Here in Texas, we have had plenty of summer and, frankly,are ready for the thing to be over. But in the British Isles, it’s just starting to get like real summer. So, even though it may be a bit out of phase for us’ns, I thought I would toss in a post about the Summer Reading list published in the current issue of Nature. Called A Break from the Bench, the item contains the recommendations for worthwhile, but not professional, reading while a body is out enjoying a holiday someplace…beach, lake, mountain, desert, or simply hiding in the back yard or in a coffee shop, as it may be. The first item on the list is Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness, and Other Essays. Another contributor nominates three good books on humans and how they do, don’t and should get on with other critters, with machines and with ideas. There are two Darwin-type books, one of which is the Origin, which does not exactly fit my concept of light summer reading. The account of the life and work of an English country doctor, called A Fortunate Man is going into my black notebook of books to be read. The notebook already contains many more items than I can possibly read in the time left to me, but, hey, be optimistic, right? A history of humanity from the culinary viewpoint, John McPhee’s The Control of Nature which I read a while ago now and found very good, and a reliable work on climate change round out the picture. If you are heading out on your vacation, stop off at your friendly bookstore.
It was surprising and not surprising, at the same time, to see that MS and Yahoo had come to an understanding about joining forces. The presidents of both companies signed an agreement, to last for ten years, in which MS gets to use Yahoo’s technologies and Yahoo gets 88% of the ad revenue generated during that time period. There was no cash payout. Yahoo will concentrate on product development, but not on search, using the MS engine recently re-labeled Bing for that role. In essence, it seems that MS takes over the search function on Yahoo and passes on a very nice part of whatever money the new gadget can bring in. The lack of a cash payment apparently upset some Yahoo shareholders who dumped their stocks. The advantage to Yahoo is said to be steady revenue and the advantage to MS is the leap from third to second in the world of search. Some techie commentators were rather caustic about it all, saying that Yahoo had abandoned any pretext of being a technology company and was simply in the business of dreaming up ways to amuse and distract the yobs, and there’s no tech-cred in that. Using Bing means that Yahoo is giving up on its own search technology, and that must be hard to swallow for old hands, if there are any. Yahoo was the hot ticket in search in the period just after the web started to take off….1994 or so? So, for them to give up on it definitely seems to be a humiliating admission that they’re just not up to the job. Since MS was offering 47 billion last year in an effort to buy Yahoo outright, it seems they’re getting a lot of what they wanted for a lot less. So maybe the shareholders who walked were on to something. Ten years from now, the deal will show itself to have been either a blunder or a stroke of genius.
Wired Science, a blog of WIRED magazine,has a post nominating some expressions commonly used in science writing for banishment into the nearest black hole, that “born from which no traveler every returns”, to use a cliche. Among the candidates for expulsion are: “Holy Grail”, “shed light on”, “paradigm shift” and the dreadful “Missing Link”. The comments on the post made some good suggestions for expulsion: “quantum leap”, “perfect storm”, “Rosetta stone”, “dark matter” and any reference to “Brave New World”.
The new buzzword in the Hi-tech world is the “cloud”, which is a metaphor used to describe a new situation in which users reduce or abandon local information generation, storage and retrieval technologies, such as desktop software, in favor of remotely located, web-based central platforms. So, cloud computing lets people work on a spreadsheet or create a report without much in the way of onboard software in our machines. All that is on the web, in ‘the cloud’. There are some advantages: power, size, memory, ease of sharing information, no more expensive updates, and largely meaningless new ‘versions’. Corporations wouldn’t need big IT departments and could save a bundle there. Quite a few folk are taking this seriously, or at least writing about it. And it may be the next big thing, or the next but one, in computer technology. But some people have noted the drawbacks, and they’re big ones. Once your data is located someplace, it’s outside your control. Hackers and crackers can get to it, soothing assurances to the contrary notwithstanding. Read the papers; almost every week you see an instance of some big outfit discovering that bad boys have broken their vaunted security system and made off with thousands of names and lots of personal data. What’s to stop that from happening in the cloud? Well, presumably, the same kind of security measures now generally in place, and shown to be rather leaky ones at that. What will keep government agents or business competitors or professional rivals from penetrating the cloud, or suborning some employees, to get access to all these ideas, inventions, musical scores, patents in progress? Then too, there is the little matter of physical security, and the not so little one of corporate failure or transformation. In a bankruptcy, for instance, is stored data an asset? Can users get to their material? Who owns it? So, before you go all cloudy, think about this a little bit.
Not to be outdone by Amazon, Barnes and Noble announced that it will also launch a site for downloading e-books. They won’t be selling a reader, at least not right away, but they will be making the books available in a format compatible with the different devices now held in the hot little hands of millions of Americans and potential readers. Several things are noteworthy here. First, the total array of titles is much larger than the one Amazon is fielding. Second, a very large number of these items will be works in the public domain and available at no charge. Thirdly, this “no charge” policy is a result of a deal with Google Books, which will be supplying the titles drawn from its digitized collections of books drawn from its library partners. SONY made a similar deal recently for its Reader platform. And lastly, the fact that B&N is not selecting one device or format is interesting in itself. You have to download reading software from the B&N e-book site, but I-Phones, Blackberries, laptops and desktops can serve as the base. They may not have a good enough reader of their own, or perhaps they decided to bank on the capacity and flexibiltiy of current and future handheld devices to accept e-books. They want to get into the game before it turns into Amazon’s own preserve. B&N is being coy about selling the PlasticLogic reader when it becomes available this Fall or early in 2010, but they did say that PL will have a special section on the e-book site. Digital books are still a small part of the total market, but the actions of these two biggies will push things along very smartly. Publishers remain concerned about the pricing policy the two booksellers are using,especially for new releases. I should add that many B&B e-titles will be availiable in a POD or Print On Demand basis, in which the customer winds up with a bound hardcopy of the item. Several technologies for doing this are already in play. I can see both sides of the reader thing. If you don’t have one, you miss out on the razor part of the razor and blades advantage. The money is really in the item people come back for and need, the blades, but you get to sell them the razor anyway. But having a dedicated reader gets you into design, manufacturing, quality control and the whole bag. If you let somebody else worry about that, you save yourself a lot of headaches. I think these developments may turn a whole bunch of Americans into readers, and that’s good for them It’s also good for the publishing industry, broadly conceived. And it’s good for the larger society. Who knows what might happen when millions of Americans start reading again. Interesting times.
Today’s New York Times reports the death of Mr. John Barry, who kicked off the seemingly irresistible march of the common household wonder substance WD-40. From small beginnings in San Diego, the blue and yellow spray cans have spread throughout the country and beyond. “WD” stands for “water displacement” and the 40 for the fortieth attempt to get the formula for a rust preventer/remover right. The product was intended for use in the space program, but employees saw how well it worked and started to sneak cans of if home for personal use, and it became clear that the company had a winner. Mr. Barry took over as president, pushed things energetically, and pretty soon, well, you know….the stuff was everywhere.
The recent decision and action by Amazon to delete from Kindle ebook readers copies of George Orwell’s “1984″ and Animal Farm have caused a lot of comment, much of it highly critical of the company. Some folks are sticking up for Amazon by noting that it was really over a barrel. The books are out of copyright in Australia, the source from which Amazon bought the versions it was using, but still under copyright protection here in the USA. So, they had to do something. But, just deleting the material was probably not a good move either, since it really angered customers and alerted them to what has been technically possible for a long time. I mentioned in the first post about the “first sale” doctrine and about the need for customers to be sure that they are buying, not leasing, content they download. Or, if they agree to a lease arrangement, that they understand the implications of what they are doing. We’re still feeling our way in the digital environment, and some are saying that the expectations we formed during the print era will have to be surrendered as part of the trade-off for the benefits of digital products. Others are saying, no, this is really important, and not just an item on the trade-off list. People have to dig in and fight. Otherwise, the content they acquire and the notes they make on it, can simply vanish, because some company has a business problem, or feels it must knuckle under to the demands of a government, not necessarily this one either, or to an interest (read pressure) group, not necessarily one based here. And some are asking: if they can just wipe content out, what else can they do? Can they look at the notes I make? Can they sell that information, or release it to a third party without my consent or even without my knowledge? These questions have always existed, but the matter lay dormant until the commercial success of one reader brought the issue to life. As the song says: this could be the start of something big. And, it could ignite a review of the current US copyright laws, but there’s big money behind the current structure, and not much chance of a revision without a big, big fight.
There was general stupefication at the news that Amazon had extinguished from the list of works which can be downloaded for the Kindle family of e-book readers two of the most significant novels of the the XXth Century: George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Amazon explained that the company did not actually have the rights to disseminate the works, in the version in which they appear on Kindle, having failed to ensure that this feature was part of the deal made with its supplier. So, the company would have been in violation of the copyright code had it allowed downloading to continue. Refunds were sent to clients who had selected the two books from Amazon’s catalog. But, there was astonishment that such a thing would even be possible. Many Amazon clients did not realize that the company has the capablity to make downloaded content simply disappear, and they also did not know that Amazon monitored who was downloading what so closely. Librarians will note that there are “first sale” implications in the action. “First sale” is the legal doctrine that ensures a book buyer owns the item bought, and can dispose of it as is deemed fit: throw it away, donate it, give it as a present, leave it on a bus. The publisher/author has nothing to say about that. So, are downloads purchases, in the first sale sense? Or are they leases? Is there a contract, and if so, what does it say? Can Amazon make ALL your content disappear for business reasons? And not just Amazon; I’m not picking on them. It’s a delicious irony that the two Orwell novels deal with political tyranny, and 1984 in particular has the section in which inconvenient content is removed by being placed in an incinerator, called the Memory Hole. In 1948, the year Orwell wrote the novel, the process of “correction” required gathering all the previously released printed versions, destroying the offending item, and re-issuing “corrected” ones. That was an impossible task, and Orwell probably used the episode to show the craziness of the Regime. But, nowadays, the Memory Hole is just a mouse click away. Poof! And it’s gone. If everything resides on a digital archive, and something is removed, how can you prove it was ever there in the first place? The useflness of such technology is obvious for repressive regimes, and for not so repressive ones, at least not crudely and openly so. It’s not exactly life imitating art, but it’s close to it.
More on Amazon
This is a link to TIDBITS, which covers the incident, and discusses its implications, very succinctly.
It’s time to revise the periodic table, again. A new element, the 112th, has been discovered in Germany and its discoverer is proposing that it bear the namer “Copernicium” in honor of Niklaus Kopernic, latinized to Corpernicus, the pioneer astronomer who established the heliocentric theory of the solar system. Cp has been proposed as the elemental abbreviation.
That painting by Salvador Dali, the one with the melting clocks and all, is called Persistance of Memory. I was thinking of that as I read a nifty little report in the New England Journal of Medicine suggesting that the virus which proved so disastrous in the years 1918-20 is stll working its way through the genes of both humans and pigs, combining, splitting up, and recombining in many varied ways, governed by principles not yet well understood. The founding virus, itself deriving from some unknown avian virus, became adapted to mammals, and caused the disease outbreak. Humans then passed it on to swine, and swine periodically return the favor by sharing a new form of the virus with us. The H1N1 version now racing around the world is the newest product of this complex process. So, in some sense, the great pandemic of 1918 never really ended;it just changed character. Presumably, all that genetic shuffling, deletion, and importation of other genes, which viruses carry out so well, could produce a variant as deadly, or worse, than the one responsible for the 1918 pandemic. The article is very brief, but in a few sentences, it clears up a lot.