Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Ebook Wars have begun

Today, McMillan's books are no longer available at Amazon's store. This is not just e-books, but paper books as well. Science Fiction authors John Scalzi and Charlie Stross have already weighed in, in favor of their publishers, of course.

The dispute in question is as follows. MacMillan would like to move away from the wholesale/retail model to an agency model. The wholesale model basically had Amazon paying MacMillan the whole sale price of each book (typically $15-17), and since Amazon was selling best-sellers at $9.99, meant that Amazon was subsidizing each best-seller at about $5 to $7 a pop. Note that Amazon didn't subsidize all books (if you're not a best-seller, you don't get such treatment), but my guess is that Amazon could continue subsidizing best-sellers indefinitely.

The agency model, by contrast, would eliminate Amazon's freedom to use best-sellers as a loss-leader, but forcing pricing of those books at MacMillan's choice (again, typically $15-$17), while granting Amazon 30% of the retail price (which would now be set at MacMillan's desired level). The net result is that Amazon would make more money on those best sellers, but also cripple the ebook market. Why would this happen? Consumers instinctively think that ebooks are worth less than paper books. That's because you can't resell an ebook, or loan it to your friend (mostly because of DRM---again, publishers could opt out of this, but they won't). Pricing an ebook at $15-17 would eliminate all ebook sales because hardcovers with a retail price of $24 would be discounted (under the wholesale/retail model) by 30% to about $18, which means that the ebook would have no price advantage. On top of that, Amazon would no longer be able to compete on price, which I would guess Amazon considers to be a major strategic issue for them.

Who's going to win this battle depends entirely upon whether other publishers join in the fight. Amazon cannot afford to cut off all book sales of more than a couple of major publishers. On the other hand, by being the first to force the issue, MacMillan will be taking the brunt of the loss of sales. I myself haven't bought a paper book from a major publisher for years, and losing e-books would simply mean that the consumers with Kindles and other e-readers will be trained to use the DarkNet rather than legitimate sources.

Ironically, the best thing that could happen to MacMillan and the publishing industry was if they lost this battle, and Amazon keeps the retail/wholesale model of sales. E-book readers are not going to go away, and training a new generation of users to pirate books by pricing them insanely high will not be good for the next generation of authors. I will note that the existing authors like Scalzi and Stross could easily sell their own ebooks online at their web-site, and given that their sites already get gazillions of visits, I think that they are already past the tipping point where their incomes would get major boosts by firing their publishers.

Marion Maneka wrote a piece over on slate about how demand for a book was inelastic. I think she's missing the picture. The audience of book readers is pretty small, and getting smaller. Even avid readers like me have to choose between reading a book, watching a movie, playing a video game, or going out hiking/cycling/sailing, etc. While slowing down the ebook market would have the effect of generating more revenue in the short term, in the long run, the entire book market (all authors and publishers) lose much more if I get fed up with the publishing industry shenanigans and decide to buy a Nintendo DS Lite instead.

Wouldn't the book publishing industry do much better with the next generation of readers hooked on $5 ebooks and paying for those?

[News Update: MacMillan is being even more evil than that: they're trying to force all ebook vendors to adopt the new contract, while forcing authors to accept a below industry average (20% vs. 25%) on ebook royalties.]
[New Update: Amazon capitulates. Book publishers will now commence shooting themselves (and the ebook market) in the foot]

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Review: Baraka Blu Ray

This is the fourth time I've seen Baraka. I don't make it a point to see movies more than once as a matter of course, but when I first saw this movie in 1992, it blew me away. A film without dialogue, conversation or plot, yet telling a story with gorgeous, glorious cinematography, this movie captivated me for the entirety of 90 minutes. The next time I saw my parents, I took them to the movie. Then when Lisa and I had some time, we saw the movie on DVD.

Much has been written about the transfer process used to capture Baraka on blu-ray discs, and while critics usually succumb to hyperbole about it, I have to say in this case they are correct: the transfer is immaculate, and will provide as close to a 70mm film experience as you can expect. This is definitely a disc that will show off your home theater system if you've built one, or expose faults with it if what you've built is inadequate.

The extras on the discs are as long as the movie, and show how the film was made: the film-makers built their own equipment, and shot the whole thing mostly with 5 people. My respect for the makers went up: these weren't people who shot a ton of film only to throw most of it away; their budget was so low that they had to make every shot count.

Needless to say, this movie is highly recommended. If you haven't seen it before, make sure to see it with the best home theater set up you can get. It will blow you away.

Kindle Tips

When I gave Scarlet a Kindle for her birthday last year, I wrote up a page worth of tips for using it. Then as more and more of my friends bought one, that page got passed around, and now Larry reminds me that it's worth posting:
  • List of free kindle books. These are mostly publisher promotions.
  • Calibre e-book management software. This lets you manage E-books that you didn't buy from Amazon, and also lets you download all of the NYTimes, to your Kindle on a daily basis. Of course, it's probably easier to just pay $9.99 a month. :-)

  • Mobile read ebook collection. All .mobi format books are essentially Kindle books. Yes, every Jane > Austen, every Sherlock Holmes, every H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo - it's all public domain, and all free, and very nicely formatted over at Mobile read, usually better than the versions sold for money on Amazon.com.

  • MobiPocket Creator turns all your PDFs/Microsoft Word/etc files into Kindle books. There's no Mac version, but you can always e-mail yourself documentsand have it wirelessly sent to your Kindle for about 15cents/MB.

  • Baen Books also sells $5 ebooks. Unfortunately, Baen seems to publish books for libertarian programmers rather than normal people. They do make books from other publishers available occasionally, however.

  • Fictionwise.com also has magazines you might not be able to get at Amazon.com (such as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction). All their "multi-format" books are DRM free and come in Kindle format, so you can use those on your Kindle.

Review: John T. Reed's Succeeding

Succeeding is John T. Reed's self-help book. Self-help books are generally boring and bland, since they have to be designed to sell to as many people as possible. Reed, however, has a very strong personality and depending on who you are, you may or may not want to read 300 pages worth of the kind of material he has on his web-site.

I enjoyed Succeeding. I think it's very much worth the time. In some cases, I came across advice in the book that I wish I had when I was 18. For instance, Reed spends an appendix and a few sections referring to his "Dating System". I discovered the same thing when I was nearly 30. He did it in a systematic fashion when he was a West Pointer in college.

His section on investing is a great summary of Unconventional Success, which is a great place to start, and shows that he's not an idiot about finances. Unlike other books on the topic, he covers the selection of appropriate financial goals, and points out that setting them too high can cause you to take more risk than you should have, and that pursuit of too much wealth distorts your life in ways that you might not imagine.

He pushes self-employment pretty hard, as he thinks that being a cog in a big machine of either the army, the federal government, or a large company is bad for people with a strong sense of ethics. To a large extent, I agree, but I've also had a good career with many Silicon Valley startups, all of which were uniformly concerned with ethics and doing the right thing, so I disagree that you have to go the self-employed route. However, self-employment is the route to wealth for most millionaires, as described in The Millionaire Next Door, and Reed is writing for the general public, not your typical Silicon Valley software engineer, so I'll give him a pass there.

I don't agree with everything he writes, but in the essential stuff (risk, reward, choice of career, staying away from alcohol, tobacco and drugs), I think he's got it right.

All in all, this book was worth $29.95, which is a good thing, since that's what you'll have to pay for a copy. Reed is self-published, and does not sell to bookstores (especially not Amazon, against which he has a grudge) and libraries.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review: Nyko Blu Wave Remote

The PS3, as previously mentioned, makes a fantastic blu-ray and DVD player. However, it does have one flaw, which is that it can only be controlled with blue-tooth. This is not a problem if all you're doing is playing games, but when watching a DVD or a blu-ray movie, the PS3 controller would go into sleep mode after a period of inactivity, then when you need to pause, you're frantically pushing the PS button on the controller, waiting for it to re-register, and then pushing pause. This was not very conducive, and also had the disadvantage that I had to have 2 controllers in my hand, the universal remote and the PS3 controller. I could buy the Sony PS3 blu-ray remote, but then I'd still have to have 2 remotes around.

The Nyko Remote is a USB dongle with an infra-red port that comes with an infra-red remote. Since my universal remote was fully programmable, the first thing I did when I unpacked it was to program my universal remote with all the functions of the Nkyo, and then keep that remote boxed up. The remote is missing two functions, an Eject Button, and a Power on button. Given that every time I have to play a disc, I have to walk over to the PS3 and stick it into the device anyway, this is no big deal. Once the PS3 is turned on, I can navigate to the eject and power off screen functions using the remote just fine, so ejecting the disc and turning off the device is no big deal.

So now I have one device that controls all the functions of my entertainment system. The only real downside as far as I can see is that now I only have one slot on my PS3 free for charging controllers. Until Lisa decides that PS3 games are fun enough for her, I don't see this as a big deal --- I haven't even bought a second controller yet!

Needless to say, the Nkyo remote is highly recommended at the $12 Amazon.com price.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Update

For those of you who are wondering about the book. I'm now close enough to the finish line that I'm starting to think about things like book sizes (5x8? 6x9?), font sizes (size 10? size 12?), font type (Garmond?), and who to get to do my printing (Amazon is the current leading contender).

And yes, I horribly mis-priced the book over at Kickstarter. The final price will be likely closer to $29.95 than $15 a book, but giving my early supporters a price break seems only fair. I'm actually really shocked to see so much support, so thank you all very much. Obviously, at this point, even if Kickstarter fails to generate $1000, the book will go out.

The electronic edition actually offers a major conundrum. I'm a big fan of the Kindle, as anyone who has traveled with me knows. But the royalty split between the author and Amazon is an astonishingly low 30%/70%. I'm not expecting to get rich off this book, but at this point, it seems like I'm better off going John T Reed style and accepting Google checkout in exchange for a DRM-free version of the book! Funnily enough, the print split between Amazon and the author is a much more reasonable 50/50 split. Even that's annoying enough for me to want to go John T. Reed on everyone and just inventory and ship the books myself. (I'm not egoistic enough think that this will be a best seller by any means --- it's a highly technical book on a very niche topic)

Disappointed with Battlestar Galactica Seasons 3 and 4

After I wrote the rave reviews of Battlestar Galactica Seasons 1 and 2, I let it lie fallow for a few years, partly because I was in Germany with no real way to watch TV, but also because my friends who kept watching Seasons 3 and 4 expressed their disappointment to me.

I started watching Season 3 with low expectations, but episodes 1-4 were amazing, rivaling any of the first two seasons. The subject matter was intense, and the scripting and pacing near perfect. I started to hope.

Unfortunately, the rest of the season disappointed me. It wasn't so much so as each individual episode was bad, but the sense of an overall story-arc faded. It felt like literature professors had taken over the shows from science fiction authors, as the show started worrying more about character development (not that there wasn't plenty before, but now the show really worked on it) and meaning and symbols instead of telling a great story.

This really became obvious in Season 4, when it became very clear that Ron Moore had no idea where he was going all along, with the story contradicting itself in blatant fashion, with plot-holes you could pilot a full squadron of Vipers through. Seriously, I can put up a ton of suspension of disbelief, but the resurrection of one of the major characters with no real explanation? That takes it from science fiction to serious bible study allegories. There's a place for it, but keep it away from my fiction, especially one that worked so hard to maintain an illusion of a working military.

I wish I had stopped watching the TV series after Season 3 Episode 4, but I was curious to see if the producers and story tellers could salvage anything out of the mess they had written themselves in, and they never did. The photography was gorgeous, the actors just as great as before, but with an empty shell of story, it all turned out to be just eye candy. Someone I read recently wrote: "It's as though Lance Armstrong came into the last stage of the Tour De France in the yellow jersey, and 300m from the finish line, crashed and broke his collarbone and DNF'd." I think it was much worse than that. It was as though Lance got off his bike, and beat up one of his fans and got taken to jail and DNF'd.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: Drive

Drive is the latest in a series of books that really should have been a magazine article. You can get most of the gist of the book from the 20-minute TedTalk Daniel Pink gave in 2009. The talk is really good: in 20 minutes Dan explains that extrinsic rewards actually serve to reduce performance in creative tasks, and turns what would be pleasure into work. This isn't really controversial, and there's a lot of studies to prove it. For instance, Warren Buffett, who's long lived in a $300,000 house for 20 years, and picks up a salary of $100,000 a year, outperforms any number of Wall Street traders and investment bankers who get all sorts of bonuses and performance incentives dangled in front of them.

The problem with the book is that it doesn't say a lot about what you do with this knowledge. For instance, he suggests 20% time as something good. I agree. Unfortunately, I've heard of places where that 20% time was treated as a reward for good behavior, with large swaths of the organization referring to it as 120% time. Dan Pink doesn't examine the secondary and follow on effects of introducing something like this in a traditional environment with traditional management.

A friend of mine once told me that he thought the biggest mistake the company we worked for made was to introduce a career ladder for engineers. At that time, I disagreed, because I thought that the extrinsic motivation of promotions and additional stock options, etc., would generate good behavior. Having seen the follow-on effects in later years of people gaming the system, and what should have been a motivational tool turn into a de-motivational tool, I'm inclined to agree. For software engineering at least, extrinsic motivations don't work. Ditch it and ensure that people have job satisfaction instead doing work to the best of their ability.

None of that is in the book. If it was, I'd be please about paying $9.99 for the Kindle edition. As it is, I say watch the Ted Talk for free --- there's nothing new in the book. Dan's very good at explaining existing work, but isn't an original thinker capable of analyzing second-order effects. Not recommended for the price, though being a short read, you could easily check it out from the library.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Little things that matter

I'm finally watching the Season 4.5 of Battlestar Galactica, on the new PS3 setup. What amazed me about the PS3 is that it's actually a much better DVD player than my old dedicated DVD player.

You know how every time you watch a DVD it shows you the anti-piracy screen that's impossible to bypass? Well, if you watch 4 episodes that were stored on the same DVD on separate occasions on the DVD player, you get to sit through it 4 times. But on the PS3, you only see it once! That's because the PS3 remembers where you were, and restarts the DVD from where you left off.

It's this kind of attention to detail that's the reason Apple products are kicking ass. I'm so impressed that Sony's consumer group gets it as well. I get a little thrill every time I startup the PS3 for movie playing as a result.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Appendix: Equipment Reviews

The following equipment worked very well, as previously reviewed:
The following performed incredibly well, but were not previously reviewed:

Blackberry Curve 8320. This was by far the most valuable phone on the trip in a ship full of phones. International data roaming meant that Lisa and I could get e-mail access at all times. With the UMA service, any phone call in a Wi-Fi connected zone was a local call to the US. Today's choice would most likely be a Blackberry 8900. Note that of all the U.S. Carriers, only T-mobile supports UMA. For international travel, there is no reason to carry any other phone. I say despite knowing that yes, the Nexus One and iPhone are faster devices. It doesn't matter how fast the device is if you can't get access to data at a decent price while traveling, which is when I want data most. Highly recommended.

Sea-To-Summit Dry Bags. Light and water proof. Exactly what you want for a sailing trip. Or a cycling trip, or a backpacking trip. Every outdoors person should have a collection of these in his closet. Highly recommended.

MSR Pack Towel. Douglas Adams on towels. This one is light and absorbs massive quantities of water. Enough said.

Cloudveil Cool Caribe Shants. I bought 2 pairs at the Sports Basement. They were great. Long enough to protect knees, short enough to be cool. I can't wait to treat them like cycling knickers. The pockets are so well designed that when I got dunked into water my wallet stayed in them and I didn't lose it. Highly recommended.

The following performed somewhat decently, but had drawbacks:

Vibram Five Fingers. This was my first trip with the Five Fingers where I finally got comfortable with them. As usual, they attracted lots of attention, with two people offering to buy them off my feet. The problem with them is that once you get sand in them, it's nearly impossible to get sand out without putting them in the laundry. On a boat trip, that's incredibly annoying. I still wouldn't use these on a long hike.

HP Mini. This was a reasonable netbook, but the battery life is terrible, I don't think we ever got more than 3 hours of battery life out of it. They keyboard was nice, and I liked being able to write on it while I was on vacation, but if I was looking for a netbook, I'd look for one with longer battery life.

Wolverine PicPac. On the one hand, this allowed us to back up all our pictures. On the other hand, it can't be treated like a normal hard drive, and had a tough time connecting once I got home. I think a better solution would be to carry a netbok and a universal card reader.

Conclusion and Thoughts

Usually when I go on vacation, the general rule is the cheaper the vacation, the better experience I have. That's because you do more on the cheaper vacations: whether it's sailing or cycling, you control your destiny by controlling your schedule, deciding where to go, when to go, and how to go. This grants you maximum bang for the buck and the S.V. Illusion seemed like one of those cases.

However, I struggle with trying to come up with who would have a good time on the Illusion. Experienced sailors will have a tough time because the boat clearly doesn't sail well. Any sailboat which regularly requires the engine to move with any decent speed doesn't really deserve the moniker. New sailors could potentially find sailing with Norman a good idea: he's a good sailor, and knows his boat inside out. However, he is also impatient, and can be difficult to get along with. More important, however, the boat just doesn't maneuver well enough to really be a good instructional boat. Not once did we come about, or gybe. I shudder to think how the boat would do on a man-overboard figure 8 (though since the engine is usually on anyway, it doesn't matter—you'd just furl the sails and motor to the man overboard).

The really big knock against the Illusion is what Ron said: "It's difficult to trust the man's judgement." I'm not sure I could recommend the experience to novices. Certainly, if I was the first person to run a formal knots lesson on the boat, don't expect your lessons to come other than in the heat of the moment, or if you're driven to learn yourself. A typical sailing certification can be had in 6 days, and will be much more useful to you.

I guess ultimately, the best way to use the Illusion is if you don't particularly care where you go, and are willing to go with whatever Norman wants to do. He's not a snorkeling fan, so don't expect good snorkeling—arrange that yourself. He won't pay to dive, so don't expect good diving, because he won't inconvenience himself by mooring or anchoring at a good dive spot, so expect to arrange that yourself. Make sure you go when the boat has at most 3 other crew on board, so that Norman isn't swamped by the responsibility. If you can meet all these conditions, you have a good chance of having a good time at a very low price. For myself, I expect that I will do my own charters after this, or find something with someone I know. There is such a thing as being too cheap.

There's apparently going to be a reality TV show to be filmed on the Illusion later on this year. This is one reality TV show that I might have to watch.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Kindle DX just went international

The Kindle DX just picked up international wireless! Unfortunately, they haven't dropped the price, indicating that the sales volume is too low to drive economies of scale. The $489 device ships on Jan 19th. For my money, the Kindle 2 is probably the better travel companion.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Sailing and Diving St. Vincent and the Grenadines

This is the index page for our recent sailing and diving trip through St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Unlike other sailing trips, I learned about this through an article in the New York Times about the Illusion.

Pictures
St. Vincent and the Grenadines


Trip Report

2010 Book Reviews Index

Note: The Books of the Year for 2010 have been picked.
Fiction

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Review: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station is China Mieville's steampunk novel set in the city of New Crobuzon. It took me two tries to read it: the first time, I checked it out of the Santa Clara County Library, but could not get past the first few chapters in the 3 weeks I had it. Then the Kindle store gave it away free, and it sat on my Kindle for a few months until I got around to it.

Mieville has probably written the best graphic novel in words. His descriptions are evocative, creating in my mind frame after frame of images corresponding to his characters --- the mad scientist Issac Dan der Grimnebulin, his artist lover Lin, and even the mayor of the city as he confers with the Demon ambassador (it is a tribute to the scope of the novel that this isn't giving away an important part of the book --- less ambitious novel would have made that scene the fulcrum of the novel). Mieville's command of the language is impeccable. He also has a huge vocabulary and is not afraid to use it or invent new ones --- reading this novel on the Kindle made me realized that the reason I rarely used the dictionary feature was because I rarely found authors with such large vocabularies!

The plot starts with Issac being asked to restore a formerly winged sapient to flight, while his artist lover gains a patron. The two threads converge, diverge, and converge again, as one of Issac's research projects goes awry, and he releases a predator into the city that proceeds to threaten the entire locale.

All through this plot presentation, Mieville ensures that the city of New Crobuzon is as much a character as any of the ones that talk and do things. We get introduced to all that various races (including one of Cactus-men), technology, and side plots. In fact, if there's any weakness in the novel, it's that Mieville seems so enraptured of his milleu, that entire pages are devoted to it that are irrelevant to plot and seem like so much padding. For example, did he need to really spend an entire chapter on how cable was laid?

Nevertheless, the plot is interesting, the characters, while perhaps stereotyped and not one hundred percent original, different enough from standard fantasy fare to be very much worth your time. In fact, if urban fantasy was this good, I would be pleased. And it is a meaty novel, so you'll get plenty for your money --- in fact, I don't think I could finish this book within 3 weeks if I didn't have a long travel day during my recent trip. If I get another long travel day ahead, I will probably buy another Mieville book to keep myself occupied and return to the city of New Crobuzon.

Recommended.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Epilogue

The rest of the trip was uneventful, as we took various taxis, planes, and so forth back home. We had a bit of time between the ferry and the flight, so our taxi driver did give us a bit of extra time. It did feel nice to have a shower, and I did learn something about American airlines. If you have a long layover and want a chance to fly stand-by for an earlier flight, don't check your baggage in after receiving it from customs. You need to go back to the ticketing counter and let them recheck the baggage after they've rebooked you for another flight.
From St. Vincent and the Grenadines

Alena, unfortunately had her lugguage lost again on the way home, but this time, she remembered to pack all her warm clothing in her carry on, so it was only a minor inconvenience.
From St. Vincent and the Grenadines

New Year's Day

We woke up at 5:45am and hurriedly packed whatever we could not pack the day before, and brought all our lugguage. I woke up Alena at 6:00am, and we then waited on deck and said goodbye to everyone else, who had awakened early to see us off. Apparently, the night before, Norman had returned to the Illusion without telling anyone else, so everyone partied until 1:00am before returning. Apparently the street dancing was quite something and very exciting, though someone had told the crew that this year was particularly quiet because of the recession.

At 6:10am, Norman came up to have some parting words with us. "You didn't pay the water taxi last night. You're responsible for all the fees, since you didn't have to leave early. When the water taxi guy shows up, he won't take your bags until you pay him." Those were his last words to us.
From St. Vincent and the Grenadines

At 6:20, the water taxi hadn't shown up yet, so I gave him a call. He sounded groggy, as though he had been napping in his boat, but showed up with 10 minutes and delivered us to the ferry dock with plenty of time. I paid him 50EC for his trouble, we got onto the ferry, and watched as a glorious rainbow poured down from the sky. As the ferry departed the harbor, I took the last few pictures of the Sailing Vessel Illusion, quiet and serene in the morning light.
From St. Vincent and the Grenadines