Archive for the 'Society & Politics' Category

Why The Author’s Guild is Wrong about the Kindle

Friday, February 13th, 2009

The Author’s Guild has objected to the text-to-speech features of the new Kindle, suggesting that it somehow jeopardizes the rights of authors (See: will lawyers kill the Kindle). They are wrong on many counts.

First, it is not a copyright violation.

If you read a book out loud, is that different from reading it silently? If someone reads a book to you, does that mean you both have to buy a copy of the book? What if you hire someone to read to you? Of course not. So why would an automated reading device be any different? It is not.

Now a true audio book is different from a printed book. Why? Because it is a derivative work – a performance of a book. It is a new work that is derived from the original.

Some might argue that speech-to-text is also a performance of a work and subject to a new copyright – and it would be, if you tried to sell and market such a work. A similar situation exists with translations. If you wish to translate a book and sell the translation, you have to get permission from the copyright holder. But if a friend comes over to read a book in a foreign language and translates it for you as they read, that is perfectly fine. Text-to-speech is that high-tech friend.

But the copyright argument is not the biggest reason that the Author’s Guild is wrong about the Kindle. The real problem is that they are acting against the best interests of authors.

Here’s why.

Let’s consider audio books on CD in two categories. In general fiction shows 13867 results. In SF and fantasy, 1891 results.

Why would someone buy an audio book? Possibilities include:

  • Unable to read (visually impaired)
  • Too lazy to read
  • Wants to utilize commute time (while driving, on public transit).
  • Enjoys the performance.

Let’s assume that the first three of these represent 75% of the market, and that it can be replaced by text-to-speech. Let’s also assume that few people would buy both the print and audio book. Since audio books cost more than print books, text-to-speech technology should result in some drop of income to these authors as people choose to buy the print book instead of the audio book. If audio books represent 10% of a book’s total sales, and if we assume the audio book pays an author twice what a print book does, the author will lose 50% of 75% of 10% of their income – a drop in 3.75% of their income.

Of course, this would have a much greater impact on audio book publishers – but then why isn’t the audio book publisher’s guild complaining? Surely the Author’s Guild wouldn’t make such a fuss over a 3.75% drop of author’s income.

Especially when you consider the following:

Amazon lists 403,000 results just in general fiction, almost 90,000 books in SF and Fantasy. Or put another way, maybe 3% of printed books have audio books available. If there’s one thing we know about the market – when prices drop, people tend to buy more. Text-to-speech effectively reduces the cost of audio books which means people will buy more – and now they’ll be able to choose from any title, not just those with audio books available. Ultimately this will benefit far more authors as book sales increase overall.

While the numbers I use are largely hypothetical, the principle is clear – text-to-speech is good for authors. It makes their existing books more accessible and opens them to markets (commuters, visually impaired) that were otherwise closed to them. Authors win. The consumer wins. A few authors might lose a small amount. And audio book publishers potentially lose – they will have to market their good purely based on the quality of their performers, not just on the fact that it is an audio book.

The Author’s Guild should live up to its name and acknowledge the fact that the Kindle’s new text-to-speech feature is neither a copyright violation, nor is it counter to the interests of authors.

Kudos to Bill Gates

Thursday, June 15th, 2006

With news of Gates’ planned retirement from Microsoft, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on his extraordinary accomplishments:

  • He founded Microsoft
  • He managed to maintain a majority stake and control over Microsoft.
  • He recruited a team capable of managing Microsoft (in so far as any company of that size and built-in degree of chaos can be managed).
  • He built an organization strong enough to carry on running Microsoft without him.
  • He’s leaving Microsoft so he can spend his time making the world a better place by working on health projects and reforming education (something desperately needed).

While one might credit some of these to being at the right place at the right time, and one might disagree with some of his actions along the way, one can’t help but being impressed by these absolutely remarkable accomplishments.

Given the resources he brings into play with his foundation, and his talents, it’s just possible he’ll make a real difference addressing these problems. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he makes more of a difference than some of the governments who are supposed to be addressing these problems.

I, for one, commend him on his decision, and wish him all success on this venture.

Thoughts on written communication

Thursday, June 1st, 2006

The three comments on my previous post, along with some conversations elsewhere, have led me to think a bit on the nature of written communication in the information age.

Consider this comment: “You clearly don’t have any idea of what you are talking about. Unsubscription from the VB5 guy’s blog is in order” and the one that follows: “Surely you can have an opinion without resorting to personal comments.”

Now the interesting thing about the first comment isn’t that the reader disagrees with me – even most Microsoft folks will admit that google is still better on search (Gates implied as much at the D4 – All Things Digital Conference this week). It isn’t even that the reader made personal comments.

It’s that the personal comments were so mild.

It wasn’t too many years ago that virtually every forum or discussion board on the web was not only illiterate, but would frequently degenerate into massive “flame wars” where insults and personal attacks became the order of the day. Frankly, I haven’t noticed too many of those recently. In fact, take a random sampling of any discussion board from slashdot to most blogs and I think you’ll find them remarkably civil – at least compared to earlier days.

Some felt that the reason flame wars took place was the lack of immediate feedback that comes from posting on a discussion board. It’s easier to disregard someone’s feelings if you can’t see their expression while disagreeing with them. This still applies, but now it seems more common for people to respond critically to personal attacks. Perhaps as a result there is a sense that personal attacks reduce your own credibility? (If only that worked with political campaigns).

Another interesting phenomena I’ve seen is especially among younger people – the quality of their writing has improved dramatically. Fifteen years ago when teens showed up on our local BBS discussion boards, most of them could barely string a coherent sentence together (much less spell the words correctly). Today, thanks to Email and IM, teens write all the time, and the results are noticeable. Most may not be great writers, but the overall quality of writing has improved dramatically.

Between increased civility and better writing, participating in NET discussions has, frankly, become much more pleasant than it used to be – at least from my point of view. I’d be interested in hearing if any of you who have been around for a while have noticed this as well?

Four more years – What you can do now

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2004

My condolences to the Democrats among us, who are in a state of shock wondering how Bush could have won.

My condolences to Republicans among us as well – of all the Republicans out there, you get to have Bush represent your party (at least we in California have Schwarzenegger).

Anyway, we have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Business as usual in Iraq, an increasing national debt, a degraded environment, increased challenges to civil liberties and a preference for corporations over individual rights. There’s no reason to expect much change on this score.

You may be wondering what you can do about it. Sorry, you can’t all move to Canada or New Zealand.

And you can’t do much about Iraq or the deficit.

But if you’re concerned about freedom and civil liberties, there are two things you can do right now that will make a difference. Doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican, just that you care about freedom (the first, and most important of American values).

Join the American Civil Liberties Union.

Join the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

You’ve got nothing better to do for the next 2 years until campaign 2008 starts, and you can make a difference. Spread the word.

The Great Cyber Security Debate Between John Kerry and George Bush (that never happened)

Wednesday, October 6th, 2004


The topic of tonight’s debate is security. Because this debate is fictional, both candidates are permitted to ask each other questions directly. There are no time limits. If a red light starts flashing quickly, it’s probably your hard drive light and indicates that your computer has been hacked and someone is downloading your last ten years worth of tax returns.

Our first question is to President Bush. Mr. President, there is some concern that your administration has not paid enough attention to the issue of cyber-security. How do you respond to this?


We’ve been working hard. Very hard. On cyber-security. Securing the Internet – it’s a hard thing. But we’re making progress. Since 9/11 we have had not one, not two, but three different cyber-security chiefs. In fact, our most recent one, Amit Yoran, just resigned this week, leaving an opening for a fourth chief!


I have a clear and consistent vision on cyber-security. It’s a four step plan. First, we’ll give our cyber-security chief some real responsibility and funding so he can make a real difference. Second, I’ll have the department of education require that computer security education be part of every classroom in the country where a computer is used. Third, I’ll make sure that our own government agencies are secure. Fourth we’ll work with allies around the world, employing a global test to shut down the phishing attacks coming to our citizens from other countries. Fifth, we’ll start a national campaign to educate all our citizens about how to protect their computers.


The American people want a president who is consistent and decisive. Not one who flip flops. First you say you have a four step plan. Then you have a five step plan. What hacker will be convinced to stop hacking by a president who can’t count? My plan is a real plan. We stopped the legal action against Microsoft, leaving them free to innovate. That’s the American way. Innovation. We won’t let the government use open source – people contributing to a common code base? That’s communism.


The job of government isn’t to protect Microsoft from open source. It’s to protect citizens from spyware and identity theft. It’s to prevent cyber-terrorism. It’s to protect people’s privacy. People should be free to use whatever software they want. People should have the right if they buy a CD or DVD to play it on any operating system or device they own, without fear that they will be sued by a large corporation.


We need true tort reform, to stop the trial lawyers from suing the large corporations and driving up prices for everyone. What kind of candidate chooses a trial lawyer to be his vice presidential candidate?


We need true tort reform, to stop the corporate lawyers from suing individuals and scaring the s**t out of everyone. What kind of candidate chooses… oh, what’s the use.


We need to protect the core values of this country. American values. Values held by real Americans. Look at this (he holds up a book). “Always Use Protection” What kind of name is this for a security book for teenagers? It’s immoral. The only real answer is abstinence.


Mr. President: You’re protecting large corporations and their right to control the way individuals use technology. Your cyber-security efforts have been mostly exercises in under funded turf-building. And now you suggest that the best way to secure computers is to not use them? This country needs new leadership. We need a hacker in chief. Someone smart enough to create a fake document that could fool a national news network….


This concludes our fictional cyber-security debate. Please join us next week when Dick Cheney and John Edwares debate the relative merits of the MSN Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger Services for spreading misleading statements about the opposing candidate.

Volcanoes as Weapons of Mass Destruction

Sunday, October 3rd, 2004

Having watched the recent presidential debate, I realized that President Bush is in need of additional help. It seems that constant repetitions of 9/11, terrorism and nucular weapons are no longer as effective at scaring people as they were (at least in so far as portraying the president as the only one who can handle them), and there is urgent need of a new threat.

Fortunately for the president, there is unequivocal evidence that the eruption of Mount St. Helens is, in fact, being caused by Al-Qaeda.

Want proof? Consider this:

  • Mt. Canlaon (in the Philippines) erupted in 1988, the same year as Al-Qaeda was founded.
  • At least one volcano has erupted somewhere in the world each year since Al-Qaeda was founded.
  • Historically, volcanoes truly are weapons of mass destruction, resulting in massive casualties and property damage, not to mention poisoning the air and environment.
  • Though somewhat lacking in portability, they have the advantage of already being at the target area, eliminating the need to smuggle them into the country by air or sea.
  • John Kerry has done nothing to address the potential terrorist threat of volcanoes, leaving the door wide open for Bush to take the initiative.
  • Afghanistan, the home of Al- Qaeda, is mountainous – the ideal training ground for volcanic warfare.

Clearly, in these final weeks leading up to the election, the vicious terrorist attack at Mount St. Helens is the ideal campaign issue. It will catch Kerry’s camp completely by surprise, and by the time they formulate a clear policy on the issue, the dust (or ash) will already have settled.

For those wondering how truly effective volcanoes can be as weapons of mass destruction, the following may be of interest:

The Forge of God by Greg Bear: Plenty of volcanoes and cataclysmic destruction in the most depressing rendition of earth’s obliteration since the Vogons blew it up to make way for a hyperspacial bypass.

Volcano (DVD) – Toss in a few earthquakes and plenty of fire, this L.A. disaster epic is surely bedtime watching for Bin-Laden and company.

Dante’s Peak – Not much for mass casualties, but this volcano must have never listened to scientists, cause it erupts and blows up in just about every way possible.

Our Amazing Volcanoes – Terrorist training kit for Al- Qaeda children, teaches how to construct volcanoes and trigger eruptions. It is truly astonishing that such toys are allowed to be sold.

Funniest Election News Ever (or how to tell if you’re an extremist)

Thursday, September 23rd, 2004

Ok, I admit I am jet-lagged, which certainly explains why I’m awake at 5:00am in a London hotel room. But it doesn’t explain why today’s election news isn’t the funniest thing I’ve heard yet. And if you don’t find it funny too you’re probably way too extreme (in either direction), are a conspiracy theorist, or have no sense of humor.

Today’s Donald Rumsfeld was quoted as saying:

“Let’s say you tried to have an election and you could have it in three-quarters or four-fifths of the country — in some places you couldn’t because the violence was too great,” Rumsfeld said. “So be it. Nothing’s perfect in life. You have an election that’s not quite perfect. Is it better than not having an election? You bet.”


“Will there be elections? I think so. Might there be some portion of the country where the terrorists decide they’re going to mess things up? Possibly. Does that mean that there won’t be elections? No.”

Reports left out that this is the map he was pointing too at the time:

Picture of map illustrating areas where elections might not occur.

Hurricane Ivan and the X-Rayed Water Bottle

Saturday, September 18th, 2004

The other night I was watching the Hurricane Ivan show on CNN. It consisted mostly of newscasters standing in the rain and wind right outside of their hotel room, while waiting for a large planter to blow over (I’ll avoid comment about reports being smart enough to come out of the rain, and observe that the individual covering Hurricane Ivan for Jon Stewart’s Daily Show also stood in blowing mist – outside a carwash – thus fulfilling the journalistic obligation to be soaked while reporting on a storm).

Today, on my way to a conference in Germany, I saw someone carry a clear plastic water bottle through security – only to have it taken back through the metal detector and run through the X-Ray (I confess to being at a loss to imagine what an X-Ray might see in that bottle that we couldn’t).

This got me thinking. We all know that we’re spending lots of money to defend against terrorism and to X-Ray water bottles. About 40 billion in 2003 (not counting the war in Iraq, whose relationship to homeland security is an interesting question in and of itself). I wondered how it compared to what we are spending on various other threats – like hurricanes.

This is certainly a bad year for hurricanes, though we don’t know yet how much they’ll really cost. But looking at NOAA data, it looks like hurricanes and other storms typically cost 5 to 10 billion each year. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was 27 billion (about the same as the direct costs of the 9/11 attacks). The NOAA budget is about 3.3 billion – that’s on all their activities, not just hurricane and storm tracking.

Terrorism though is worse than Hurricanes though. Why? Perhaps because it can strike at any time without warning.

So let’s consider earthquakes – they also can strike at any time without warning. I’m a California boy, and I got to ride the Loma Prieta quake (and trust me, “ride” is the operative word). That one cost about 6 billion. The Northridge quake cost 20 billion. The USGS annual budget is about 1 billion, of which 100 million or so goes to earthquake and volcano research and prediction.

But Terrorism is worse than earthquakes. Why? It kills more people (and why are we talking damage costs when lives are at stake anyway?)

World wide deaths from terrorism have been running under 4000/year (though increasing). The 9/11 attacks cost 2700 lives. Definitely more than have been killed by hurricanes are earthquakes (at least in the U.S.)

So let’s consider traffic accidents. In 2003 there were 42000 traffic fatalities in the U.S. (2.9 million injured). That’s more than killed by terrorism in the past decade. How much are we spending on high way safety? How does 3.6 billion sound?

But terrorism is worse than traffic accidents. Why? Because it has a greater risk of mass casualties due to possible use of weapons of mass destruction. But how much of that 40 billion is going towards controlling spread of nuclear weapons and detection, prevention and preparation for biological attack? I can’t help but wonder if that 40 billion is really being spent wisely.

There are some other things I wonder…

For example: I recently read that Afghanistan has become a leading export of Heroin and other drugs (70% of the world’s opium comes from there). I realize that the war on drugs has been preempted by the war on terrorism, but still, it’s hard for me to see that hunting for Bin-Laden is incompatible with getting a country out of the drug business.

And it does seem curious that Iraq seems to be developing into a new home and school for terrorists. I mean, freeing the Iraqis from Sadaam Hussein is all very nice, but exactly how did that make us more secure?

Anyway, these are some of the questions I’ve been wondering about. Not that I have any answers, but it did lead me to one thought I’d like to leave you with. Virtually all of the political discussion has related to Bush vs. Kerry as individuals (and what they may or may not have done 30+ years ago). Let’s remember that we aren’t just hiring a president – we’re hiring their staff. If you rehire Bush you get Cheny, Rumsfield, Ashcroft, Rice and maybe Powell in the bargain (it’s not clear if Powell’s staying on) – not to to mention the likelihood of a Supreme Court justice or two. With Kerry you get… Hmm… who do you get? Hopefully we’ll hear soon.

Ok, I’m out of questions. It’s raining outside, but I’m safe and warm in my hotel room, drinking water from a nice, safe, thoroughly X-Rayed bottle.

(P.S. it’s not really raining outside. That part is poetic license).


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).
Center for Contemporary Conflict – U.S. Navy.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
US Department of Transportation.
Congressional Hearing: Afghanistan Drugs and Terrorism and U.S. Security Policy Feb 12 2004.

Lies and Truths

Sunday, September 5th, 2004

Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me… well, so says the quote. But honestly, with so many conflicting claims and lies, I’ve become increasingly frustrated by my own inability to figure out what’s actually true. Whether it’s lying through omission, lying through misdirection, or outright lies, it’s awfully hard to extract nuggets of truth from the noise.

So, being a civic minded individual, I did some extensive research, and am pleased to offer this guide to detecting who is lying during this joyful campaign season:

  • Anyone who explicitly claims to be telling the truth – is lying. Groups with “truth” in their name, lie. “Swift Boats for Truth” – dead giveaway. If they weren’t lying, they wouldn’t need to convince you otherwise.
  • Every political advertisement lies (by omission- obviously).
  • All issues ads lie (you know, the kind that aren’t sponsored by the candidate, but rather by their best friend, leading contributor, ex college roommate, etc.)
  • All news broadcasts lie. The one exception: Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, which claims to lie, has a higher degree of truth than any news broadcast. This is not surprising because all comedy is ultimately based on truth.
  • Anyone claiming the other side is lying, is lying (Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh, you know the type).
  • All the candidates and their spokespersons lie. You see, if they actually said anything truthful the media would squeeze it of any ounce of subtlety and portray it as a mistake or gaff. So the campaigns must stick with carefully polished and scripted sound bites – lies.
  • Anyone who mentions 9/11 in a political context more than once in a speech or conversation is lying (it’s the ultimate misdirection). Oh, except for Rudolph Giuliani, who’s the only guy who’s earned the right to say it twice in a speech before it’s a lie.
  • Anyone who talks extensively about how great America is, is lying. Real patriots know America is great – we don’t need politicians going on about it. We’d rather hear them explain HOW they’re going to keep America great. And how we’ll pay for it. Specifics please?
  • There are probably more – comments are welcome.

Finding the truth is clearly a greater challenge than I ever imagined. And it poses some fundamental challenges when it comes to voting this November. But since it is clear that lies far outnumber the truth, the following axiom, stripped of spin and manipulation, must be fundamentally true:

Since all politicians and media are lying (either through omission, misdirection, or outright), you cannot predict their future actions based on what they say. This implies that you can only anticipate their future actions based on past actions of themselves and their supporters.

Ok, we’re making progress. Having written off the media, the candidates, the ads, the campaigns, and statistics (which are also subject to manipulation and later correction), it becomes remarkably easy to choose a candidate. Let’s consider the major topics:

  • Iraq & Terrorism:
    Both sides now agree that the arguments for going into Iraq were either outright lies, or the results of gross incompetence. Frankly, I supported going into Iraq because I could not imagine our government either lying about WMD, or being so grossly incompetent as to go to war without an incredibly high degree of certainty on the issue. Spin aside, the buck stops there: It was either a lie or gross incompetence.
    If you believe the current administration has learned from their mistakes, and has become highly competent at intelligence and foreign policy, you should stick with Bush. If you’re one of those people who, if you had an employee who lied or was grossly incompetent, would fire them, you should choose Kerry.
  • Taxes:
    This one is simple. You either choose a Tax and Spend Democrat. Or a Borrow and Spend Republican. Sorry, you can’t have a true responsible economic conservative (control spending and balance the budget) – that was Clinton and he can’t run again.
  • Economy:
    If you’re making more money, have better job security, and your friends and family are happily employed, the economy is good. If your economic status is uncertain, and you know people who are out of work, the economy is bad. Since the media and statistics lie, all you can base it on is what you see around you.
  • Social Issues:
    If aborting fetuses and gays getting married is more important to you than security, taxes or the economy, you know who to choose.
  • Health Insurance:
    If you don’t have health insurance or can’t afford it, and want it, choose Kerry. It’s virtually certain the Democrats will do more than the Republicans on that score.
  • Civil Liberties:
    If you’re willing to give up more privacy and civil rights in the hope of gaining more security, stick with Bush. If you’re willing to accept more risk in order to keep privacy and civil rights, choose Kerry.

Those are the big ones. There are lots of other issues, but it’s much harder to distill the truth out of lies on those, or to figure out which “experts” might be closer to the truth. But I’ll keep working on it.

Weapons of Mass Distraction

Wednesday, September 1st, 2004

The ongoing flap about Kerry’s service in Vietnam is an all too typical example of the media (and others) focusing on triviality and completely missing the bigger picture. Were there bullets flying? Did Kerry bleed on his Purple Heart?

Who cares?

The bottom line is that Kerry did serve in Vietnam. And if he didn’t get shot at in this particular instance, there’s no doubt he was shot at other times. Those boats sailed dangerous waters. Even if he exaggerated the danger on some report 35 years ago, the idea that this should influence today’s election is ludicrous.

But unfortunately our political system is all too often based on the big lie and distraction – shout a lie long and loud enough and people start to care and to believe it.

Or how about flip-flops?

“Flip-flop” is a common insult in this political season. I think it’s overtaken “liberal” as a dirty word (in part because more Democrats are willing to stand up and proudly claim the term, a common schoolyard technique for shutting up a bully). Could the same approach work for “flip-flop?” Absolutely. Why, I myself flip-flopped recently. Just a few months ago I explained why I had no interest in blogging. And here I am, blogging furiously. Flip-flop is a childish way of saying “changing your mind.” If someone learns something new, and has the courage to acknowledge that their previous opinion was wrong and to adopt a stance based on their new knowledge – that’s something to be admired, not condemned.

Is there hope?

They say that California leads the nation, and a recent flap with our Governor gives hope. You remember him, governor Schwarznegger. Just yesterday we were the laughing stock of the world with an open ended recall election that had 135 people running for the office. They laughed harder when we chose an ex-body builder movie star with a thick accent. But guess what – most Californians are absolutely thrilled with the job he’s been doing. But there’s one recent incident that gives true hope for the future.

The legislature was in the midst of their usual annual deadlock on passing a budget. In frustration, Governor Schwarznegger called those who refused to act “girlie men.” The media went into a frenzy: he was sexist, he was homophobic, he was….

Meanwhile, the reaction of most of the population seemed to be “yeah, he was funny. Now pass the d#*# budget!”

In other words, by and large the electorate did not buy into the media distraction, and stayed focused, maybe even appreciated the humor of the Governor using a phrase that was originally used on Saturday Night Live to parody him. And we got our budget.

Weapons of Mass Distraction is also the title of a wonderfully wicked movie. Though a bit hard to find, I highly recommend it. Might be available from Barnes & Noble