November 30, 2009

Digital hoarders and literary snobs

Jane Friedman was CEO of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide before becoming co-founder and CEO of Open Road Integrated Media, a new company that produces and market ebooks. She discusses the future of the ebook industry in this informative lecture and Q&A at NYU.

There's little for me to disagree with, except I think it's a mistake to try and compare the digital versions of anything with the "standalone" physical (paper) product. Though Friedman's suggestion of a trade paperback pricing standard is more enlightened than treating ebooks as hardcovers.

And she says up front she's open to changing her mind if market forces so dictate.

Compare an episode of House that you can watch for "free" on broadcast TV or Hulu. You can also rent it through Netflix for around $2.00. Or pay a ten dollar premium on top of that to own the DVD. Which lots of people do, even if they'll never watch it enough times to amortize the cost.

Renting's fine with me. Pretty much the only DVDs I buy are anime titles going out of print. The scarcity threat. I'm sure at the heart of this behavior is a primitive pack-rat mentality about hoarding and possessing. We happily pay a premium for "things." Not data. Owning data is like owning smoke.

If the typical trade paperback price is $15.00, then minus the ten buck "hoarding" premium puts the price at $5.00, or more in line with mass market paperbacks, which are also not intended to be hoarded. And that's non-DRM. There's also the "sharing" premium enjoyed by books and CDs and DVDs.

My local library rents DVDs for a dollar. Books and CDs are "free" (beyond taxes, but you bought a TV to watch "free" TV). When I was growing up, any book in the house would be read by everybody in the house, and then often donated to the library to be read by hundreds more.

And when I was in college (during the late Bronze Age), there was always a kid in the dorm who had a nice stereo system, including a high-end turntable and tape deck. So if somebody you knew had an album you liked, you bought a cassette, borrowed the album and made your own mix tape.

I wonder how much of such "borrowing" goes on with physical books, CDs and DVDs, versus the typical Kindle owner or iTunes subscriber (with and without piracy factored in).

But the most brutal realization for publishers may be that digitization has shifted the value of status seeking and signaling from the content to the device. Your album collection doesn't impress as much as your MP3 player. Your bookshelf doesn't impress as much as your ebook reader.

Being infinitely reproducible at almost zero cost puts the value of hoarded digital content at close to zero. Digital pirates hoard so much because the added value of each file--both in real and psychological terms--is so low, and so they end up hoarding more than they could possible consume.

Content sharing and social networking software could address that. But making that work would require a significant rethinking of the bad unintended consequences of DRM and the good unintended consequences of technologies like text-to-speech when assessing what people are really paying for.

Even the diehards at the RIAA won't deny that pretty much the whole point of a boombox is so that other people can hear what you are listening to.

For example, combine social DRM with managed file sharing. When enabled, anybody within WiFi or Bluetooth distance could preview your stored ebooks (or your marked selections). Free advertising for the publisher while broadcasting your literary tastes and marking your social status.

This suggests a value in backlists and "classics" other than reading. I can't help rolling my eyes when people post those "favorites" lists invariably salted with the egghead titles everybody was supposed to read in college but never actually did. Or if they did, because they had to and never will again.

I cheerfully admit to being a cynical literary populist who puts a premium on "entertainment." But perhaps ebook publishers should stop treating their readers solely as consumers, and rather as status-seeking snobs at a tony cocktail party, who want their purchases to say (in part), "Look at me!"

And at the other end of the social spectrum, as introverted otaku desperate for electronically extroverted ways of sharing their obsessions with other like-minded geeks. Not to mention all those writers with their interminable works-in-progress who could now show, not just tell!

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November 27, 2009

Tokyo Vice

An interview on Fresh Air with Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan.

I'm reminded of the old joke that Japanese law enforcement condones organized crime because it so dislikes disorganized crime. Adelstein says it's no joke. While it's tempting to praise Japan's overt lack of litigiousness, human nature is what it is. And the yakuza, going semi-legit, have stepped in to supply those missing tort services, though with brass knuckles instead of lawsuits.

This may explain why vigilante justice plots remain so popular in Japanese entertainment.

Jake Adelstein broke the story (covered on 60 Minutes) about how yakuza oyabun Tadamasa Goto and three mob flunkies conned the FBI and bribed the UCLA Medical Center to provide them liver transplants.

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November 25, 2009

"Hellsing" closing theme

The theme for the closing credits roll (called the "ED" in anime) of Hellsing (original series) is "Shine" by Mr. Big.

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November 23, 2009


Vampires used to be evil. Then they turned into bad boys (Spike), or good boys except when they were bad (Angel), or at least functionally amoral (Milada). Then Stephenie Meyer came along and her good-guy vampires out-Jack Weylanded Jack Weyland! I say it's time for some dark contrarianism.

Hellsing [sic] is as contrarian as they get. Granted, it's far from perfect. Newbie Scooby Seras Victoria deserves more character development, and I would put Integra Helsing's backstory up front. A little subtlety in the monster-killing department wouldn't hurt.

I prefer the 2002 TV series to the gorier Ultimate OVA, even though veteran screenwriter Chiaki Konaka is vilified in some quarters for his creative additions to Kouta Hirano's manga. In any case, both get way too carried away with the whole X-Files conspiracy meme (which Japanese SF writers love).

The Catholic Church is a big part of the conspiracy as well, but as with the Grand Inquisitor in Witch Hunter Robin, you never get the feeling that there's some hidden agenda at play. It's just that as a worldwide religious organization that's actually organized, the Catholic Church coolly fits the narrative bill.

(Though the Mormon Church is certainly "international," it still lacks its own Dan Brownish worldwide conspiracy theory. I vaguely recall an actioner written three decades ago that tried to tie the Mormon Church to Carter's MX missile plan for Southern Utah, but both fell thuddingly flat.)

I like the idea of a Buffy-type series where the vampire slayer allies, not with good Angel, but evil Angel. Plus the Miltonesque implication that Alucard isn't simply "devilish," he is the devil. Like Lewis's Screwtape (and Buffy's Spike), he's appalled by modern evil because it is so nihilistic and dull.

Lesser demons get dispatched with Victoria's 30mm "Harkonnen" shoulder-fired cannon or Alucard's distinctive .454 Casull Longslide. It takes a real villain to amp him up to full-vamp mode.

The anime series could be easily stripped of the more flagrant anti-Papism and reset in the U.S. It would work well as a live-action series with the same irreverent tone as Reaper (the most theologically sound show on television), which also features a devil (the delightful Ray Wise) you love to hate.

And now that I mention it, Reaper is out on DVD. Once you get past the first couple of monster-of-the-week mode episodes, it turns into one of the smartest religious satires since The Screwtape Letters.

UPDATE: watch the Hellsing ED by Mr. Big.

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November 18, 2009

Thinking more about hyphenation

Microsoft Reader is the only ebook reader that automatically hyphenates, a feature that really improves the "book feel" of the display in full-justification mode. It probably leverages the hyphenation module from Microsoft Word, but I wonder (linguistically and typographically) if purely algorithm-based hyphenation would be "good enough" for devices like the Kindle.

Such an algorithm would look for common prefixes and suffixes and double consonants and the like, and then use a few arithmetic formulae to calculate the maximum kerning and word-spacing boundaries and a simple decision matrix to decide if and where to throw in a hyphen.

Japanese character fonts are non-proportional. "Lined paper" for writing kanji is slightly modified grid paper. When typesetting Japanese, justification (the bottom margin) is by default. "Words" can wrap anywhere. You just keep reading characters until you hit a punctuation mark. It's not as confusing as you might imagine.

(This is due to the orthographically cataclysmic decision a thousand-plus years ago to import Chinese characters into what was the world's most elegant syllabary. The clear kana/kanji "word" boundaries and the use of explicit case markers makes parsing the written language fairly straightforward.)

My own feeling is that other than the most glaring violations of the basic syllable structure of the language, most readers would scan right through a "misplaced" hyphen and not notice it unless they stopped and thought about it.

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November 14, 2009

How to bow to the Emperor

If you're a foreign head of state. Say what you will about his abilities to conduct free and fair elections, but Hamid Karzai knows him his diplomatic protocols. Besides, as Billy Crystal would put it, he looks marvelous.

As I recount here, once he got all that war stuff behind him, even Emperor Hirohito wasn't a very uptight guy.

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November 13, 2009

MS Reader vs. Kindle for PC

The Kindle for PC is designed as an desktop interface for the Kindle device, so when it comes to displaying PRC and MOBI files for non-Kindle owners, it is definitely NOT user friendly. However, I found after installing it that it had reassigned the PRC and MOBI file associations from the MobiPocket Reader, so double-clicking opened them in the Kindle.

Kindle for PC is a really a stripped-down MobiPocket Reader with a cleaner look and the DRM stuff. The interface is so minimalistic as to be fairly pointless, except, I suppose, in order to demo for non-Kindle users the look and feel of the physical device. This is a "1.0 Beta" with emphasis on the "0" and the "Beta." There isn't even a find function.

Kindle for PC, like MobiPocket, renders everything in the same font. As a test, I set an <H1> tag to sans-serif using an inline style. The style displays in MobiPocket but is ignored by Kindle for PC. It implements a KISS strategy to the max.

For the time being, unless you need the DRM, I'd stick with the MobiPocket Reader. (And if you are using Kindle for PC to preview a file you intend to upload to the Amazon DTP, like the MobiPocket Reader, set the horizontal width of the window to the minimum size.)

Recompiling the LIT for The Path of Dreams reminded me that while the orphaned Microsoft Reader (last updated in 2005) lacks the bells and whistles of the Mobipocket Reader (the "find" function is particularly clumsy), and its neglected compiler is still stuck on version 2.0, it remains the most visually "elegant" of the desktop ebook readers.

One of its neatest features--that other readers are inexplicably yet to implement--is built-in hyphenation. This allows the MS Reader to avoid the gaping white spaces produced by full justification and appear more "book-like." I think that even a simple algorithm-based hyphenation system (as opposed to dictionary-based) would be preferable to none.

The Microsoft Reader (X)HTML is more CSS-friendly than MobiPocket and is less reliant on proprietary tags. The compiler could easily be modified to crank out ePub. With a little investment, Microsoft could produce a cross-platform ePub platform that could turn every Windows Mobile product into a universal ebook device based on open standards.

Microsoft might be thinking along those lines, as it recently updated the Reader for Windows Mobile (not the desktop version). Moreover, the announcement of a partnership between Tokyo-based publishing giant Shueisha and Microsoft to distribute emanga on mobile phones suggests Microsoft is taking the platform and the market seriously this time.

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November 09, 2009


Dracula belongs to the corpus of "classic" literature that people don't bother with because they're so familiar with the larger body of derivative work it inspired that they think reading it would be redundant and boring. In some cases, the derivative work has indeed obviated any pressing need to labor through the original work—Michael Mann's remake of The Last of the Mohicans, for example.

In the case of Dracula, though, adaptations early on introduced an invidious element of dramatic corruption into the core structure of the story. The mutation has by now contaminated the entire lineage, so that the ubiquitous meme of Bela Lugosi in a dinner jacket has become about as terrifying as a Sesame Street Muppet. Attempts to repair the damage—like putting Gary Oldman in a dinner jacket—only perpetuate the original mistake.

That mistake was to give the Count top billing. It's an understandable one. Playing evil (plus lonely and misunderstood) is much more fun—and tasty, given the scenery to chew on—than playing the virtuous good guy. Milton, as they say, gave the devil all the good lines in Paradise Lost. But Milton did it on purpose; it wasn't a hack screenwriter's attempt to mollify the casting director because The Big Movie Star didn't want to end up with a bit part.

Because, the way Stoker wrote it, Dracula is a cameo, not the lead, and never the controlling point-of-view. Though his mere existence threatens and so must be mercilessly extinguished—no sympathy for the devil here—he nevertheless spends most of his time off-stage while more important things are going on.

To understand how it is supposed to work, we need only turn to the one writer/director who got it right: Joss Whedon. Consider the story's basic formulation: an eccentric professor of the dark arts plus a couple of associated geeks and some useful imported muscle gather around a tough woman, her dorky boyfriend and ditzy girlfriend, and end up pulling off some major vampire slayage.

The devils don't get the best lines. Mostly they get summarily dusted.

You can get carried away with this kind of thing, but the parallels are easy to draw: Mina/Buffy; Professor Van Helsing/Giles; Jonathan Harker/Xander; Dr. Jack Seward/Willow; Lucy/Cordelia. Quincey Morris is a Texan in London; Spike is a Londoner in California (though Quincy Morris is perhaps closer to Charles Gunn in Angel, and Lucy's fate is more similar to that of Lilah Morgan at the end of the 2002-2003 season).

That's right, Stoker created the first Scooby Gang, and Joss Whedon's 21st century version proves a surprisingly faithful homage. Buffy, to be sure, has more Quincey Morris in her than does Mena, although Mena certainly has more Buffy in her than does her squeeze Jonathan. Mena brings to mind C.S. Lewis's quip, "They don't make great aunts like they used to."

Another unfair assumption about Dracula is that anything written a century ago must surely be slow going. In the category of dense Victorian literature, Dracula can be honestly described as a page turner. As an author Stoker deserves comparison to Michael Crichton. Much of the fun arises out of his eagerness to incorporate the very latest in late 19th century high-tech with the graveyards and Transylvanian castles.

Telegrams fly back and forth like email. Quincey Morris packs the latest Winchester repeaters from America (and a Bowie knife, natch). Dr. Seward records dictation using just-invented phonograph technology, and performs so many blood transfusions that in The Dracula Files, Fred Saberhagen has his 20th century Dracula complain Lucy died because blood typing wasn't discovered until 1900, three years after the publication of the novel.

So much gets read into Bram Stoker's Dracula and its offspring in the name of tedious literary (and psychological) analysis that generation after generation pushes it aside without discovering what a thumping good read it is. It's time to rescue the novel from the musty mausoleum of "literature" and call it something far worse in the eyes of academia: entertaining.


November 02, 2009

The church of the obvious

A snarky review of Stephen Covey's latest tome in The Economist concludes:

If management could indeed be reduced to a few simple principles, then we would have no need for management thinkers. But the very fact that it defies easy solutions, leaving managers in a perpetual state of angst, means that there will always be demand for books like Mr. Covey's.

The secret to Covey's success is the same for anybody packaging advice that most people would instinctively recognize as commonsensical, but have great difficulty adhering to. Hence diet books and Dr. Laura and practically all political punditry.

In fact, you could quickly get to the point where simply listening to the advice--let's call it a sermon (Covey is a Utah Mormon, after all)--becomes the whole point of the exercise.

Perhaps there is utility in being reminded (say, every Sunday) that a particular set of ideals exist and you ought to be working toward them, even if you don't plan on arriving at the destination anytime soon. Church as self-help window shopping.

But the whole thing starts chasing its tail when workable solutions get rejected as heretical by ideological purists. As when the Freakonomics guys proposed a cheap fix for global warming. (I love Althouse's term: "Blasphemonomics.")

The question of whether a diet (economic or otherwise) works cannot be separated from the ability of ordinary people (and governments) to follow its strictures. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and the ideal must inevitably yield to the pragmatic.

My experience at organizations where Coveyisms are freely bandied about is that the people regurgitating the sermons mostly do so to relieve themselves of the burden of applying the advice to themselves. Like driving a Prius while living in a mansion.

The same way it's easier (and more ideologically invigorating) to pass spankin' new health care legislation than reform Medicaid and Medicare. Or campaign against gay marriage than get all those ruttin' and divorcin' heteros to behave themselves.

That's how Emerson made a living. He talked transcendentalism. He wasn't so stupid as to actually live it (not like that nut Thoreau). Rush Limbaugh is honest enough to admit that he exists primarily to draw an audience and make money for his sponsors.

Because the only way to change the world is to change people, and that's pretty much impossible to do by shouting at them.

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