Short News, Autumnal Pursuits Edition

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor, 1858

Tracking the Horseman. “Irving is pretty specific about the route Ichabod Crane takes while fleeing from the Headless Horseman.” So noted Scouting New York’s Nick Carr upon rereading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, inspiring him to visit the Hudson Valley town and retrace one of the most famous chase scenes ever put to paper. His photo safari captured the landmarks of Crane’s flight while explaining their historical significance. Unfortunately it seems the site of Crane’s fateful terminus has been lost to time.

Speaking of Hollows. I recently learned a new word: holloway. Also called sunken lanes, holloways are tunnel-like paths so worn by centuries of traffic that they lay below the grade of the surrounding landscape.

Raising Jakarta. Indonesia announced a 30-year, $40-billion plan to save their sinking capital by creating a sea wall and 17 artificial islands. This story notes that rising sea levels aren’t the main source of Jakarta’s flooding problems; instead, “the city has pumped its water out of deep underground wells for years — leaving empty chasms that are now sinking.” This is somewhat reminiscent of New Orlean’s problem, where the organic material in the wetland, preserved in anaerobic conditions, is exposed to air by drainage and construction, leading to decay. The soil, having lost mass, then packs down and the buildings sink.

Pumpkin Spice My Ears. AC/DC, Brian Ferry, and Foo Fighters all have new albums coming out.

Publishers Have Pea Brains

Brontosaurus by Charles R. Knight, 1897

After months of wondering whether the Amazon vs. Hachette dispute was over the pricing of e-books, Amazon has finally revealed that the fulcrum of the argument is indeed the pricing of e-books:

A key objective is lower e-book prices. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book.

Even without knowing the exact details I’ve been on Amazon’s side since the beginning based simply on my belief that most publishers are idiotic criminals. No, I’m not just referring to the DoJ’s suit against Hachette and others for conspiring to fix e-book prices — by “criminal,” I mean many publishers are too stupid and lazy to earn their money sensibly, so like purse-snatchers they must resort to stealing it.

How else to explain the atavistic business model of publishing heavy, antiquated hardbacks for $30, then a year later a less-expensive paperback edition? Or delaying an e-book version until well after the print copies have laid on the bookstore tables? Or not offering e-books at all, even though sales of print books are estimated to be down 8 percent since 2008, the year after Kindle was introduced?

Consider these three personal anecdotes:

  • Earlier this month, it was announced that Arcadia Publishing would be acquiring The History Press, publisher of Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer. All well and good. Yet buried in the Publisher’s Weekly article was this fact: although Arcadia has a catalog of 9,000 titles, only “about 4,000” of them are offered as e-books. The CEO explained, “Since Arcadia’s titles are heavily illustrated, it has been cautious in moving them into digital format.” Except the postcards and photos included in most Arcadia titles are already black-and-white, which means they would translate well to Kindle’s E Ink or a Nook, let alone a tablet. I can understand how the nature of Arcadia’s books might slow down the conversion process — but less than half their catalog? The article also notes, “nearly all of History Press’ titles are already sold as e-books.” Methinks Arcadia, raising their serpentine necks from the mire with mouths full of water weed, saw the comet tail in the heavens and sought to stave off extinction by very quickly diversifying their backlist.
  • While standing at the school-bus stop one day, my neighbor who works for a well-known publisher in New York mentioned his efforts to digitize some of the processes at the company. I asked, Is this part of a green initiative to use less paper? He said it was an attempt to use less paper period. He then went on to tell me that no part of the process for publishing a book at his company was digital, save for the copyediting — and that, he said, was a recent development. The author submitted a hardcopy manuscript, edits and additions were made in hardcopy, and eventually the whole thing was shipped off in a big box to the printer in Quebec who, as my neighbor said, “somehow makes sense of it.” I was gobsmacked; the process for Smedley was entirely digital. But then again, small companies like The History Press don’t have cash to waste like the big houses do. So authors: when the publisher tells you it can only spare an eight-percent royalty, now you know the other ninety-two percent goes to Dunder Mifflin.
  • Chaosium mainly designs role-playing games but they also publish a line of Lovecraftian fiction. I’ve been interested in checking out a few titles, if only to read (and support) my old pen-pal Jeffrey Thomas, whose work appears in some of their releases. Yet Chaosium doesn’t offer e-book editions of their fiction. At all. In the year 2014. Because plugging the completed manuscript into, say, Jutoh and spitting out a .mobi or .azw is just too tough. This week I wrote the company asking if they had any plans to offer e-books. I haven’t received a response.

Meantime, Amazon has had to teach the concept of price elasticity to Hachette, a giant multinational company:

It’s also important to understand that e-books are highly price-elastic. This means that when the price goes up, customers buy much less. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000.

What dark sorcery is this? Is this so-called “price elasticity” some new, overwrought theorem clawing its way out of the black pits of the Chicago school of economics? No, wait — price elasticity in regard to e-books has been bandied about since at least January 2010, at a time when self-publishers, wondering how to price their e-books and unencumbered by the publishing industry’s arch-conservatism, had a crash course in the subject and determined pricing lower was better.

Publishers like Hachette, by pricing e-books at $14.99 or $19.99, want them to be comparable to their paperback editions, which by their nature they cannot be and which the public, realizing this, rejects. And yet the dinosaurs insist because they perceive e-book editions as competitors against the print editions of the same title. They think the cheapest edition will cannibalize sales of other editions. While that’s definitely true of hardbacks, in my experience sales of paperback vs. e-book come down to preference. People like one or the other but both can live alongside. A frustration with Smedley was the nine-month delay between publication of the print and e-book versions; while promoting the book in 2011, I had many would-be customers ask me if it was available as an e-book. Alas, at the time it was not. Those were lost sales. But the publishers in their skyscrapers never see this, so they stagger the release of editions and try to hike the prices of e-books.

Unable to adapt either processes or economics, publishers — the large ones, anyway — instead resort to gouging readers, shafting writers with low royalties, and colluding to form trusts. Rather than hate the orange smile, I see Amazon as the asteroid that is cleansing the Earth of predatory gargantua, allowing the rest of us small, shrew-like mammals to rise.

Update: I added a link to a New Yorker article to illustrate a point above about cannibalizing sales, but the story criticizes Amazon on several other issues worth noting:

For one thing, he said, Amazon doesn’t actually get to decide what share of revenue publishers pay authors, a fact that the company is aware of. Its call for a thirty-five-per-cent share sounds nice, [literary agent Brian] DeFiore said, but it means little.

So how is that Amazon’s fault? That’s an indictment of Hachette, not Amazon.

DeFiore also pointed out that Amazon doesn’t quantify what lower e-book prices would mean for sales of physical copies of the same books. Authors who work with traditional publishers like Hachette tend to make more, per copy, from hardcover sales than from e-books. If cheaper e-books draw people away from hardcovers, that could hurt these authors financially.

Yes, usually authors do receive a higher royalty on hardbacks. (A conspiracy theory of mine: publishers offer higher royalties on hardbacks than on the paperback rights because they know damn well about price elasticity, and realize they stand to sell greater volume of paperbacks and hence make more money on them.) But, over time, how many $30 hardbacks do you think an author will sell compared to its $9.99 e-book counterpart? The conclusion in the above graf does not follow from its preceding sentences.

If lower e-book prices were to eventually destroy the market for physical books entirely—or even shrink it enough so that it wouldn’t make financial sense for traditional booksellers to publish them—that would help Amazon consolidate its power, which would ultimately be dangerous for authors.

I admit this is a legitimate concern. If we only read e-books and Amazon is the solitary stall in the marketplace, that would be bad. But again: whose fault is that? The reason we’ve arrived at this destination is because Amazon moved faster and more nimbly than legacy publishers; it’s the Year of Our Lord 2014, and publishers can’t decide on a strategy for e-books or, like Chaosium, whether they should even offer them at all. As a writer of alternate histories, I can imagine a world where publishers established their own online market site to sell their products, bypassing Amazon altogether.

In the end, what confuzzles me most is why so many authors loathe Amazon for theft and bullying that has yet to occur while meanwhile defending publishers like Hachette, who are stealing from and bullying them right this minute.

Beyond the Sea

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

J.D. Tuccille of Reason.com has rounded up the latest denunciations of seasteading — the concept of autonomous man-made islands:

Criticism of seasteading now takes on an oddly strident tone, and from unusual sources.

A week after reporting on DeltaSync’s Seasteading Implementation Plan, Global Construction Review, an online publication of Britain’s Chartered Institute of Building, ran an attack on the idea as an abandonment of social responsibility. The publication’s editor, Rod Sweet, took time away from the business of covering engineering and construction to “to lay bare the motivation behind the movement—the libertarian urge for the freedom to profit without having to contribute to the social conditions that make profit possible.”

In recent years there’s been a trend toward attacking Information-Age developments based not on the deficiencies of the technology or issues but rather on the perception that said plans are libertarian schemes to avoid taxes. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies? Libertarian criminality. Secession — not from the US, but into smaller, more responsive state or municipal bodies? Perfidious libertarian tax evasion. Seasteading? A misguided dream by “adherents of ‘libertarianism,’ that peculiarly American philosophy of venal petty-bourgeois dissidence.” This last written by none other than China Mieville, the Marxist don who moonlights as a successful science-fiction writer.

Any news story about seasteading invariably descends into Rapture jokes in the comments but there’s nothing inherently libertarian about man-made islands. You could just as easily use the technology for a floating kibbutz as for an art-deco Galt’s Gulch. Even one of seasteading’s major advocates has said, “We can’t build libertopia … Whatever we build will have to have security forces who will bust in your door if they think you’re designing nuclear weapons or funding terrorism.”

Regardless of seasteading’s practicality (while cautiously intrigued, I have several unanswered questions about it myself), it is disturbing that scientific futurism is met so reactionarily — especially by readers and writers of speculative fiction (to see examples by readers, check out the comments sections of any io9 article on these subjects). Setting aside the questions of when and why did libertarians become bogeymen to the left (Radley Balko keeps a list), what the hell happened to sci-fi? Are Martian colonies not dismissed as libertarian conspiracies because they are decades away while Bitcoin, etc. are happening now or very soon? When did imagining a better world of tomorrow go from Heinlein to thought-crime? After all, the first proponent of oceanic utopianism was the 19th-century hero of the left, Jules Verne, who inspired those seeking an escape from the -isms of capital and czar:

“Also,” [Nemo] added, “true existence is there; and I can imagine the foundations of nautical towns, clusters of submarine houses, which, like the Nautilus, would ascend every morning to breathe at the surface of the water — free towns, independent cities.”

I think it’s more likely that, in the words of another 19th-century author, these same writers and readers, so eager to throw out the old idols, have sworn loyalty to another, and to turn your back on it is heresy.

Or maybe it’s simply because misery loves company.

Energy Individualism

National Geographic News reports on the evil of those 1-percent DIYers:

For many homeowners, the availability of diesel-powered or increasingly common natural gas generators provides peace of mind amid ever-more-common power outages. … And in the immediate wake of Sandy, the Daily Beast suggested that backup generators had taken on a status-symbol aura, quoting a Westport, Connecticut, real estate broker who recommended emergency power boxes to all of her clients: “For the kind of money that these houses cost, to spend $8,000 or $10,000 on a generator isn’t a significant extra investment,” she said.

But a number of energy experts believe there’s a troubling side to the trend. It reflects an increasing reliance on go-it-alone solutions—for those who can afford them—rather than the needed society-wide investment in a modernized and more resilient electric power grid.

“We’ve gone to this pioneer mentality,” said Richard Little, who before retiring was director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the University of Southern California, in an interview following Hurricane Sandy last year. “Everybody’s got to have a generator. If I lived in New Jersey, I’d have a generator too. But not everyone can do that. We’ve got to find better solutions.”

For all its reactionary bashing of profit-taking by generator manufacturers and touting of renewables, the article’s progressive solutions are just another conservative argument to maintain the status quo. The author’s base assumption — full disclosure: I’ve written stuff for Marianne — is the power grid is good and worth saving, and that only the very wealthy can afford “a pioneer mentality.” An example of the article’s slant: that $8,000-$10,000 estimate is undoubtedly for a stationary natural-gas generator; portable generators run much, much cheaper. (And even then that number rings high: I was recently quoted $5,000 by an SCG rep — but that’s what Marianne gets for believing anything a real-estate agent says).

Earlier this year Jesse Walker at Reason wrote about his liberal-feminist friend in Vermont who grows her own food, owns a shotgun, and chops wood because she refuses to live “without supplemental heat that operates without electricity” — all a result of losing power in an ice storm years ago. For this, Walker argues, she would be tarred with the pejorative “prepper” if the national media were ever to take notice of her. He has a point: anyone interested in self-sufficiency is always portrayed in either mocking or sinister tones. Instead I would call his friend a reasonable New Englander. We don’t suspect someone who drinks well water or has a septic system. So why are we suspicious of someone who can supply her own needs independent of the power grid, at least in emergencies?

We were well prepared for Irene, yet we never lost power and ended up having a fun staycation. Sandy, on the other hand, caught us with our pants down. Although I have a saltmarsh in my backyard, we were saved from flooding by a quirk of geography. Nonetheless our neighborhood was devastated and we lost power for a week. Had Sandy occurred at the same time as Irene — in late August — it would have been fine. Going to bed early and reading by candlelight was fun. We had a propane stove to cook on. The freezer needed defrosting and cleaning anyway. I found the cold showers bracing! But as the days stretched from late October into early November, the house gradually grew cooler without non-electrical means to heat it. Had the power outage continued much longer, we would have had to abandon our home for a friend’s house or a shelter.

Sometimes late at night I think about what would have happened had the outage been caused by a winter storm like Nemo. We definitely would have had to evacuate within days of the power loss, if not hours.

After more than 12 years in our little cape on the marsh — and after many, many improvements to it — we are moving next month. Our new This-Old-House house, which required substantial renovations, will feature several upgrades to our current condition. My philosophy this time has been to install multiple redundancies: natural-gas heating and hot water, negating the need for electricity to run the oil pumps; a generator hook-up hardwired into the breaker and a portable generator to power the basics; and when the gasoline runs out, a big frickin’ fireplace with a large woodpile out back and a half-acre of timber if things go really arctic. Long-term I’m thinking about solar (I grew up in a house with solar panels; my engineer dad taught college courses on solar power during the Oil Crisis) and maybe even rainwater collection and use.

A pioneer mentality is exactly what we need now. Resources should be poured into the power grid only so far as to keep the toilets from backing up or the trains running, which is already sketchy when the sun’s shining and temps are in the 80s. We need to return residential generation to a time when every homestead could fulfill its own demands. For densely populated urban areas, neighborhoods need to develop microgrids or Science Barges. And in the suburbs, homes need to become electrically independent, or at least independent enough to sustain themselves for a few weeks. “Prepping” or a “go-it-alone solution” is acceptance of contemporary failures and a visionary answer to them. Saying “not everyone can do that” isn’t a coherent argument — it’s a prejudice against those of us who have committed the ultimate political heresy of losing faith in the system.

35 Years

From the February 28, 2013 statement of Bradley Manning:

During the mid-February 2010 time frame the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division targeting analyst, then Specialist Jihrleah W. Showman and others discussed a video that Ms. Showman had found on the ‘T’ drive.

The video depicted several individuals being engaged by an aerial weapons team. At first I did not consider the video very special, as I have viewed countless other war porn type videos depicting combat. However, the recording of audio comments by the aerial weapons team crew and the second engagement in the video of an unarmed bongo truck troubled me.

The fact neither CENTCOM or Multi National Forces Iraq or MNF-I would not voluntarily release the video troubled me further. It was clear to me that the event happened because the aerial weapons team mistakenly identified Reuters employees as a potential threat and that the people in the bongo truck were merely attempting to assist the wounded. The people in the van were not a threat but merely ‘good samaritans’. The most alarming aspect of the video to me, however, was the seemly delightful bloodlust they appeared to have.

They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life by referring to them as quote “dead bastards” unquote and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers. At one point in the video there is an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety. The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the aerial weapons team crew members verbally asks for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so that he can have a reason to engage. For me, this seems similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.

While saddened by the aerial weapons team crew’s lack of concern about human life, I was disturbed by the response of the discovery of injured children at the scene. In the video, you can see that the bongo truck driving up to assist the wounded individual. In response the aerial weapons team crew– as soon as the individuals are a threat, they repeatedly request for authorization to fire on the bongo truck and once granted they engage the vehicle at least six times.

Shortly after the second engagement, a mechanized infantry unit arrives at the scene. Within minutes, the aerial weapons team crew learns that children were in the van and despite the injuries the crew exhibits no remorse. Instead, they downplay the significance of their actions, saying quote “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kid’s into a battle” unquote.

Everybody clucks their tongues at Bradley Manning but nobody ever talks about why he released the files. No news reports mention how he found My Lai on the T-drive. Soldiers murder civilians but it’s the guy spilling the beans who goes to jail with liberty and justice for all.

Linky Links

Apologies for the staleness hereabouts; my nose has been to the grindstone. I hope to have more exciting news and updates this summer. Meantime:

Megafauna Extinctions. Another nail in the coffin of the overkill hypothesis: “a scientific review has found fewer than 15 of the 90-odd giant species in Australia and New Guinea still existed by the time people arrived.” As in the Americas, climate change is suspected. Fingers still point to human responsibility in the extinction of New Zealand’s moa, however, just as Paleo-Indians probably played a role in pushing stressed mammoths over the edge.

Albert Camus. The first full English translation of his Algerian Chronicles recasts Camus solidly as an Algerian writer, not a French one, a man who wrote explicitly about his birthplace and shared little in common with Parisian intellectuals.

Herman Melville’s House. Arrowhead, the Massachusetts home where Melville wrote Moby-Dick and “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” is undergoing renovations to return it to a closer approximation of its appearance circa 1870. The addition of the porch is odd since it was built after Melville moved out.