Month: December 2011

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

08:10 – I thought this would happen, but not this quickly. There are now so many free books being released for Kindle that I don’t have time even to scan the titles. Some days, Amazon releases literally hundreds of new free titles.

As a result, my standards for downloading a free ebook have tightened significantly. It used to be that “this looks like it might be interesting” was sufficient. Now, I pass up books like that by the score, not even bothering to visit their Amazon pages to get more details. In the last couple months, I think I’ve actually paid for only two ebooks, one a $3.99 title that Barbara wanted and another a $2.99 Joe Konrath title that was actually on sale that day for $0.99.

Most authors seem to loathe and fear the proliferation of free ebooks, seeing it as a “race to the bottom”. Even two or three months ago, an author could get noticed with a $0.99 or free title, but that’s no longer true. When thousands of ebooks are cheap or free, just being cheap or free doesn’t buy any exposure.

But I still think low ebook prices are a good thing for authors, at least those who have backlists and are realistic about pricing. I have books from literally scores of new-to-me authors queued up for my Kindle. If I read one of those and like it, I’m going to want more from that author. If I visit Amazon and find that author has a dozen other titles in that series available, all priced in the $0.99 to $2.99 range and without DRM, I’m going to buy all of them in one go. I’ll probably give a copy of the first title to one or several of my Kindle-owning friends who have reading tastes similar to my own, which will probably generate a bunch of additional sales for that author.

But if that author has made the mistake of overpricing his or her other titles, or of putting DRM on them, that chain is broken. If the other titles are priced much above $2.99 or have DRM, I’ll simply abandon that author and move on. It’s not like I don’t have many others to choose from.

Authors need to understand the economic concept of residual value. Print books have residual value. I can sell them back to a used bookstore or trade them two-for-one. I can donate them to the library. That’s why I keep saying that the natural value of an ebook is half the price of a used paperback. When you “buy” an ebook, all you’re paying for is the right to read the story. Even $2.99 is a pretty high price for that. I’ll pay that much because that’s the minimum price upon which Amazon pays the author the 70% royalty instead of 35%. But most readers don’t know that and wouldn’t care if they did. What they do know is how much a used paperback costs, and they will be resistant to paying much more than half the price of a used paperback for an ebook. Particularly when there are so many free ebooks available.

10:45 – I just shipped what I suspect will be the final chemistry kit that’ll arrive in time to go under the tree. I suppose it’s possible for one shipped tomorrow or even Friday to arrive in time for Christmas if it’s shipped to an address near us, but I sure wouldn’t bet on one shipped tomorrow, let alone Friday. The USPS is just as covered up right now as UPS and FedEx. I’m expecting them to take one more day on average than normal. The one I just shipped went to one of the Maryland suburbs of DC, and I told the buyer to expect it Friday.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

08:29 – I finished the chapter on Porifera and Cnidaria. Today I’m starting on invertebrates.

09:49 – I was just reading an article the other day about the huge decline in use of the GPL and similar encumbered licenses among software developers in favor of more permissive licenses like BSD, Apache, and even public domain. I’ve never considered the GPL and related licenses “free” in any sense other than Orwellian, so it’s good to see developers abandoning the GPL in favor of making their code freely available and reusable.

Free versus encumbered licensing bears on the biology book project as well. Ironically, even though the book will be released under a Creative Commons license, in practical terms I can’t use images or other material that’s CC-licensed, let alone Gnu-licensed, because of potential encumbrances on the book. To use such images, I’d have to contact the copyright owners, if they can even be found, and get them to sign physical documents provided by O’Reilly’s legal department to give us legal permission to use the material without encumbering the book.

That’s simply nuts. (Not O’Reilly’s legal department’s requirements; they’re just doing their jobs to protect O’Reilly and us.) The whole idea of CC is to make material freely accessible and reusable. If it’s easier just to re-invent the wheel, what did CC licensing accomplish? Nothing. So, all of the images in the book will be either ones we’ve shot ourselves or ones that have been released into the public domain. And, not being hypocrites, we’ll release all of the images we shot for the book into the public domain so the next author who needs, say, a cross-section image of a Hydra will have our high-res images available to re-use freely.

15:17 – Speaking of copyright garbage, I really hate it when they disappear stuff off YouTube. The other day, I noticed they’d pulled the parody Literal Video version of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, which was actually better than the original. My favorite lines?

“Get out of my way! I gotta pee!
Never mind. I just went on the floor!”


“What the effing crap?
That angel guy just felt me up!”

Oh, well. At least that video is still available in modified form. Someone reframed it and added a cat to the screen to prevent YouTube’s auto-deleter from finding it. The same can’t be said for a video that was run on French TV of Cyndi Lauper doing a haunting version of Walk Away RenĂ©e with Peter Kingsbery. That used to be on YouTube, but it’s gone.

Monday, 19 December 2011

08:16 – All of my Saturnalia shopping is done, such as it is.

Yesterday, Barbara picked up an early Saturnalia present for Colin, not that he much likes it. It’s a snout twister collar. It has a running loop, one end of which is connected to the leash, with the loop around his snout. If he attempts to pull on the leash, it pulls down and to one side on his snout. It does indeed stop him from pulling, but it does little or nothing to stop him from leash-fanging. He grabs the leash in his fangs and works his way up the leash, usually getting it wrapped around him in a big tangle, and sometimes wrapped around me. At one point when he was much younger (and lighter), I ended up with him hanging completely airborne like a hooked fish from the handle of the leash.

Unlike all our other Border Collie pups, Colin is rather timid. Duncan and Malcolm, for example, started going up and down the stairs to the basement the first day we had them home. It took Colin weeks to get up the nerve to go up the stairs, let alone down them. If I threatened Duncan or Malcolm with a rolled-up newspaper (which I call a dog beater), they’d yap at me, look me straight in the eye, and say, “I’m not afraid of you!” Colin, conversely, cringes and pulls away.

We’ve never abused him or done more than tap his rear end with the dog beater, but sometimes Colin acts afraid of me. For example, I’ll offer him a treat and he’ll follow me to the treat jar in the kitchen. But as I’m getting the treat out of the jar, he disappears. I’ll find him at the end of the hall or in the bathroom acting as though he’s afraid I’m going to hit him. So we decided to stop using the dog beater and just speak sternly to him when we need to adjust his behavior.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

09:55 – Barbara gave me a haircut this morning, so I’m feeling weak. Only kidding. Actually, the bogosity of the Samson and Delilah myth was one of the first things that caused me to question religion, when I was about three years old. I knew I didn’t feel any weaker after a haircut. A guy who lived down the street from us was former military. He had a crew cut so short he might as well have shaved his head, and he was built like Arnold Schwarzenegger. And, anyway, why should hair length have anything to do with how strong a guy was? That got me started thinking about how clearly bogus a lot of other religious stories were, from the parting of the Red Sea to transubstantiation to dead people coming back to life. I wrote off religion as a bunch of myths and outright lies. I’d learned to question dubious claims and demand evidence for them. I became a scientist in all but name before I started kindergarten.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

10:06 – Barbara and I are both impossible to buy for. When we need something, we just buy it. Neither of us have any interest in having the latest gadget or keeping up with the Joneses. Barbara doesn’t care about clothes or jewelry or perfume or flowers or any of the other stuff that men usually buy as gifts for women, so that makes it difficult for me to come up with gift ideas.

And I’m even worse. Barbara is not the first person who’s told me I’m impossible to buy for. I don’t want much, and when I need something I buy it. Here’s how bad it really is. Barbara was delighted yesterday when I told her that I’d just ordered some stuff that could be her Christmas gift to me. It was 37 prepared microscope slides and five grams of Eosin Y stain. So both of us are marketers’ and advertisers’ and retailers’ worst nightmare. How can we not be interested in “consuming” the crap they’re pushing?

Friday, 16 December 2011

09:30 – Hmmm. The (French) head of the IMF now says that the rest of world has to bail out the eurozone if a world-wide 1930’s style great depression is to be avoided. Fortunately–with the exception of Russia, which has agreed to kick in a few billion–the rest of the world has basically said NFW. The UK’s share was to be about $40 billion, and the UK has already announced that isn’t going to happen. Same for the US and China, which have ruled out paying to bail out a group of nations that’s perceived as being capable of paying the costs itself if only they were willing to do so.

What’s unavoidable is that standards of living are going to be going down in Europe. Way down. The eurozone nations have been on a borrowing and spending binge for many years. What’s worse is that their current debts, as horrendously high as they are, pale in comparison to their unfunded liabilities for pensions and medical care. All told, Europe is looking at a real debt load of something like $100 trillion. With a T. As I’ve said, we’re watching the collapse of the European welfare state. That won’t be pretty, as people who expected to retire in their 50’s or early 60’s with full pensions and free health care learn that those pensions won’t be paid–or, if they are, they won’t buy a cup of coffee–and that free health care won’t be available. The riots and firebombings we’ve seen so far will seem mild compared to the social unrest we’ll be seeing over the next decade or two. It’s not exaggerating to predict a coming Europe-wide revolution as the EU breaks up.

The UK would do well to distance itself as soon as possible and as much as possible from the EU, starting by withdrawing from the EU itself. The cost of doing so would actually be negative. Any additional trading costs involved in imports from and exports to the EU under WTO rules rather than EU rules would be much more than offset by the elimination of the net direct subsidies the UK pays to the EU, not to mention the indirect and largely invisible subsidies that result from EU regulations that are not in the interests of the UK. The UK is in terrible shape economically, but it’s nothing compared to the terminal economic condition of the rest of the EU. Cameron and his Tories need to get the UK out of the EU before the EU drags them further down. And he has the support of British voters, the majority of whom now favor withdrawing from the EU.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

07:56 – Over the last few years, I’ve mentioned several times that I thought China was in deep, deep trouble. People scoffed, but it’s becoming more and more obvious that I was right all along.

It’s not that I have a magic crystal ball. It’s that I understand something that appears to escape most politicians and journalists, including Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. The entire concept of Keynesian economics is fundamentally broken. Governments that make economic and financial decisions based on Keynes’ mistaken principles, which is to say nearly all governments, are doomed to suffer the consequences. Unfortunately, that also means the rest of us are also doomed to suffer those consequences. If only they’d listened to Hayek instead. We wouldn’t have $15 trillion in debt and there’d be no eurozone crisis. In fact, there’d be no eurozone.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

08:06 – I finished the group of lab sessions on Plantae yesterday, and I’m starting on the group on Animalia this morning. That’s the final group. When I finish it, I’ll go back and start “filling in” with additional lab sessions in other groups that I wasn’t sure I’d have time to complete.

So this morning I’m starting on a lab session that covers Porifera (sponges) and Cnidaria (jellyfish, anemones, hydrae, and so on), both phyla that include the simplest animals. After that, I’ll do another lab session on invertebrates–worms, insects, and so on–and then move on to chordates–fish, amphibians, reptiles, and of course mammals.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

07:56 – EU officials announced yesterday that they would make Britain suffer for vetoing their planned power grab. “Nice little financial services sector you have there. Be a shame to see anything happen to it…” Meanwhile, the markets are treating the results of that failed summit last week with the contempt they deserve, and the ratings agencies have said outright that nothing significant was decided at that summit, so they plan to go on with their review and likely ratings downgrades. And yields on Italian and Spanish bonds have again climbed into the unsustainable range after only a couple days in the sub-6% range. Merkozy must be getting very frustrated that nothing they do fools the market into doing what they want it to do.

Work continues on the biology book, and stuff for the kits is starting to arrive. I now have a good supply of carrot seeds for one lab session and of lima bean seeds and rhizobium innoculum for another, probably enough of each for 100 to 200 kits. That was the last of what I needed for the biology kits. Once I finish writing the book, I’ll put together the first batch of biology kits, probably only a dozen or two to start. That’ll let me work out packaging, subassemblies, assembly order, and so on. Then I’ll go to work on the forensics kit and manual.

11:28 – Now here’s an interesting site. It’s currently tracking about 53 million users, 113,000+ torrents, and about 2 million files totaling more than 106 TB. Alas, when I visited the site, the only thing it could tell me about my own torrent usage was: “Hi. We have no records on you.”

Monday, 12 December 2011

07:56 – As it turns out, the USPS doesn’t routinely pick up shipments on Sunday, although they will do so if you request it and are willing to pay them to do it. There are two types of pick-ups. The normal method, which they don’t charge for, is to notify them that you have a package waiting, which the carrier will then pick up the next time he visits you on his normal rounds. Alternatively, you can request a special pick-up, which they charge a pick-up fee for. The former is all I need.

I was confused because one of the steps in producing the label is to choose a ship date. When I generated the label/postage yesterday, it offered me ship dates of Sunday the 11th, Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. I chose Sunday, thinking that would generate a notice to the USPS to pick up the package whenever. It doesn’t, so I’m not sure why they even ask for ship date. You have to request the pickup as a completely separate step on a different page. So I chose regular pick-up for today. When I did that, it asked me for pickup location, with various options such as front door, back door, side door, mail room, in/near mailbox, and so on. I chose “knock on door/ring bell” to give Colin an excuse to bark.

I’m still working heads-down on the biology book. I should finish the Plantae group in the next couple days, after which I dive into the final group, Animalia. Then I’ll go back and add some lab sessions throughout the book, that I’d stubbed out but wasn’t sure I’d have enough time to complete.

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