Thursday, April 11, 2002

On the author's guild's objections to Amazon providing links to used booksellers (objections that surely also apply to libraries), and their request that people should therefore no longer link to Amazon I will simply make a couple of observations. When I was a teenager, I borrowed books from libraries a lot. I also bought many books from second hand booksellers. The reason for this was that I did not have very much money but I did have time to seek out the books I wanted, and both these ways of obtaining reading material were cheaper than buying new books, although the hassle was greater. Now that I am older and richer, I usually buy new books, because they are nicer, because I often want them immediately after publication and because buying them is less hassle. Even when Amazon provides me with links to used booksellers, I still tend to buy more expensive new books, because an order of half a dozen books comes in one box and I only have to pay one shipping fee, and I know exactly what I will get.

However, if I had not had access to second hand books when I was younger, I would likely be a far less voracious reader than I am now and I would spend less money on books in total. If I had not had access to second hand books when I was younger, there are a great many authors who I would not have discovered and whose new books I would not have subsequently bought.

The point is an obvious one: for books there are a variety of channels through which I can obtain my reading material: new hardcover, new paperback, second hand, library. Within these channels there are a variety of tradeoffs between cost, hassle and control on the part of the author and publisher. The free and cheap channels have certainly expanded my total consumption, and I am now prepared to pay to reduce the hassle. Copyright law gives authors and publishers a monopoly on the right to produce premium products to reduce my hassle. I think that is enough. Becoming so paranoid about intellectual property rights that you reduce convenience for the user is likely to reduce the size of the market, reduce economic utitlity, and be ultimately counterproductive.

One more argument in favour of second hand books (although admittedly one that the authors guild is unlikely to have a problem with) is that books go out of print. Even if a book has gone out of print, I still have the right to read it if I want to. I don't think the writer or publisher should have the right to take this right away from me. (I find online markets in second hand books such as abebooks to be wonderful - almost nothing that has ever been published is now unavailable). The doctrine of first sale is crucially important. The right to be able to use published intellectual property is very important to me, whether or not the author and publisher still exist, is very important to me. I don't want to lose it for music, DVDs, video games, software, or anything. Attempting to add complicated licences to regulate intellectual property, and to abolish to right to onsell intellectual property is the beginning of taking these rights away.

By the way, let me link to Amazon again. (For the sake of disclosure, I am an Amazon associate. In the unlikely event that people do actually click on the links to Amazon on this page and then buy things, I will be paid a commission).

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

big apple blog bash; click for details

It seems that the bloggers of New York are having a little do on April 19. And while I'd love to meet the wonderful Asparagirl, sadly I think I am not going to be on that side of the pond. Still, if she and the bloggers of New York want to come over to London some time, I am sure I can provide beer / pizza / copies of the Guardian for them to hurl across the room in disgust etc whenever they like.

Actually, I think I would like to go drinking with the bloggers in New York on April 19, and then return to London to see Sigur Ros at the Barbican in London on April 21. However, I it seems like I am going to do neither of these things, because the Sigur Ros concert was sold out before I discovered it existed. Oh well.
Well, when I today went into Borders in Charing Cross Road in London in order to sit in the cafe and browse books and magazines without actually paying for them, I discovered that the cafe was closed and being refitted as a Starbucks. Apparently all the cafes in the UK Borders outlets are being turned into Starbucks outlets. It seems to be a multinational thing, too, as all the cafes in Borders in Australia were in the process of turning into Starbucks when I left Australia in January. (The one Borders in Singapore, was still just a cafe at that time, but it may have changed too).

When I was last in the US in summer 2000, it was Barnes and Noble and not Borders who had a deal with Starbucks. Have Borders in the US done a deal with Starbucks as part of some momentous shifting of alliances between multinational retailers, or is this just something for the international stores? Perhaps someone in the US can tell me.

(Technically the Starbucks stores in B&N in the US were cafes "proudly serving Starbucks coffee" rather than actual Starbucks outlets, which presumably means that the employees were employed by the B&N store rather than employees of Starbucks. These ones in the UK and Australia seem to be actual Starbucks outlets. (I have however seen the "proudly serving Starbucks coffee" trick in the UK, in cafes in cinemas rather than bookshops).

Monday, April 08, 2002

Back to my thoughts on that Atlantic Monthly article about pre-Columbian America. At some point in my schooling in Australia - probably in my first year of high school in 1981 when I would have been twelve - I was taught about the concept of a number system having a base. We were taught to convert the usual base 10 into base 6 into base 4, into binary, into octal etc. It was mentioned in passing that computers used binary, and programmers would often use octal. (Neither my teacher nor I, nor I expect the author of the textbook, had ever used a computer at that point, so this was taken on faith. I wouldn't find out about hexadecimal until later). However, the mathematics textbook had an interesting aside. It mentioned that the Mayan civilization had invented numbers based on place value around the time of Christ - well before they had been known in Europe and possibly before they have been known anywhere in Eurasia. It also had some pictures of what the Mayan numerals looked like, and it discussed how they used base 20 some of the time but that the base could vary from digit to digit. (This is not as strange as you think. When you write out the time as 11:22pm, you are effectively using a mixture of base 10, base 6 and base 12 and probably don't even realise it). I thought that this was absolutely fascinating, and in retrospect I think I must have been using a remarkably better textbook than I had thought at the time.

Of course I had no idea whatsoever who these Mayans were, other than having some vague idea that they had lived in the Americas somewhere. If I had had access to the internet at the time, then I could perhaps have found out more, but this was 1981. There was no chance whatsoever that I would learn anything about the history of the Americas in any other part of my schooling, so I was left with this tantalising glimpse of something . Of course, like everyone else that age I had seen Star Wars, and I had therefore seen the temains of the Mayan city of Tikal, which George Lucas thought looked just like a rebal base on a far planet. However, I did not put this together.

Other bits and pieces slowly came together: yes, there were a great many agricultural plants from the Americas, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, and in particular corn (the domestication of which was seemingly a vastly more complicated process than most of the staple food crops with a Eurasian-African origin (wheat, rice, sorghum etc)

Sunday, April 07, 2002

Yesterday, I caught the train up from London to Cambridge to attend a banquet at St John's college, where I completed a Ph.D. a few years back. It was nice to catch up with friends I hadn't seen for a while, and to go through the whole ritual of a formal dinner: a candlelit dinner in a 500 year old dining hall, graces in Latin before the meal, wise (but possibly quite eccentric) men and women sitting at the high table and so forth. If you grow up with a certain sort of English life, I believe you attend this sort of dinner a lot: at public school, at Oxbridge, when qualifying to be a barrister. For me, coming from Australia, Cambridge is my only real experience of it.

What is interesting of course is that we now have another point of reference. A banquet in Cambridge is almost exactly like a banquet in Harry Potter, except that the candles do not actually fly in the air. Also, I suspect that Harry, Ron, and Hermione do not drink quite as much wine as I had last night, and possibly end up feeling somewhat better than I did this morning. The ancient, funny eccentric school is one of the cliches of English life. JK Rowling did not attend that kind of school or university herself, but that somehow doesn't matter. She could still draw the picture easily enough. However, I must assure everyone that the cliche is quite real.

And of course there is the peculiar fact that to get to Cambridge, the ancient, funny, eccentric university, you go to King's Cross station, and you board a train on platform 9. This is believed to be a complete coincidence.

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