The Moon is a Harsh Mistress — Silly Book Challenge, Part 1

I’ve been challenged by a friend on one of the walled garden social media sites to list seven (?) books so that identity thieves can get started figuring out the answers to my security questions. Maybe he’s getting a cut of the take. But I’m too loyal a friend to respond with utter fabrications. The books I list here will be 100% truthful. Trust me.

I’m not sure I understand what the rules for this game are, so (for the first seven books at least) I’ll only post works of fiction.

Number one is obvious. Like, nothing-else-comes-close obvious. To wit, Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Naturally, no sooner did Kevin challenge me to this dumb contest than he stole my thunder, or tried to. Notice, however, that my cover is from a significantly older edition than his. I have an even older one (below), but I don’t read it, to protect the spine. I also have the hardcover, and the Audible book, and Kindle. I even have a PDF of Tim Minear’s script for a movie adaptation.

paperback, harcover, Audible, and Kindle editions.

I first read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in 9th grade. I almost didn’t. At first, I only read a couple of pages, because the protagonist narrates the book in some kind of weird more-or-less Russian. (Imagine if Lt. Chekov were to dictate all the Captain’s Log entries on Star Trek.) Reading that was work, and I’m opposed to doing that, so I nearly gave up. But my friend Daniel Henderson, who’d already read it, convinced me to make the effort, so I #persisted. And it was worth it.

In P.E., we were playing baseball, so Daniel and I would take positions way out in the outfield and talk about the book. Periodically one of the jocks in class would yell at us that a ball was headed toward the outfield and we’d have to stop and deal with the ball before going back to talking. I remember doing a book report on The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in an English class that year. I don’t remember how the teacher responded, but my grades that semester were 4 C’s and 2 D’s, so it must not have impressed my teacher.

By the time I got to college—which I did, eventually, despite a less than stellar 9th grade GPA—I had probably read it 20 times. I could hand the book to someone and ask them to open it at random and read a sentence, and I would respond with the next one. It’s that good. And I’m that much of a geek.

The technological details haven’t aged well, although they did influence my career. Long before I studied computer science, I had become skeptical of monolithic systems design; a natural alternative for me was the Unix philosophy of small sharp tools, and, later, distributed systems. But Heinlein was usually wrong about the science fiction. (To use Peter Thiel’s language, he was usually too bullish about atoms and, if not bearish then insufficiently bullish, about bits.)

What Heinlein got right was the politics. (I don’t want to spoil it, but TMIAHM is not, despite what you may have heard, or read on the cover of the hardcover edition above, the story of people who set up a libertarian paradise on the moon. Quite the contrary, they destroy one. Because it had to be done. Sigh.)

But Heinlein also raises non-political questions. I’ll mention just two. First, what is a marriage? What constitutes one, what is its purpose, and what support ought society give it? Second, what is a soul? Can an artificial intelligence be alive? If it did, would it have rights? Could it be noble?

If you don’t like this book then, sorry, we just can’t be friends. Have a nice life.

Kindle and the DOJ

Since I’m talking about the Kindle, I should give my opinion about the Department of Justice lawsuit against the big publishers. (Like you asked.) (So what? Who’s blog is this?)

Here’s the deal. The DOJ alleges that the big publishers colluded with Apple to develop an “Agency” pricing model that allowed them to raise prices on eBook titles beyond the $9.99 that Amazon was trying to establish as the normative price for new titles in its Kindle market.

The lawsuit will establish whether or not such collusion took place. But it doesn’t matter, according to people like the New York TimesDavid Carr:

Let’s stipulate that there may have been some manner of price-fixing here…. But … [f]rom the very beginning and with increasingly regularity, Amazon has used its market power to bully and dictate.

The Atlantic‘s Jordan Weissman agrees that guilt or innocence is missing the point:

The publishers come off as a smidgen less than sympathetic in this tale. The government’s filings are filled, for instance, with descriptions of hush hush dinners…. But…Amazon isn’t simply a garden variety retailer, or a helpless, well-meaning innovator. It’s the dominant force in books, and especially digital publishing.

It might be true they broke the law, in other words, but! since it’s Amazon, then it’s okay. (Remember the image of Lady Justice on courthouses with a special blindfold that lets her see whether the victim is Amazon?)

Nonsense. The reason Amazon has a near monopoly in the market is that its Kindle reads documents packaged in a proprietary format. Once I buy a couple of books published in Amazon’s Kindle format, I’m less and less inclined to buy books in Barnes and Noble’s competing format.

In the real world, we don’t have this problem because all books come in the same, nonproprietary format: words printed on paper. I can buy a book the Friends of the Library’s book sale and take go read it in the nice chairs at Barnes and Noble, or I can buy a book at Title Wave here in Anchorage and sell it on the Amazon used-book market when I’m done.

We could have that kind of flexibility in eBooks too, except that the publishers don’t want us too. So they put their books in formats that provide DRM (digital rights management) or copy protection. They don’t want you to be able to make copies of your books. That’s why the Kindle app on your computer can search (yay!) but can’t cut and paste even the smallest excerpt of a book.

The publishers are terrified that, if they sell you an eBook in an open format, you’ll make copies of it for all your friends.

Now, from the world of digital music, we have abundant evidence that there isn’t much market for pirated works when the variety and price of legitimate works is low enough. When CDs used to cost $17, people ripped them and passed USB drives full of MP3s around the dorm. But when you can buy the one song on the CD that you actually want, and it plays on all kinds of players, and it only costs a buck, most people are okay with just buying it.

For that matter, there’s evidence from the world of paper-and-ink books that people don’t make bootleg copies unless either the price (think: college textbooks) or the variety (think: out of print books) is a problem.

So the publishers could solve the problem immediately by offering their books through Barnes and Noble and Apple in an open format unencumbered with DRM. People would switch readers, and Amazon would have to provide support for the open format. That’s what Charlie Stross says, and he’s right.

But the publishing-industry dinosaurs are too stupid and greedy to act in their own best interest. That’s what John Gruber—who has been following on this, and whose links were my entry point into this controversy—says, and Gruber’s right, too.

But…there is no “but.” This is a problem the publishers made and they can unmake it whenever they want. In the meantime, they need to play by the rules.

God knows it would be easy enough for the publishers to get the rules changed: Congre$$ is alway$ ready to hop into bed with their old-media sugar-daddies and impose ever more restrictive imaginary property regimes, First Amendment be damned. Publishers could buy legislation that makes a mess of eBooks as readily as broadcasters did screwed up video.

We’re asked to look the other way while publishers collude to keep prices artificially high and the user experience and versatility low. We have to do that, you see, or Amazon might do to publishing what Steve Jobs did to the music business: drag it, kicking and squealing, into the 21st century.

Kindle Touch

The update I applied seems to make the Kindle a bit more responsive. Some of the books—but not all—seem to have better typography (e.g., they have curly “smart” quotes rather than straight "dumb" ones). So I’d say the update was worth the effort to download and install, but nothing spectacular. Ultimately, when you have an iPhone (or an iPad) then the user experience of a Kindle is going to be pretty “meh” no matter what.

I Totally Want One of These

Ion Audio is coming out (“Soon!”) with a gadget to let you photograph your books quickly and easily. Take a look at it here.

I’ve been thinking about building something like that myself for most of last year. (See this video for some ideas about how you’d do it yourself.) But the DIY project that guy outlines involves finding two cameras that can run CHDK, and a computer that can run some kind of interleaving software, etc., etc. The appeal of a turnkey solution is pretty significant.

(The pricing isn’t set yet, but if they can hold it to something like the estimated $150, that would be another draw. The DIY project would cost that much, plus a lot of time.)

Kudus: Engadget (which isn’t impressed) via CNET.

Three Things I Like

The first thing is a song called “Turkish Delight,” by the David Crowder Band. It’s a disco song straight out of the 1970s, and you can find it on the record Music Inspired by the Chronicles of Narnia. But you can’t find it on Amazon. It seems to be available only on the iTunes Store.

The second thing is the movie Shakespeare in Love. Joseph Fiennes stars as Shakespeare, and Gwyneth Paltrow won an Academy Award as the love he was in. (Ahem.) There was enough skin and bawdy talk to merit its R rating, I suppose, but only just barely. I’ve never been a great fan of the Bard, but this movie made me wish I was.

The third thing is the book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. I liked it so much, I actually posted my first-ever review of a book on Amazon.com:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Miller’s story about “editing his life.” His sense of humor makes the book delightful to read. (His suggestion to a friend about how to answer the question “What’s a movie with a car chase?” was hysterical.) But the larger point – how to have a life that is a story worth reading – is what makes this book so good. As you read his story, you realize you have the same challenge as he had. I’ve given my copy to a friend, and since I only had one copy, I’ll simply recommend it to everyone else.