there are, from time to time, other posts and articles wherein authors point out how little money they get for their labours. This is a problem because it isn't clear to many people where the money goes.

So here is a long post - based on a few authorial hints - that shows where the money goes (and does not go) and so on.

Analysis of Author's Income

Starting with the NY Bestseller royalty statement and the income it reports:

To give you a condensed version of what all those figures mean, for the sale period of July through November 30, 2008. my publisher reports sales of 64,925 books, for which my royalties were $40,484.00. I didn’t get credit for all those sales, as 21,140 book credits were held back as a reserve against possible future returns, for which they subtracted $13,512.69 (these are not lost sales; I’m simply not given credit for them until the publisher decides to release them, which takes anywhere from one to three years.)

This is for a book which ...

debuted on the Times mm list at #19.

It had

an initial print run of 88.5K, and an initial ship of 69K. [...] Another 4K was shipped out two to four weeks after the lay-down date, for a total of 73K, which means there were 15.5K held in reserve in the warehouse in July 2008.

So the book sold 65,000 out of a possible 73,000 which gives a sell through rate of almost 90% which is incredibly good and explains the bestsellerdom. However despite all these wonderful things

My net earnings on this statement was $27,721.31, which was deducted from my advance. My actual earnings from this statement was $0.

My advance for Twilight Fall was $50,000.00, a third of which I did not get paid until the book physically hit the shelf — this is now a common practice by publishers, to withhold a portion of the advance until date of publication. Of that $50K, my agent received $7,500.00 as her 15% (which she earns, believe me) the goverment received roughly $15,000.00, and $1594.27 went to cover my expenses (office supplies, blog giveaways, shipping, promotion, etc.) After expenses and everyone else was paid, I netted about $26K of my $50K advance for this book, which is believe it or not very good — most authors are lucky if they can make 10% profit on any book. This should also shut up everyone who says all bestselling authors make millions — most of us don’t.

So in fact, the whole books sold thing is academic at present because the book hasn't earned out its advance - something that is true, so I am told, for the majority of books. The author received $42,500 and once various expenses. taxes etc. have been met ends up with some $26,000 as money to spend on food, clothing, housing and so on. Moreover, and going back to the earns out thing, she is unlikely to receive anymore. In order for the book to earn out, a total of 80,000 copies or so will have to be sold, which would mean that, in addition to selling 100% of what is already in the channel with no returns, the entire warehoused stock would need to have been shipped and half of it sold and not returned. Since book sales tend (though there are exceptions) to tail off into dribs and drabs after the initial release, if she does earn additional royalties they are probably going to be small and a few years from now. If the entire printing sells she'll get about $4500 in additional gross income once the agent has taken her 15%.

Her current, here and now, income is thus $26,000 for this book. For the average author, who can write one (publishable) book a year, this means she's got to live on an annual post tax income of $26k if she has no other employment. If (for example) the author has $1500/month mortgage payment or rent payment - which is entirely reasonable - then this leaves the author about $650 for food, clothing, utility bills, health insurance etc. each month. That's a hair over $20/day. One thing is for sure, if that's all the income she gets the NYT Best-selling author is not going to be drinking champagne and dining on caviar if the budget is $20/day. Not for nothing does John Scalzi recommend authors not quit the day job and have a working spouse. Of course if you do have a regular other income, spouse etc. then that $26k is a very nice addition to the family budget but in no way does it count as wealth that we all aspire to.

So what did the other parts of the chain get?

The agent got $7500 (gross), If an agent can sell a book a month for a $50k advance then he/she will have a nice living. Unfortunately not every book gets a $50k advance. In fact if the agent sells a book for a first time author the total advance is likely to be about $7500, meaning the agent gets $1125. For advances of $20-35k (where the agent gets $3000-$5000), the agent is going to need to sell 2-3 books a month to get a reasonable income after taxes and expenses. So agents aren't exactly coining it either since there are lots of agents and not that many titles published each month.

OK but the book sells for $7.99 retail so in theory the buyers forked over $7.99*64,925 =$518,750.75 or roughly 20 times what the author received. Now there were probably retailer discounts and so on but there would also have been sales tax a lot of times so it seems unlikely that the total money spent by readers isn't much off that number. And hence as Dave Free noted in the first quote above, the author gets about 5% of the total cash.

Put it this way: if sales tax was 5% and the total money paid (including sales taxes) were $520,000 then just the sales tax raised the same amount of money as the author received post tax!

In fact given that the government took $15,000 in authorial income taxes, if it took more than $11,000 in sales taxes then the government got more from the book than the author did. It is very likely that the government takes considerably more than 5% in sales taxes on average so quite probably the governmental take is 10% or more,

One is also I think entitled to wonder where the *&%# the other 85-90% of the money goes.

Actually we know - kind of.

The publisher's cut

Firstly we know that the average reseller is sold the book for around 50% of list - actually ISTR that once various funny money marketing coops and other things are included the publisher tends to receive between 40% and 45% of list. To keep it simple assume that publisher gets $3.50 per copy (44% of list). With 64,925 books sold the publisher gets about $227,000 (again a slight rounding to make it simple). Has the publisher made money on the sale?

Here's some sums for a book sold in 2002/3. If we take those numbers, modify for the book in question and round up a bit for inflation we'll probably get reasonable 2008 numbers.
Item Publisher Cost
Proof/Copy/Edit (336 pages @ $4/page) $1,344
Typesetting (336 pages @ $5/page) $1,680
Cover Art
Printing and Binding (88,500 books @ $0.50/book)
note: embossing would increase this by c.$0.07/book,
or $6000. I'm not sure if this book is embossed
Separations/Promo Covers $3,000
Warehousing ($0.0565 per book) $5,000
Shipping ($0.0565 per book) $5,000
Overhead (15% of gross income i.e. $227,000)
Profit (gross)

So the publisher is making roughly a 30% pre tax profit on sales of this book - even though the advance hasn't earned out yet. Now I suspect that there are some details here that are wrong but basically the publisher earns a profit of $77,676/64,925 = $1.20 per book. And note that the marginal profits will be about $3.00 for any adidtional books sold out of the original print run since all the costs are currently accounted for apart from overhead.

However I do not think it is worth complaining too much about the publisher's profit on this book. The publisher, like the agent, will have a few best sellers like this and a lot of dross. The original 2003/3 book is a good example of one that barely breaks even despite an advance of just over $12000 with its sell through of 52%. A book run where sell through is significantly below 50% will almost certainly make a loss. Still it is worth pointing out that the publisher does make some nice money on this book even, since it doesn't earn out, it may look like a fail at first glance.

But that still leaves a big chunk of change for...

The Retail Chain

What about the remaining $290,000 or so that goes to the sales chain and the tax man (who also of course gets his hands on his share of publisher profits, printer profits etc.). When we add up business taxes, sales taxes and so on I suspect the taxman takes a minimum of 10% of the total gross - i.e. at least $52,000 and quite possibly significantly more - leaving at most $238,000 for the retailer chain. That seems like a lot - after all it is more than the publisher gets - but retailers have a lot of other overheads apart from taxes (salaries, rents ...) and some have a distribution tier to pay as well. Furthermore they probably discounted some sales of the book (e.g. a 3 for 2 promotion) and not all may get that 44% of list price that is the average so while the gross figure looks good there is likely to be a lot of costs to cut into the profit margin.

However we don't really have any visibility into that space, and even less into the costs of Amazon and co (on a book by book basis that is) so it is hard to defend what they spend their 50% of the cake on.

The bottom line

Authors get bugger all - 5% of the proceeds seems like a decent estimate.
Publishers get some, but after you account for costs their profit margins are variable at best and not wonderful.
The taxman is almost certainly a greater beneficiary than the author and the only one with a guaranteed "profit"
Retailers account for about 50% of the cost of a book. There is limited visibility into what they do to earn that money.

Sales of an individual title are poor. If 65,000 copies is enough to put a book on the NYT best seller list then clearly many many books sell no more than 30,000 - hard covers in particular are going to sell a lot less. This statistic needs to be made clear as does the average authorial income.

Question for the future: How do ebooks change this equation?

30 April 2009 Blog Home : All April 2009 Posts : Permalink

Virtual Upon Virtual

The majority of readers of this blog will, I suspect, find this post to be tedious and boring. I'm putting it here mostly so that I have a reference for if I need to do it again and so that others can find it too.

I've just been installing an Ubuntu server as a VMware guest (said guest will, in the near future, be this very site amongst other things) and I've found a couple of neat tricks that make it easier to recover from mistakes.

The basic rule is virtualize whenever possible. So when I installed Ubuntu 9.04 server I chose to install with LVM. You might think this is a bit silly to have virtual volume support in VMware but it helps because it makes it simple to fix if you run out of space.

I started out with a 2GB hard disk for Ubuntu to use. The install process created a 250 MB boot partition, and allocated the remaining 1.75GB to LVM. Within that it created 144MB of swap and the remaining 1.6GB were assigned to the root filesystem. I ran out of space because when I did a few sums I forgot about the swap and the boot partitions and thus tried to upload about 1.8GB of stuff. Oops.

Fortunately it is very easy to add disks to VMware guests so once I'de cleaned out the mess made by the upload I stopped the machine and in the VMware server console added a new virtual disk drive - 4GB this time. The I started it up. Elapsed downtime about 5 minutes.

Now I logged into the server and checked to make sure linux knew about the new "hardware":

user@server:~$ sudo fdisk -l
[sudo] password for user: XXXX

Disk /dev/sda: 2147 MB, 2147483648 bytes
255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 261 cylinders
Units = cylinders of 16065 * 512 = 8225280 bytes
Disk identifier: 0x000d9383

   Device Boot      Start         End      Blocks   Id  System
/dev/sda1   *           1         230     1847443+  8e  Linux LVM
/dev/sda2             231         261      249007+   5  Extended
/dev/sda5             231         261      248976   83  Linux

Disk /dev/sdb: 4294 MB, 4294967296 bytes
255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 522 cylinders
Units = cylinders of 16065 * 512 = 8225280 bytes
Disk identifier: 0x00000000

Disk /dev/sdb doesn't contain a valid partition table

It did. So now create a basic partition table and single partition on it - don't worry about the partition type or anything at this point because LVM goes and splats it all anyway.

user@server:~$ sudo fdisk /dev/sdb
Device contains neither a valid DOS partition table, nor Sun, SGI or OSF disklabel
Building a new DOS disklabel with disk identifier 0x34ff84ae.
Changes will remain in memory only, until you decide to write them.
After that, of course, the previous content won't be recoverable.

Warning: invalid flag 0x0000 of partition table 4 will be corrected by w(rite)

Command (m for help): n
Command action
   e   extended
   p   primary partition (1-4)
Partition number (1-4):
Value out of range.
Partition number (1-4): 1
First cylinder (1-522, default 1):
Using default value 1
Last cylinder, +cylinders or +size{K,M,G} (1-522, default 522):
Using default value 522

Command (m for help): w
The partition table has been altered!

Calling ioctl() to re-read partition table.
Syncing disks.

Check the LVM config to see what is there:

user@server:~$ sudo pvdisplay
  --- Physical volume ---
  PV Name               /dev/sda1
  VG Name               server
  PV Size               1.76 GB / not usable 4.14 MB
  Allocatable           yes (but full)
  PE Size (KByte)       4096
  Total PE              450
  Free PE               0
  Allocated PE          450
  PV UUID               FNvtw6-Z06i-l48h-kKpG-gS25-01i8-vvju1T
user@server:~$ sudo vgdisplay
  --- Volume group ---
  VG Name               server
  System ID            
  Format                lvm2
  Metadata Areas        2
  Metadata Sequence No  4
  VG Access             read/write
  VG Status             resizable
  MAX LV                0
  Cur LV                2
  Open LV               2
  Max PV                0
  Cur PV                2
  Act PV                2
  VG Size               5.75 GB
  PE Size               4.00 MB
  Total PE              1473
  Alloc PE / Size       450 / 1.76 GB
  Free  PE / Size       1023 / 4.00 GB
  VG UUID               mQpOKH-CKVp-w24Q-00fs-UWwr-2O5D-5a0fre
user@server:~$ sudo lvdisplay
  --- Logical volume ---
  LV Name                /dev/server/root
  VG Name                server
  LV UUID                hO2d7u-IJ8t-UxN2-QArr-v3IL-M4gX-AGlZgV
  LV Write Access        read/write
  LV Status              available
  # open                 1
  LV Size                1.62 GB
  Current LE             414
  Segments               1
  Allocation             inherit
  Read ahead sectors     auto
  - currently set to     256
  Block device           252:0
  --- Logical volume ---
  LV Name                /dev/server/swap_1
  VG Name                server
  LV UUID                re64N8-iIjD-v5Tv-L6LS-KPcU-x6Xy-P2hKzK
  LV Write Access        read/write
  LV Status              available
  # open                 2
  LV Size                144.00 MB
  Current LE             36
  Segments               1
  Allocation             inherit
  Read ahead sectors     auto
  - currently set to     256
  Block device           252:1

So now that we know the name of the logical volume etc. we can started adding the new space. First Add the new disk as to LVM a physical volume and verify that it worked:

user@server:~$ sudo pvcreate /dev/sdb1
  Physical volume "/dev/sdb1" successfully created
user@server:~$ sudo pvdisplay
  --- Physical volume ---
  PV Name               /dev/sda1
  VG Name               server
  PV Size               1.76 GB / not usable 4.14 MB
  Allocatable           yes (but full)
  PE Size (KByte)       4096
  Total PE              450
  Free PE               0
  Allocated PE          450
  PV UUID               FNvtw6-Z06i-l48h-kKpG-gS25-01i8-vvju1T
  "/dev/sdb1" is a new physical volume of "4.00 GB"
  --- NEW Physical volume ---
  PV Name               /dev/sdb1
  VG Name              
  PV Size               4.00 GB
  Allocatable           NO
  PE Size (KByte)       0
  Total PE              0
  Free PE               0
  Allocated PE          0

Second add the new physical volume to the volume group and verify:

user@server:~$ sudo vgextend server /dev/sdb1
  Volume group "server" successfully extended
user@server:~$ sudo vgdisplay
  --- Volume group ---
  VG Name               server
  System ID            
  Format                lvm2
  Metadata Areas        2
  Metadata Sequence No  4
  VG Access             read/write
  VG Status             resizable
  MAX LV                0
  Cur LV                2
  Open LV               2
  Max PV                0
  Cur PV                2
  Act PV                2
  VG Size               5.75 GB
  PE Size               4.00 MB
  Total PE              1473
  Alloc PE / Size       450 / 1.76 GB
  Free  PE / Size       1023 / 4.00 GB
  VG UUID               mQpOKH-CKVp-w24Q-00fs-UWwr-2O5D-5a0fre

Third (and final step) extend the root logical volume using the new space. I added 2Gb out of the possible four because that gives me some buffer in case of problems. And verify just to be sure

user@server:~$ sudo lvextend --size +2G /dev/server/root
  Extending logical volume root to 3.62 GB
  Logical volume root successfully resized
user@server:~$ sudo vgdisplay
  --- Volume group ---
  VG Name               server
  System ID            
  Format                lvm2
  Metadata Areas        2
  Metadata Sequence No  5
  VG Access             read/write
  VG Status             resizable
  MAX LV                0
  Cur LV                2
  Open LV               2
  Max PV                0
  Cur PV                2
  Act PV                2
  VG Size               5.75 GB
  PE Size               4.00 MB
  Total PE              1473
  Alloc PE / Size       962 / 3.76 GB
  Free  PE / Size       511 / 2.00 GB
  VG UUID               mQpOKH-CKVp-w24Q-00fs-UWwr-2O5D-5a0fre
user@server:~$ sudo lvdisplay
  --- Logical volume ---
  LV Name                /dev/server/root
  VG Name                server
  LV UUID                hO2d7u-IJ8t-UxN2-QArr-v3IL-M4gX-AGlZgV
  LV Write Access        read/write
  LV Status              available
  # open                 1
  LV Size                3.62 GB
  Current LE             926
  Segments               2
  Allocation             inherit
  Read ahead sectors     auto
  - currently set to     256
  Block device           252:0
  --- Logical volume ---
  LV Name                /dev/server/swap_1
  VG Name                server
  LV UUID                re64N8-iIjD-v5Tv-L6LS-KPcU-x6Xy-P2hKzK
  LV Write Access        read/write
  LV Status              available
  # open                 2
  LV Size                144.00 MB
  Current LE             36
  Segments               1
  Allocation             inherit
  Read ahead sectors     auto
  - currently set to     256
  Block device           252:1

Boy that was difficult wasn't it?