Joho the BlogMarch 2011 - Joho the Blog

March 30, 2011

What’s wrong with this picture?

A screen capture of an Amazon page:

Kindle pricing highest of all versions

Yeah, this happens a lot. It shouldn’t.


March 29, 2011

Angry Birds – Dictator levels

Brilliant. (Via Ethanz)

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March 28, 2011

ePublishing business models

I’m at an education conference put on by CET in Tel Aviv. This is the second day of the conference. The opening session is on business models for supporting the webification of the educational system.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Eli Hurvitz (former deputy director of the Rothschild Foundation, the funder of CET) is the moderator. The speakers are Michael Jon Jensen (Dir of Strategic Web Communications, National Academies Press), Eric Frank (co-founder of Flat World Knowledge) and Sheizaf Rafaelli (Dir. of the Sagy Center for Internet Research at Haifa Univ.)

Michael Jensen says he began with computers in 1980, thinking that books would be online within 5 yrs. He spent three yearsat Project Muse (1995-8), but left because they were spending half their money on keeping people away from their content. He went to the National Academies Press (part of the National Academy of Science). The National Academies does about 200 reports a year, the result of studies by about 20 experts focused on some question. While there are many wonderful things about crowd-sourcing, he says, “I’m in favor of expertise. Facts and opinions on the Web are cheap…but expertise, expert perspective and sound analysis are costly.” E.g., that humans are responsible for climate change is not in doubt, should not be presented as if it were in doubt, and should not be crowd-sourced, he says.

The National Academy has 4,800 books online, all available to be read on line for free. (This includes an algorithmic skimmer that extacts the most important two-sentence chunk from every page.) [Now that should be crowd-sourced!] Since 2005, 65% are free for download in PDF. They get 1.4M visitors/month, each reading 7 page on average. But only 0.2% buy anything.

The National Academy Press’ goal is access and sustainability. In 2001, they did an experiment: When people were buying a book, they were offered a download of a PDF for 80% of the price, then 60%, then 40%, then for free. 42% took the free PDF. But it would have been too expensive to make all PDF’s free. The 65% that are now free PDFs are the “long tail” of books. “We are going to be in transition for the next 20 yrs.” Book sales have gone from 450,00/yr in 2002 to 175,000 in 2010. But, as they have given away more, they are disseminating about 850,000 units per year. “That means we’re fulfilling our publishing mission.” 260,000 people have opted in for getting notified of new books.

Michael goes through the available business options. NAP’s offerings are too broad for subscriptions. They will continue selling products. Authors fund some of the dissemination. And booksellers provide some revenue. There are different models for long-form content vs. articles vs. news vs. databases. Further, NAP has to provide multiple and new forms of content.

General lessons: Understand your mission. Make sure your strategy supports your mission. But digital strategies are a series of tactics. Design fot the future. and “The highest resolution is never enough…Never dumb down.” “The print-based mindset will work for the next few years, but is a long-term dead end.” “‘Free’ of some kind is required.” Understand your readers, and develop relationships with them. Go where the audiences are. “Continue experimenting.” There is no single best model. “We are living in content hyperabundance, and must compete with everything else in the world.”


Eric Frank of Flat World Knowledge (“the largest commercial publisher of” open source textbooks) says that old business models are holding us back from achieving what’s possible with the Net. He points to a “value gap” in the marketplace. Many college textbooks are $200. The pain is not evenly distributed. Half of college students are in 2 yr colleges, where the cost of textbooks can be close to their tuition costs. The Net is disrupting the text book market already, e.g.,through the online sale of used books, or text book rental models, or “piracy.” So, publishers are selling fewer units per year, and are raising pricves to protect their revenues. There’s a “vicious downward spiral,” making everyone more and more unhappy.

Flat World Knowledge has two business models. First, it puts textbooks through an editorial process, and publishes them under open licenses. They vet their authors, and peer review the books. They publish their books under a Creative Commons license (attribution, non-commercial, share-alike); they retain the copyright, but allow users to reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute them. They provide a customization platform that looks quite slick: re-order the table of content, add content, edit the content. It then generates multiple formats, including html, pdf, ePub, .mobi, digital Braille, .mp3. Students can choose the format that works best for them. The Web-based and versions for students with disabilities are free. They sell softwcover books ($35 fofr b&w, $70 for color) and the other formats. They also sell study guides, online quizzes, and flashcards. 44% read for free online. 66% purchase something: 33% print, 3% audiobooks, 17% print it yourself, 3% ebooks.

Second business model: They license all of their intellectual property to an institution that buys a site license at $20/student, who then get access to the material in every format. Paper publishers’ unit sales tend to zero out over just a few semesters as students turn to other ways of getting the book. Free World Knowledge’s unit sales tend to be steady. They pay authors 20% royalty (as opposed to a standard 13%), which results in higher cumulative revenues for the authors.

They currently have 112 authors (they launched in 2007 and published their first book in Spring 2009). 36 titles published; 42 in pipeline. Their costs are about a third of the industry and declining. Their time to market is about half of the traditionals (18 months vs. 40 months). 1,600 faculty have formally adopted their books, in 44 countries. Sales are growing at 320%. Their conversion rate of free to paid is currently at 61% and growing. They’ve raised $30M in venture capital. Bertelsmann has put in $15M. Random House today invested.

He ends by citing Kevin Kelly: The Net is a giant copy machine. When copies are super-abundant, and worthless. So, you need to seel stuff that can’t be copied. Kevin lists 8 things that can’t be copied: immediacy, personalization, interpretation (study aids), authenticity (what the prof wants you to read), accessibility, embodiment (print copy), patronage (people want to pay creators), findability. Future for FWK: p2p tutoring, user-generated marketplace, self-assessment embedded within the books, data sales. “Knowledge is the black gold of the 21st century.”

[Sheizaf Rafaelli’s talk was excellent — primarily about what happens when books lose bindings — but he spoke very quickly, and the talk itself did not lend itself to livebloggery, in part because I was hearing it in translation, which required more listening and less typing. Sorry. His slides are here. ]


March 27, 2011

[2b2k] The encyclopedia of changes

I just shared a cab with James Bridle, a UK publisher and digital activist (my designation, not his) who is the brilliance behind the printing out of the changes to the Wikipedia article on the Iraq War. It turns out that those changes — just the changed portions — fill up twelve volumes.

What does the project show? “The argument,” James says. Of course it also shows the power of the cognitive surplus: we just casually created twelve volumes of changes in our spare time. If only all users of Wikipedia all understood how it’s put together! (Rather than banning students from using Wikipedia, it’d be far better if teachers required students to click on the “Discussion” tab.)

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March 26, 2011

Doing Google Books right

Having written in opposition to the Google Books Settlement (1 2 3), I was pleased with Judge Chin’s decision overall. The GBS (which, a couple of generations ago would have unambiguously referred to George Bernard Shaw) was worked out by Google, the publishers, and the Authors Guild without schools, libraries, or readers at the table. The problems with it were legion, although over time it had gotten somewhat less obnoxious.

Yet, I find myself slightly disappointed. We so desperately need what Google was building, even though it shouldn’t have been Google (or any single private company) that is building it. In particular, the GBS offered a way forward on the “orphaned works” problem: works that are still in copyright but the owners of the copyright can’t be found and often are probably long dead. So, you come across some obscure 1932 piece of music that hasn’t been recorded since 1933. You can’t find the person who wrote it because, let’s face it, his bone sack has been mouldering since Milton Berle got his own TV show, and the publishers of the score went out of business before FDR started the Lend-Lease program. You want to include 10 seconds of it in your YouTube ode to the silk worm. You can’t because some dead guy and his defunct company can’t be exhumed to nod permission. Multiply this times millions, and you’ve got an orphaned works problem that has locked up millions of books and songs in a way that only a teensy dose of common sense could undo. The GBS applied that common sense — royalties would be escrowed for some period in case the rights owner staggered forth from the grave to claim them.. Of course the GBS then divvied up the unclaimed profits in non-common-sensical ways. But at least it broke the log jam.

Now it seems it’ll be up to Congress to address the orphaned works problem. But given Congress’ maniacal death-grip on copyright, it seems unlikely that common sense will have any effect and our culture will continue to be locked up for seventy years beyond the grave in order to protect the 0.0001 percent of publishers’ catalogs that continue to sell after fourteen years. (All numbers entirely made up for your reading pleasure.)

As Bob Darnton points out, this is one of the issues that a Digital Public Library of America could address.


James Grimmelmann has an excellent and thorough explanation of the settlement, and a prediction for its future.


March 23, 2011

Yet another reason to hate your mobile provider

4. [NOTE: (These notes are in reverse chronological order. I have numbered them for your reading convenience.)I unlocked my Blackberry by calling Verizon support. I bought an Orange SIM card in a cigarette store in the Old City of Jerusalem for $10, plus $9 of calling time that times out in a week. So, I now have a working phone. It does not come with a data plan, however.]

3. [NOTE added minutes after the note right below this one: I’m on the phone with Verizon. It is indeed $20.48 per MEGABYTE. But wait…I am now talking with a tech support person who assures me that attachments don’t count unless you actually download them. Well, that’s something. She, however, is also telling me that the first two reps I talked with are wrong; in fact (says the tech support person), Verizon’s international plan gives you 70MB per month for $100, and every megabyte after that is $20.48. That’s still piracy, but the broadsword goes into you slightly more slowly.]

2. [Note added minutes later: Some other knowledgeable people tell me that Verizon must mean $20/gigabyte, not per megabyte. So, this may have been a mistake by the the service rep. I would happily take the blame for any misunderstanding, except that I confirmed that the rep said “megabyte” by inquiring, “PER MEGABYTE? PER MEGABYTE? ARE YOU FREAKING CRAZY!!!!!!!!!!,” to which he replied in the affirmative to the first two of the three questions.]

1. I’m going overseas tonight for a week. In the past, I’d call Verizon and have them switch service from my Droid to my previous phone, which was a Blackberry with “world phone” service. For $2/day, I’d get unlimited data access, so I could check my email and perhaps check the news on the Web now and then. (Believe me, on a Blackberry you don’t want to do a lot of heavy Web browsing.)

Today when I tried to make the switch, Verizon informed me that they have changed the plan, entirely for the benefit of their customers of course. So, now it’s $20 per megabyte. Holy crap! What kind of unearthly profit margin is that?

My knowledgeable friends tell me that that I should figure 50-100 emails per megabyte (although that number is conservative). So, no email for me. That’s what happens when the “free” market is so pwned that it laughs in the face of competition.

And these are the folks we’ve handed our Internet to? Great. Freaking great.


March 22, 2011

[berkman] Larisa Mann on copyright colonialism

Larisa Mann (AKA DJ Ripley), a doctoral candidate at Berkeley Law, is giving a Berkman talk titled “Decolonizing copyright: Jamaican street dances and globally networked technology.” [I had to talk a phone call during the first ten minutes :( ]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Her question: Does globally networked technology and/or copyright law reinforce the coloniality of power? She explicitly takes coloniality as undesirable because it unequally distributes power. She is looking particularly at Jamaica. Copyright law is colonial in Jamaica, she says, since it was written by the British for their colony.

There are culturally specific assumptions at work in copyright law: that there are discrete, identifiable, individual authors who are separate from consumers, it’s about originality, and works are “fixed” (discrete and identifiable).

An example. A riddim is the instrumental part of a song, Larissa says. Riddims circulate independently from vocals in Jamaica. They’ve been recorded since the 1950s, if not before. Many songs use the same riddim. One site has cataloged 279 songs that use the Stalag 17 riddim, for example.

DJs will play series of songs using the same riddim, which many dancers like since they know what’s coming. Riddims become “shared cultural knowledge,” she says. People know them by name. They recognize the samples in songs. Riddims create shared knowledge and enable engagement with the current musical environment.

But riddims contradict copyright: shared, repeated, unoriginal. “Technology can bring copyright law considerations into people’s daily practices.” Law gets embedded into tech. But this can disrupt valuable cultural practices, like riddims.

Dancers have become among the most highly discussed and famous in Jamaica, at least in part due to the availability of video. E.g., videos of the Boasy Tuesday party are online, and you can learn the dances from it. People become famous from these videos.

The good side of network tech is that it eases circulation, you can achieve international fame, and it can increase your local reputation. And in Jamaica, financial and social relationships overlap.

The bad side is that there’s more surveillance, both of daily life and of the circulation of audio/video materials. This can lead to lawsuits that could discourage practices such as sampling or using riddims.

“Exilic spaces” are spaces at the margins of law. That’s where a lot of culture lives, and where there’s a lot of potential for equality.

Q: Has there been any move to change Jamaican copyright law?
A: In 1993, when Jamaica joined the WTO, they rewrote their copyright law to be aligned with the WTO approach. There’s some pushback at WIPO where some Southern countries are trying to get a developing world agenda. Jamaica is not a part of that. And it would be a tremendous problem for Jamaica to withdraw from the WTO.

Q: The sound systems and crews also contribute to the music…

A: Producing CDs to sell the music isn’t an important part of the Jamaican music scene. The sounds and crews were often associated with liquor stores, and made their money that way. It’s still the case that they generally don’t generate money by selling recordings but through events.

Q: If you’re a music producer in Jamaica and would like to have your artist go for the big money, are you pro or con copyright?
A: I’ve spoken with many, and they’re divided. If people want to buy recordings, they tend to buy unlicensed mix CDs. Producers both want a cut and want their artists’ names to be known. (Artists frequently put their producers’ names into their music so others can find the producers.) There’s payola, too; people are desperate to get their music on the radio.

Q: What type of actual enforcement attempts are there against individual Jamaicans,? Also, do artists’ positions about copyright change as they become successful?
A: Sometimes artists’ positions change. They’re sophisticated about knowing when to use the formal systems. Enforcement depends on how much power you have. I can’t find a single Jamaican who’s sued another.

Q: Jamaica has strong class distinctions…
A: The coloniality of power filters all the way through the system. People at the top are more comfortable using the legal system to enforce their will. The upper classes are often uncomfortable with what goes on in exilic spaces and they are often unwilling to invest in the culture of the urban poor.

Q: How does gender play into this, which is a different power dynamic. The previous prime minister was a woman. Are women producers?

A: Women are important force on the dance floor. There are not a lot of women producers. I met two female engineers. There are not as many female vocalists as men. But women are much more employable in Jamaica in other jobs; they have more access to economic stability. So it’s not that the men have the opportunity to achieve global fame and fortune and thus are better off; the men have much more difficulty getting stable jobs.

Q: How do the riddim creators get compensated?

A: Riddims tend to be made once and then re-used, although sometimes they get re-done. People don’t get royalties. If your riddim is hot, you’re a hot producer, which means people hire you.

Q: Are people trying to come up with a more legalistic, more open license for riddims, etc.?
A: Not really. In part that’s because the law is presented as if it were the rational way to do things. It’s presented as the professional way. If you want to make it, you’re told that’s how you ought to transform yourself. If it’s going to change, it should map the way artists actually work.

Q: How do you think Jamaica will change its means of cultural production? Has there been a chilling effect?

A: People’s ability to participate in these networks can be chilled. As channels get successful, they often clamp down. We should be looking to Jamaica for inspiration as we globally think about copyright. The amount of artistic and cultural production in Jamaica is astounding.

Q: Copyright is crazy.
A: Yes. If you post your tribute to a rock guitar solo, as you get better at the solo, the more likely it’ll be taken down. It’s like an accolade.

Q: You said that if a policy is divorced from reality, why have it? Maybe the answer is that they constructed their copyright law in order to get into WPO, without any effort to enforcement.
A: The problem is that the WTO requires compliance and can enforce trade sanctions against you.

Q: Do you think Jamaicans’ attitude toward copyright is different than that of Americans?
A: It’s hard to generalize about Americans about this. Many Jamaicans are very positive about copyright law because it manages what you’ve already made and gets you what is yours, but they often don’t think about the effect it has on culture and creativity. Also, Jamaicans have not had an historical experience of being treated well by global systems, so it’s important to them to own stuff. The question is: What does ownership mean in this context? They have a different idea of what is ownable.

Q: You fundamentally misstate the situation. You say that we don’t have colonialism now. But now we have neo-colonialism.
A: That’s what I intended. I didn’t mean to leave the opposite impression. [She didn’t leave that wrong impression with me – dw]

Q: As a Jamaican, I agree that it’s very much bottom up. And why don’t producers take more ownership? Because the shelflife of these riddims is measure in weeks. By the time you get your paperwork approved, it’ll be over.
A: Since there isn’t ownership of that sort, there’s a tremendous impetus to keep creating.


[doep] Daily (intermittent) Open-Ended Puzzle: Why do moths fly the way they do?

My understanding (possibly bogus) is that moths spiral into flames because evolution has designed them to fly in straight lines by noting celestial lights. When the light is nearby, keeping its position fixed in their visual space causes them to spiral inward toward it.

Fine. But why is it an evolutionary advantage for moths to fly in a straight line? Where are they trying to get to so quickly? And isn’t there a metaphor for MBAs somewhere in here?

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March 21, 2011


Foursquare’s general manager, Evan Cohen, is giving a talk at the ILM conference I just spoke at.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

He says there have been 381,000,000 check-ins so far. In every single country. The last country to check in was North Korea. The biggest single event was the Rally to Restore Sanity. “The most basic user experience is simply when friends check-in to their current location to find their friends.” “We help engineer serendipity” in which you discover a friend is nearby.

Their value proposition: Discovery, encouragement, and loyalty.

Discovery: They want to push people out into the real world. They’ve just launched an “explore” tag, a recommendation engine. It uses info about what your friends like to do, what people like you like to do, what people are saying in the “tips” review feature, etc. “We want to be like that best friend who knows every cool bar in Chicago, or every restaurant…”

Encouragement: Use gaming mechanics to get people to do what they wouldn’t have done otherwise. The mayor races have become really competitive. If someone loses it, they’ll go back to the place over and over. Their badges also encourage people to go out. E.g., go out to the gym a few times a week and you’ll get the gym rat badge. They have also improved their leader board. The Ambassador program enables users to bring merchants onto Foursquare.

Loyalty: They encourage merchants to offer rewards of various types. They’ve relaunched this part of the platform: easier for merchants, for users, and new “specials” types. They’re now offering “flash specials” to drive traffic when the place is under-utilized. Not all specials are discounts. “It’s an experience.” They also have a “friends special” that only works if you show up with some number of friends. Over 250,000 venues have verified on the merchant platform. Merchants have done creative things with Foursquare. Even when Starbucks offered a mere $1 off a frappucino to the local mayors, checkins jumped by 50%. “It’s about the experience and recognition as much as anything.”

They have a full and easy API, modeled on Twitter’s.

[I find Foursquare fascinating. To the users it’s a game. To the merchants, it’s a form of marketing. And as a blending of the virtual, the real, gaming, and marketing, it’s amazing.]

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March 19, 2011

[2b2k] Melting points: a model for open data?

Jean-Claude Bradley at Useful Chemistry has announced (a few weeks ago) that the international chemical company Alfa Aesar has agreed to open source its melting point data. This is important not just because Alfa Aesar is one of the most important sources of that information. It also provides a model that could work outside of chemistry and science.

The data will be useful to the Open Notebook Science solubility project, and because Alfa has agreed to Open Data access, it can be useful far beyond that. In return, the Open Notebook folks cleaned up Alfa’s data, putting it into a clean database format, providing unique IDs (ChemSpiderIDs), and linking back to the Alfa Aesar catalog page.

Open Notebook then merged the cleaned-up data set with several others. The result was a set of 13,436 Open Data melting point values.

They then created a Web tool for exploring the merged dataset.

Why stop with melting points? Why stop with chemistry? Open data for, say, books could lead readers to libraries, publishers, bookstores, courses, other readers…


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