Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cory Doctorow: "How to Destroy the Book": Hint: DRM

The Varsity” has an edition of a speech by Cory Doctorow, as transcribed by Jade Colbert, made Nov. 13 at the National Reading Summit (link) called “How to Destroy the Book”, with link here.

The speaker goes back to the concept of owning a copy of a book (or an “instance” of a book in Object Oriented Programming Jargon – I once got an email from a coworker about my 1997 book titled “my book” when he meant “my instance of your book”).

Yes, in the physical world, once you own the “instance”, you can lend the instance to others (as libraries do) or make physical copies for your own use, probably (although not with library books, it copying meant you would never buy a book you would normally have to pay for). (You couldn’t easily copy whole books at Kinkos, or employees wouldn’t do it). But digital rights management (DRM) has so complicated the picture, making the “purchaser” of an e-book a “licensee” in some cases (it gets complicated, as the essay explains).

I remember back in the 1960s a friend and I would tape each other’s records, sometimes: we thought that we both bought so many classical record original copies (usually at deeply discounted sale prices) that we were fair to the music industry. Taping onto a cassette for private use made some sense, because in the old days records would wear out. CD’s changed that (although CD’s might not store forever, after all).

Doctorow also talks about the international treaty negotiations in South Korea and concerns over expanding downstream liability. YouTube and Blogger, for example, could never possibly preclear every posting or video posted by amateurs. Many people don’t get this (or maybe they do).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Bruce Bartlett's "The New American Economy": the end of Reaganomics?

Author: Bruce Bartlett
Title: "The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward"
Publication: Palgrave/MacMillan, 2009, ISBN 978-0-61587-8, 266 pages, hardcover

In his Introduction, Bartlett relates how he got fired from his job in a conservative think tank for writing a book, published by Doubleday in 2006, “Imposter: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy”.

Bartlett gives a lot of historical technical explanations of both Keynesian economics, where government spending is sometimes necessary to dig an economy of the rut (as with TARP and all the Obama economic stimulus), supply side economics (Reagan), and various systems around the world, such as progressive consumption taxes, and VAT’s (value added taxes), popular in Europe, which he thinks the US needs to consider seriously now as a way of filling in its fiscal hole. He gives a lot of detailed explanations as to what happened in the Great Depression, Laffer Curve, the New Deal, the 50s and 60s, both deflation and inflation, the stagflation of the 70s, Reagan’s “morning” with the deficits (and Reagan actually increased some taxes!), Clinton’s fiscal conservatism, and George W. Bush’s general recklessness. Yes, to me, Bartlett sounds like a Democrat now, maybe even a liberal. He discounts the idea of “starving the beast”.

Particularly disturbing is his analysis of Social Security and Medicare, near the end of the book. Although Social Security is structured to look like an annuity (based largely on what a worker and/or his or her legal spouse earned while working), it really is much more of a “welfare program” for the elderly (regardless of need) than many people realize, partly because of the way it started during the FDR years. Libertarians (or libertarian conservatives) like to propose solving these problems with totally privatized pre-tax retirement and health savings accounts, with the idea that people should take care of themselves and not depend on either government or their adult kids. Of course, it’s difficult to switch to this system partly because of the welfare component and because, (to greatly oversimplify here), at an individual level “life is not fair.”

From a societal viewpoint, social conservatives have a point when they say that entitlement programs help break up families and when they say that social contracts need to be redesigned so that they give families more authority in mandating responsibility among their own adult members, especially those who do not have their own children (the “demographic winter” argument, which Bartlett does not get into in this book, but which seems to follow logically from the concerns that he does raise – he does mention a proposal that consumption taxes could help fund not only Medicare but even long term care insurance, as is being tried in some countries like Germany and Japan). The only way out of this (and the authoritarianism that it could invite) is to carefully analyze what it takes for adults to really be able to take care of themselves. Along these aims, it is not necessarily wrong to believe that some public goods (even health care and some aspects of public transportation, as in Europe) can be funded efficiently with consumption taxes, and it is possible to design consumption taxes so they are not regressive.

Bartlett also raises some red-flag warnings about how much of our debt is held overseas by investors in countries like China, and admits that by normal standards of creditworthiness, the U.S. seems to rank very low now, having squandered the savings built up in the Clinton years.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The End of the World as We "Knew" It

Googled: The End of the World As We Know It
Back in 2001, after coming home from seeing the first “Lord of the Rings” film, I got an unexpected email from an acquaintance who asked me to take down any reference to him in a particular posting on my website. It was a small matter. But in the ensuing conversation, he mentioned that before he dates anyone, he “googles” their name.

That was fully three years before social networking sites had gone full boil. So, of course, you can guess that the title of this posting refers to the new book by Ken Auletta, “Googled: The End of the World as We Know It”, from Penguin Press (New York, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59420-235-3), 384 pages, hardcover, endnotes. Call it “life as we knew it” – past tense.

It came as a surprise to me that the “Company” did not come into legal existence until the fall of 1998. In fact, Congress had already passed COPA, and soon I would become a plaintiff (sponsored by EFF). I would be asked to supply page view counts, and one thing I discovered is that they increased very rapidly starting in late 1998, as I got indexed into what would become the largest and most popular search engine.

Auletta spends a lot of the early part on the book on the idea of revolutionary innovation, of being the next teenager in a garage to come up with something to tear down whole industries. Page and Brin were already out of grad school, so the birth of The Company is not quite so shocking (Auletta covers the details), but the concept of “copying down” all the links on the Internet as it was in the mid 1990s was revolutionary, but perhaps no more so than other things going on (such as Shawn Fanning’s single-handed invention of Napster in the late 90s). There were other search engines, but Page, Brin and others brought their mathematical bent to develop a way to model “the wisdom of the masses”, coming up with a search technique that would lend itself to monetization, and a revolution more in the concept of how to run the whole world of advertising than anuthi

While tracing the “childhood” and “adolescence” of The Company, Auletta analyzes the “existential threats” to established media industries pretty thoroughly.

Particularly interesting is the guarded reaction of the book publishing industry, and of established authors, not only to the book project, but to the whole concept that writers expect their work to be found online and “scoped” rather than read leisurely (or studied carefully) after being paid for. The problem gets complex: some book publishers offer new authors “print on demand”, and “vanity publishing”, to develop a presence in the limelight, becomes much enabled.

But that possibility links up with concerns that Auletta raises at the very end, about the prospect for stricter government regulation, especially overseas, as many cultures consider “the community” more important than “the individual.” For example, one could then posit the moral question: if one stakes a position in the limelight, should one first have to be accountable for and to others? That can turn the whole paradigm of “personal responsibility” (for which so much of the Internet, where consequences occur retrospectively) upside down, perhaps Confucian style. (To get a rein on individual vanity and encourage social connectedness LDS or Amish style, one could suggest that an online book be allowed to remain available only if it does make reportable income!)

Auletta does mention the problem of online reputation, which boils down to the fact that anyone can publish anything and the whole world will find it quickly, especially when the material is made available to search engines. But the world of social networking makes the question more complicated: not only just with the issue of privacy controls (and trust in major companies), but with the whole purpose of being online: it’s socializing, it’s publishing, it’s everything. Auletta tangentially gives short histories of Myspace and Facebook, too.

There is something about “The Company” that regards itself as a super-utility, building on the content of users. Older media companies were predicated not only on the notion that “content is king”, but that content goes through supervision and review before it is “published”. (Auletta provides a lot of constructive criticism of the traditional newspaper business.) That it became permissible to dismiss the oversight component may seem like the fortune of history now, although much of it is embedded in Section 230 and in the DMCA safe harbor, a concept that the author doesn’t get into. We should not take things for granted so easily.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Traditional publishers cling to old business models when offering established authors e-book deals

Traditional, old-economy book publishers are trying to defend old business models as they deal with the e-book market, and established authors (and their estates) find that the publishers seem to be low-balling them on royalties for e-book reprints, according to a story by Motoko Rich in the Dec. 13 New York Times, “Plot twist for familiar works: who owns the e-book rights?”, link here.

Yet in some cases the book publishers, like Random House, claim the exclusive right to continue to represent certain authors or their estates.

In the long run, this could make bankable new authors less willing to deal with traditional publishers, some agents warn, even though agenting and book publishing has become a very numbers-driven business that tends to weed out midlist authors.

I’m reminded of a 2001 book by Donald Maass, “Writing the Breakout Novel: Inside Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level” (Writer’s Digest, 0-89879-995-3). The most important think for a novelist’s career was to stay on that top tier.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Robert Preston's "The Hot Zone": a relic from a 1995 book fair

It isn’t real often that I pick out older books to talk about on this blog, but in the drawdown period from H1N1, Robert Preston’s 1994 book “The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story” from Random House (ISBN 0-679-43094-6) makes a curious subject matter. I bought it at a book fair for about $1 at a book fair at work in the cafeteria in 1995.

Of course, we know that it is like a “non-fiction” novel about the Marburg and even deadlier Ebola virus. The latter chapters account for an incident where a supposedly airborne form of Ebola almost escaped from an Army conveyance into Reston, VA in 1987. Generally these viral hemorrhagic fever (VHF)’s of the filovirus family are transmissible only through “body fluids” but the infections are much more transmissible than HIV in practice.

But the book is written in intriguing style, starting with a cave expedition (in the Kitum Cave) near Kenya’s Mount Elgon, with a local whose disease will start with a bizarre headache.

Here is Stanford University's link on Ebola Reston (link).

A massive companion volume is Laurie Garrett, "Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance" (1994, Penguin, ISBN 0140250913). This volume gives graphic accounts of Lassa fever, Marburg, Ebola --and, of course, HIV. The blow-by-blow account of an explorer who recovered from the liquefying effects of Ebola but developed universal alopecia in the process is particularly striking.

The germs in the natural world are probably a greater practical threat than anything man can make up in a lab. As for a vaccine on H5N1, we’d better get cooking.

Preston's book would make a great movie. I don't think it's been done.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Does "The Book Settlement" encourage indirect book censorship?

Fred Van Lohmann has an interesting critique of the Google Books settlement, dated December 3, 2009, link here. He makes a point that makes one think of some of the arguments in the network neutrality debate: the “master company” could have subconscious motives to engage in censorship of what it makes available, with little accountability.

EFF makes the point that the copyright owner of a book is not always the author. As with Howard Hughes, a copyright can be purchased and then the book suppressed; the article gives other examples (and I recall an issue with J.D. Salinger’s (The Catcher in the Rye) works. Foreign governments could apply pressure to suppress certain books.

There is also a question as to whether the contents of a book could be altered, if a “rightsholder” wanted it to be changed, in keeping with the issue noted above. And the public might never be told.