Free Books and T-Shirt Sales

Cory Doctorow has written an interesting column for the Locus Magazine about his experience in giving away free copies of his books [1]. Mainly he rants about some of the criticism he has received, initially it was people claiming that giving away books for free only worked because he was not a well known author, now people claim that it only works because he is well known.

I’d like to see authors publish free work (as Cory does) and then sell print-on-demand t-shirts.

Cafepress.com has their cheapest t-shirt at $US16.99, Zazzle.com has a shirt for $US15.95, and SpreadShirt.com has shirts for as little as $US6.40 but their web site is difficult to navigate and gives me a lack of confidence in their operation. In spite of the difficult web site SpreadShirt.com seems to be the best offer at $6.40 for a basic shirt, that means either lower prices for the customer (and more sales) or a higher profit margin.

The sale of a t-shirt could give the same revenue to the author as a sale of a book while also costing less than the price of one book in a store. It would be more useful after the book has been read (something you can wear rather than something that takes up space on a shelf), and it would advertise the book. The amount of effort required to create a decent shirt is a small fraction of the effort required to write a book, in many cases the cover artwork could be used with only minor alterations. Cory Doctorow’s novels page has images that could make seven different great shirts with a small amount of effort [2].

I’m sure that there are also many people who want to buy the book and the shirt, so it should give a general increase in revenue.

Healthcare and Free Software

The Washington Monthly has an interesting article about healthcare and Free Software [1]. It seems that a free system named “VistA” from the US Veterans Affairs department (not to be confused with the unpopular OS “Vista” that Microsoft released a few years ago) is competing against a range of proprietary software for managing patient data.

VistA has apparently performed very well, it’s cheap and easy to install, the data can be shared with other programs, and it was largely written by doctors and nurses so it’s optimised to their needs. It has been proven that VistA has saved many lives through better management of medicines and through permitting statistical analysis of the results of various treatments. It has also allowed medical staff to work more quickly which reduces waiting times and medical expenses.

But as you would expect in the US, whenever there is a way of saving lives while also saving money there are companies lobbying for the opportunity to make money while allowing innocent people to die. Of course there are established medical companies who are doing this now and have been doing so for some time.

But the latest news is that Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, and Allscripts, are sponsoring the Electronic Health Record Stimulus Tour – an aggressive measure to railroad doctors into buying proprietary software now.

MS is known for totally ignoring the law when it gives them an opportunity to gain market share, but this is a new low. What will MS do next? Sell drugs to children?

The Streisand Effect and Chinese Barratry

Bruce Everiss has received two threatening letters from a NSW law firm representing the Chinese game company Evony. Here is the latest where they whinge about his publication of their first letter [1] (NB if threaten to sue a blogger you have to expect your letter to be published, it’s not discourteous it’s just the way things work). Here is the first letter from the law firm [2] – Bruce has illustrated the post with one of the advertising pictures that Evony uses (apparently ripped from a lingerie catalog).

I’ve seen some of the Evony adverts on my blog, the ones with a provocatively dressed woman (lingerie advert?) and the title “Come Play, my Lord“.

Ken has an amusing and insightful post on the issue [3] – which also makes some amusing jokes about the Australian legal system.

Bruce’s blog has some good insights into the gaming industry and culture, I’ve added his blog to my feed.

It seems that Bruce will gain a lot of readers due to these legal threats, while Evony seems unlikely to gain anything other than bad PR.

Free K-12 Text Books

The CK12 project is developing free (CC by SA) textbooks for the K-12 market (with a current focus on the early years of high school) [1]. Their primary aim seems to be flex-books – text books that can be localised and modified to better suit the needs of the students. But of course there are many other benefits, according to my best estimates storing text books on an ebook reader or one of the lighter NetBooks is necessary to avoid childhooh back injuries [2].

Another major benefit of flexible text books is the possibility of teaching a wider range of subjects. A subject does not need the level of interest that is required to get a publishing contract (which generally means acceptance by the education department of a state) to have a text book. Independent schools and home-schoolers can select subjects that are not in the mainstream curriculum.

The information for potential authors of text books is here (they didn’t make it particularly easy to find) [3].

One thing I would like to see is a text book about computer security. I really don’t think that this would be an overly difficult subject for an 11yo who is interested in computers. When I was 11 I read a text book on nuclear physics in the form of a comic book, I don’t think that computer security is inherently more difficult or harder to teach than nuclear physics. Naturally full coverage would require several texts aimed at different ages. But that’s possible too. It would probably be easiest to start with an age of ~16. Also as computer security is a subject that is both difficult at one end of the scale and essential at the other it would be necessary to have A and B streams (as is done with maths in the Australian education system).

Please leave a comment if you are interested in participating in the development of computer security related text books. Incidentally it would be good to get a contributor who has had experience in teaching teenagers even if they don’t have any knowledge of computer security – I don’t expect to find someone with good technical skills and teaching experience.

Journalism, Age, and Mono

Daniel Stone has criticised the IT journalist Sam Varghese for writing a negative article about a college student [1].

The student in question is 21 years old, that means he is legally an adult in almost every modern jurisdiction that I am aware of (the exception being Italy where you must be 25 years old to vote in senatorial elections [2]). It’s well known that college students often do stupid things, it’s not at all uncommon for college parties to end up involving the police. When 21yo college students do foolish things that involve breaking the law is it common for people to defend them because they are only students? I’m pretty sure that the legal system won’t accept such a defense. So while Sam was rather harsh in his comments (and did go a bit far with implying links to GNOME/Mono people), I don’t think it’s inappropriate on the basis of age. That said, a casual glance at life insurance premium tables by age will show that men who are less than 25 years old are prone to doing silly things, so I won’t hold this against the student in question as I’m sure he will be more sensible in future – I haven’t included his name in this post.

It’s often said that “you shouldn’t do anything that you would be ashamed of if it was described on the front page of a newspaper“, while I think that statement is a little extreme I do think it’s reasonable to try and avoid writing blog posts that you would be ashamed of if a popular blogger linked to it with a negative review. You have to expect that a post titled “Fuck You X” where X is the name of some famous person will get a significant reaction, and no-one can reasonably claim to have not wanted to offend anyone with such a post. Personally I would prefer that when people disagree with me they provide a list of reasons (as Sam did) rather than just a short negative comment with no content (as is more often the case).

Here is Sam’s article [3].

Here is the original version of “Fuck you, Richard Stallman and other GNU/Trolls” [4].

Here is an updated version titled “On Mono and the GPL” [5].

Here is a good rebuttal of the points made in the article [6] by “Cranky Old Nutcase”. Note that this rebuttal is linked from reference [5], it is a positive sign when someone links to documents that oppose their ideas to allow the reader to get all the facts. One significant fact that Cranky Old Nutcase pointed out and which was missed by Sam is that the Indian student wrote “A mentor of mine told me that patents are to prevent companies from getting sued, not to sue companies” while the Microsoft case against Tomtom is conclusive proof that patents ARE for the purpose of suing other companies and they ARE used in such a manner by Microsoft! I wonder whether the “mentor” in question is a Microsoft employee…

On the topic of Mono, I think that Alexander Reichle-Schmehl has the most reasonable and sensible description of the situation regarding Mono in Debian [7].

In spite of the nice dinner they gave me I still don’t trust Microsoft [8].

Religion vs Cult

Diane Benscoter gave an interesting TED interview and a slightly less interesting TED lecture about her experiences with the Moonies [1]. She describes how she was a victim of the cult for five years, and then after being deprogrammed she spent five years working as a deprogrammer [2].

In her interview she described the first identifying trait of a cult as an “all or nothing world view” with “easy answers to complex questions are handed to you on a silver platter and if you’re asked to believe in them unquestioningly and told not to seek an alternative“. However that seems to describe most religions.

It seems to me that when someone describes an organisation as a cult they are usually not referring to how old the organisation is (the term “new religious movement” is sometimes used as a synonym for “cult“) or whether it uses circular logic and specifies that belief in God is the answer to some significant questions. What they usually mean is that the organisation has harmed it’s members or society in some way.

Based on discussing various religions with many people, here are some criteria that I believe are generally regarded as differentiating religions and cults:

  1. Religious leaders regard their followers as being individuals who need protection and assistance, while cult leaders tend to regard people as a resource to be exploited. It seems to be the standard practice that cult victims will end up with no money. But people who become religious are often encouraged to adopt practices that can increase their income (EG by avoiding alcohol and drug use). Most people who regularly attend church and who are in a good financial position are expected to donate 10% of their income – which still allows them to have a good standard of living.
  2. Religions tend to encourage people to be healthy, there are many anecdotes of people recovering from health problems such as addiction to alcohol or other chemicals after becoming religious. Banning the consumption of alcohol (as most variants of Islam do) seems to be a reasonable measure for protecting the health of believers, banning the consumption of pork in times and places where the current first-world health technologies are unavailable also seems to be a good idea.
    Cults often encourage people to be unhealthy. It’s common for cults to ban medical treatment or to compel their victims to take drugs. Some cults compel their victims to consume alcohol when there are medical reasons to avoid it (EG diabetes). Cults also often advocate activity that involves an unreasonable risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
  3. Religions tend to focus on making the world a better place. Generally some of the money that is donated to religions is used for helping disadvantaged people. Religious leaders encourage their followers to act in a way that improves the world for everyone by objective criteria. Cult leaders tend to only want to personally benefit. If a leader has twenty Rolls-Royces then their organisation is more like a cult than a religion.
  4. Cults break up families. When an organisation prohibits someone from associating with close relatives (such as parents) because they don’t agree with it then it’s a cult.
  5. Religions respect personal beliefs and freedom of choice. Blindly following a leader is not required.
    While it’s not commonly recognised, it seems to me that any organisation that tries to impose it’s own moral ideas by force of law is tending towards being a cult.
  6. Religions don’t needlessly prevent people from being happy. A forced vow of celibacy is a cult feature.
  7. Religions try to avoid encouraging their followers to break the law. In some cases nothing less than prohibiting a religion will make a religious leader advocate criminal activity.

Now if you examine the history of any religious group that has been operating for a few hundred years you will probably see cases where it matches the cult criteria. It seems to me that some of the ideas about cults were created by groups that want to protect their own status as “religions” and hobble the competition. The idea that new religions are cults is one example. Another is the idea that there is a boolean criteria of cult vs religion which allows groups recognised as religions to squash the competition without having to improve their own performance and become less cult-like.

The Cult page on Wikipedia is not very helpful when considering these issues and the leading definitions are the ones most opposed to the common use [3].

Expectations and Fandom

Russ Allbery has written about the hostile reactions of sci-fi fans toward the delay of a book release [1]. Russ makes some good points regarding the issue of whether paying $100 for some books entitles a reader to have the rest of the series written (in summary – no, the author owes the fans nothing). Russ also notes that when someone makes a public promise to do something (such as writing a book) they will probably be feeling bad about being unable to live up to that, and harassing them about it is not going to make them feel any better – or make them better able to do the work.

Charles Stross has written a blog post about this topic, he makes some interesting points and the comments illustrate most of them [2]. One comment claims that the author of the delayed book in question “flaunts his NFL watching” while the same person also criticises the author for writing a blog. This level of contempt for the author amazes me. In case anyone is interested I watch The Bill and Desperate Housewives every week. Anyone who wishes to criticise me for watching soapies instead of documentaries is welcome to do so. But I will not make any apologies for spending some of my time doing things other than coding. If I watch Desperate Housewives instead of fixing a bug that inconveniences you then you just have to deal with it. I believe that taking a regular break from work is a basic human right, apart from which there is evidence to show that working excessive hours decreases the quality and quantity of work that is completed [3].

It seems to me that members of the free software community are in a better position regarding fans than most creative people, and that this is largely due to how transparent the development process is. The most influential members of the user (fan) base are software developers. While people will be disappointed when software is not released on time or has some bugs many users know what is involved and understand that no testing will find all bugs. Even some basic shell scripting can teach people the difficulties of programming and convince them to have a little more patience than they might otherwise have. So the typical user of free software will have some idea of what is required to write software while the typical reader of a novel has no idea of what is involved in writing a book.

Another benefit for the free software community in this regard is the open development process. When users are unhappy about release delays (as some Debian users were before Lenny was released) they can easily look at the bug list. If a user is pushy they can be invited to fix some bugs themselves, if they investigate the matter and discover that the bugs are too difficult for them to fix then they will probably feel compelled to stop hassling the people who can fix the bugs. Complaints from users regarding the release process can be turned around with “the software is late because YOU haven’t fixed any bugs”. Please note that submitting bug reports is NOT criticism, it is in fact helping the development process (particularly when the bug reports contain information on how to fix the problems).

This exposes another significant difference between writing software and writing a book. Even if I was a talented author I would not be able to offer any assistance to an author who had trouble completing a work simply because I wouldn’t have the same vision for the plot of a book. But it’s not uncommon for software development projects to be “forked” if the users are unhappy with some aspect of how they work, and it’s also not uncommon for a programmer to voluntarily give one of their projects to another developer – sometimes developers try and convince other people to take projects from them when they don’t have enough time. Even without changing the ownership of a project, anyone can submit a patch. The patches that I have received from users of my software have generally been of a high quality and it has taken little work to merge them.

A final difference is that any programmer can produce a private fork of a project. I have lost count of the number of times that I have produced custom versions of free software for my own personal use or for the use of my clients. Sometimes the modifications that I made were unsuitable for wider use (IE they broke things for usage cases that I didn’t care about) so I just privately made the software do what I needed. This makes the upstream developer (or team) and other contributors irrelevant to fixing the problem in question.

Now this is not to say that the free software community is perfect. But it seems that certain types of bad behavior that we see demonstrated in the sci-fi fandom circles are uncommon and the people who demonstrate them are significantly outnumbered by people who oppose such actions. Publicly criticising a programmer for watching the NFL in their spare time is akin to holding a sign saying “kick me”.

As I am a fan of science fiction (and hope to write some in the near future) I wonder whether the sci-fi community could be changed to have a culture more like that of the free software community.

The web site 365tomorrows.com publishes a short sci-fi story every day [4], they have been doing this for a few years now. They started out publishing work by a small team of authors with the aim of writing a story a day for a year. Now they also take submissions from users and they have a forum for budding authors to discuss their work. The site Protagonize.com is based on the idea of collaborative fiction [5]. I wonder whether the increasing number of sci-fi fans who join such forums will change the nature of the community. Maybe when a book is delayed the fans could take comfort in an increasing amount of fan-fiction based on characters from that book, I expect that the fan fiction will probably not impress all authors – and some may be offended by having their characters used in pornographic fan fiction. But that might just lead to a market shift towards authors who are not overly concerned about such things.

When attending sci-fi book signings I’ve noticed fans who appear to have stalking tendencies. I have been wondering how much of this is another symptom of the same problem and how much of it is due to science fiction attracting some people who don’t understand the concept of personal space and who haven’t considered the mathematics of interactions between famous people and fans – as one of many fans the famous person will not remember your fan letters or whether they have met you before, it’s not possible.

I look forward to the day when a well known author can have lunch with some fans after a book signing and not be afraid of weird fans. I wonder if Cory Doctorow [6] already has such cool fans, Cory seems to be one of the leaders in the new open way of writing and releasing sci-fi so it seems likely that he would be among the first to reap the benefits. I’m sure that most authors would like to have lunch or dinner with their fans if they could be assured that the probability of getting stuck with a nutty fan was extremely low.

Too Stupid to be a Judge

Bruce Schneier has written about the foolish actions of Justice Antonin Scalia [1]. Antonin made some comments opposing the need for greater privacy protection, most people could get away with doing that, but when a Supreme Court Justice does so it gets some attention. In response to this Fordham University law professor Joel Reidenberg assigned his class a project to discover private information on Antonin using public sources. The class produced a dossier of such information which was then offered to Antonin [2], but which was not published.

Now anyone who knows anything about how the world works would just accept this. Among other things Antonin now knows what is publicly available and can take steps to remove some public data according to his own desires. But being apparently unaware of the Streisand effect [3] Antonin went on to say the following:

It is not a rare phenomenon that what is legal may also be quite irresponsible. That appears in the First Amendment context all the time. What can be said often should not be said. Prof. Reidenberg’s exercise is an example of perfectly legal, abominably poor judgment. Since he was not teaching a course in judgment, I presume he felt no responsibility to display any.

This is of course essentially issuing a challenge to the entire Internet to discover the information that the Fordham students discovered. Of course doing so would not be fun unless it was published. The meme of 2009 has yet to be defined, it might be discovering and widely publishing personal information about Antonin.

Already one of the comments in Bruce Schneier’s blog suggests that activists should do such research on all senior figures in the US government to encourage them to take privacy more seriously. I expect that the first reaction of the legislative branch to such practices would be to enact special laws to protect their own privacy while still allowing large corporations (the organisations that pay for the election campaigns) to do whatever they want to ordinary people.

It’s an interesting situation, I predict that Antonin will regard this as one of the biggest mistakes he’s ever made. I’m sure that there are many more LULZ to come from this.

The AP and Copyright on the Web

The New York Times has an article about the Associated Press (AP) trying to gain more control over material that it distributes [1]. The article is not clear on the details.

One noteworthy fact is that the AP apparently don’t like search engines showing snippets of their articles. This should however be an issue for the organisations that license the AP content and redistribute it (newspapers etc), they can use a robots.txt file on their web server to prevent search engines from showing snippets of their content – then once their traffic drops dramatically they can threaten to boycott AP if they can’t do things properly. Speaking for myself the majority of the articles I read on major news sites come from Google results, if they stop Google from indexing AP content then I will read a lot less of it. The end of the article says that there is some sort of battle in Europe between Google and newspapers. Has Google stopped respecting robots.txt? How can this be a problem, if someone copies the entire article you can sue them and you can ask Google not to index your site. That should cover it.

The AP will be going after sites that copy large portions of articles, but this is not news at all. I often see web sites copy my blog content in ways that breach the license terms. As I’m not well equipped to deal with such people I usually try to find an instance of the same splog (spam blog) copying articles from a major news site and report it to employees of the news organisation. They can often get the splogs shut down, sometimes rather quickly.

They are apparently after SEO, they want to get the top entries in search engines for their articles and not have a site that paraphrases the article or quotes it. I don’t think that my blog posts which paraphrase and quote from mainstream media articles are likely to do that, but the newspapers have to deal with the fact that when Slashdot and other popular sites reference their articles then they will lose on SEO. They should be happy that they can win most of the time.

Brendan Scott has a rather harsh take on this [2] which he unfortunately has not explained in any detail. The people who write the news articles for AP get paid for their work and then AP needs to get paid to run a viable business – which is in the public interest. It may be that the AP are doing something really bad, but the New York Times article that Brendan cites doesn’t seem to support any such claim.

Australian Democracy is “Microsoft Compatible”

Here is the Australian Electoral Commission documentation on how to register a political party [1]. It includes the requirement for “A Microsoft compatible electronic membership list (and paper copy) providing the following information“.

So a prerequisite for registering a political party appears to be the ownership of a PC running Windows. While it may be the case that I could create a plain text file on a Linux machine and append some CR characters to each line, or create a CSV format spread-sheet/database file the most common interpretation of this is likely to be that MS-Office is required.

Such blatant promotion of a software vendor in a government document is unacceptable. Anyone who wishes to use other software for their political activities should be permitted to do so without restriction.