Saturday, January 30, 2010

Amazon Scares Me

It has been reported that, because of a pricing dispute over e-books, Amazon US has removed Macmillan books from its website. It's not just the e-books that have been removed; all of the Macmillan US book imprints have been hit, including some of Macmillan's biggest cash cows.

It takes a while to see what has happened. For example, if you search on Robert Jordan (published by Macmillan subsidiary Tor), you are steered to plenty of titles--but they all turn out to be used copies from third-party sellers. This, of course, is even nastier than pulling the title entirely, since it encourages customers to buy only from sources that don't benefit the author or the publisher.

Amazon is not a monopoly, but its market share is so large that I think it ought to be treated like one. No matter what the provocation, this move is an abuse of power that is a slap in the face not only to publishers, but to customers.

Amazon has been worrying me for a while now. You probably recall the flap when Amazon "recalled" digital books from its Kindle devices last year, automatically erasing all copies of certain digital editions of books they had already sold and downloaded. (Ironically, as the NY Times article linked to notes, Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm were among the books that Amazon seized and destroyed.) Until then, most Kindle owners weren't aware that Amazon could reach out and destroy copies of books that readers had already bought.

Now, Amazon has said that they won't do this again; and it isn't clear from the Kindle contracts that they had the right to do this in the first place. But I find the fact that they have the power to do such a thing to be frightening--and the best argument that can be made against digital books.

It has always been hard for even the most devoted book-burners to eliminate all the copies of a book once it is printed. But with digital books on wireless readers, all copies could be obliterated at the touch of a single button in some central office. And even if Amazon claims they would never do such a thing, what would prevent a government from compelling them to do so? (In fact, what would prevent, say, the NSA or the government of China from hacking in to the Amazon computer and simply doing it themselves?)

It doesn't take much of a sci-fi magination to suggest that if Kindle-type devices become the sole medium of book distribution in the future that the whole of literature and written history would become deletable--or worse, rewritable--by whoever is in power. The Stalinists would have loved a Kindle-based library system; whenever they wanted to rewrite history, they had to send men to the libraries with razor blades, glue, and new pages, a process that was both cumbersome and also obvious even after the deed was done.

Side note: When we lived in Hawaii back in the early 1980s, a Soviet commercial vessel developed mechanical problems and was towed into Honolulu Harbor for repairs. As a goodwill gesture by the US government, the crew not needed onboard were issued temporary visas and allowed shore leave.

And we all know what sailors do when they get onshore, right? Well, not Soviet sailors. Instead of heading for the downtown brothels and bars, to our wonderment, they all piled onto public buses and rode up to the University of Hawaii, where they headed for the history section of the library. Those who knew English proceded to pore through history books and encyclopedias, and fielded questions from those who only spoke Russian.

At about this same time, I had a number of young Chinese researchers working with me at the East-West Center--some of the first Chinese who had been allowed to train in the West. In discussions, I found that some of what they accepted as historical fact was more than a bit surprising. For example, they had all been taught that the American Civil War wasn't between American states, but instead was a massive uprising of black slaves against the whites--a revolution where the blacks won their freedom. (Why the victorious former slaves then agreed to form a poverty-ridden underclass was left as a mystery.) For their part, they were shocked we all believed that astronauts had ever landed on the moon, since they had seen proof--positive, incontrovertible proof--that the moon landings were done in Hollywood studios. (It should be clear to anyone that if this were the case, the footage and special effects would have been far more impressive than the home-movies look the actual landings generated.) End of digression.

And, of course, it wasn't that long ago that a "glitch" caused Amazon to de-rank thousands of books--an overwhelmingly high proportion of which were Lesbian or Gay Themed Books (LGTBs, in the trade).

I've heard a lot lately about how digital communications, wireless connectivity, and the internet make it impossible for information to be controlled in today's world. Perhaps. But the Chinese and Iranians have both been quite successful in using the internet to spy on their own dissidents, and Amazon has now shown how it will someday be possible for governments or businesses--and, in the near future, the two will be indistinguishable--to engage in comprehensive and lasting censorship.

In the United States, anyone who makes a billion dollars in technology-related fields is praised as a "visionary," and Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder, is one of those who is widely adulated and invited to speak at government gatherings. I used to be somewhat contemptuous of him, as I didn't see anything visionary or uplifting about what he has achieved. Yes, he has been very financially successful, but all he has done is carried retail sales onto a new platform, the achievement of an uber-techno sales clerk. If he hadn't done it first, someone else would have been right behind. And while Bill Gates has many annoying features, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing billions of praiseworthy work around the globe for the the neediest, Bezos' latest "visionary" scheme is space tourism for billionaires (estimates of the price tag for a trip into space are about $3 million per customer). Bezos' plan is a self-indulgent moneymaking scheme; Gates' foundation is the largest philanthropic effort ever undertaken. It hasn't been hard for me to decide which of these guys is the visionary.

So, while I used to think Bezos was just a glorified department-store owner, I've changed my view. The guy's a visionary after all. He's created a bullying, arrogant company that is leading the way to a future where businesses or governments will have total control over what we can and cannot read; and, best of all, retroactive control, so the past can be rewritten.

Think I'm overstating things? Just wait and see.

*Update: Amazon's delisting of Macmillan books is not limited simply to US subsidiaries. Amazon has also disappeared Macmillan New Writing books from its sales. As of this writing, Terence Morgan's Master of Bruges is available only from second-hand sellers on Amazon, but not as a new copy from Amazon itself.

I'm happy to report that Pan paperbacks have been spared this fate--but persumably only because no one at Amazon has worked out that they ar epart of Macmillan.

Second Update:

Ryan David Jahn has covered this fiasco in some detail on his blog, including multiple links and updates. Go check it out. I'm also grateful to him for pointing out John Scalzi's blistering response.

Ultimately, though, the question is why, if Macmillan and Amazon cannot come to terms on ebooks, Amazon's response wasn't simply to refuse to carry Macmillan's ebooks on terms they found objectionable. And the answer is simple: they are bullies who are trying to exert monopoly power. As Teresa Nielsen Hayden (an editor at Tor, last time I checked) notes in her comments on Cory Doctorow's post on the topic:

'Does anyone recall that Amazon has done this before? They pulled every POD title because they wanted POD publishers to print their books exclusively via Amazon's CreateSpace. This isn't a case of "If they do it once, they can do it again." They have done it before, and it's clear that they have no hesitation about doing it again.'

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Book Review: Born to Run

No, it’s not a biography of Bruce Springsteen. The full title is Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.

Now, normally I wouldn’t have picked up a book about running. The list of nonfiction topics that interest me more stretches for miles.

But Pamela—who runs well, and ran well back in high school—recently bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers—a sort of foot-glove with no cushioning, not arch support, no ankle support. I was curious about the rationale and research on the VFFs, and so I browsed the web a bit, and found myself repeatedly directed to Born to Run. So on my next trip to a bookstore, I picked up a copy, opened it to the first page, and found myself hooked.

McDougall is a sports journalist, but he mixes much of the craft and structure of the novel with his story. It opens in media res, in a small town in Mexico’s Sierra Madre where McDougall is trying to find an elusive gringo called Caballo Blanco, the White Horse. According to hearsay that smacks of legend, White Horse is a crazy American runner who has drifted into the near-inaccessible Copper Canyon region, where the Tarahumara Indians still preserve much of their traditional way of life—including a peyote-based religion and footraces that stretch fifty to a hundred miles.

By four pages in, McDougall has found White Horse, and when he tries to speak to him, the Horse bolts for the door. End of chapter.

In the next chapter, McDougall says, “It all began with a question no on could answer…in January, 2001, I asked my doctor this: ‘How come my foot hurts?’”

Because, as it turns out, McDougall is one of those guys like me—one of those people that make sports docs shake their heads and say, “Well, some people just aren’t built for running.”

From there, the story jumps around in time, leaving threads hanging, leaving big questions outstanding, and generally employing the techniques of a suspense novelist. We journey into druglord country and meet the Tarahumara; then back in chronology to the 1994 Leadville 100, the annual high-altitude, hundred-mile race in Colorado, where a few Tarahumara showed up, won the race with ease, and then—poof!—vanished back to Copper Canyon.

We also meet the American Ultrarunners, a handful of truly odd people who run ultramarathons (distances in excess of 50 miles). Scott Jurek, probably the world’s leader in this kind of competition, is a sort of happy Zen geek, and he seems the most normal of the lot. Among the others are Jenn Shelton, a young, innocent-looking, hard-drinking riot of a Grrrrrl who shows up—and wins—ultraraces when hung over from too much pizza and beer the preceding night; Barefoot Ted, a manic, nonstop-talking maniac who runs 100-mile wilderness trails barefoot; the mysterious Caballo Blanco himself, whose biography is stranger than fiction by far; and other equally colorful characters. (I might add that ultrarunners are a different breed from other athletes. There really isn't much money in it, if any, so they're more like a club than competitors; there are many cases where a runner has stopped for prolonged periods to make sure another runner is okay to continue. See if you ever catch top marathoners letting their finish time slip by five minutes to help another runner.)

McDougall and Blanco eventually decide to hold an ultrarace in Tarahumara country; this time the gringos will come to los Indios. And, as a kicker, McDougall—who can’t run a mile without pain—decides to train up and compete himself.

Now, suddenly, the whole book veers off into a new structure, alternating chapters of science with the adventure of getting to and running the race in Copper Canyon, but by this point no reader would want to put the book aside (and the science is anything but dull). The science argument McDougall marshals is too complex to treat with any justice here, but to try and summarize a few points:

Humans evolved for running. We are the only primates with Achilles tendons to capture recoil from our feet. We are the only primates with nuchal ligaments, which stabilize the head when moving fast. Our close relatives, the chimps and apes don’t have a nuchal ligament. Horses do, though. So do wolves.

Did I mention that humans evolved for running? Quadrupeds compress their lungs with every stride, and therefore they are stuck in a pattern of one stride cycle = one breath. Humans can breathe in whatever pattern they like. Our upright stance may be entirely an adaptation for endurance running. (All the other explanations I've heard for why we are bipedal have been quite unconvincing.) Furthermore, we’ve lost most of the fur on our bodies so we can perspire all over; most mammals have to dump heat entirely by panting, which works fine for a while but isn't naerly as efficient as our acres of sweat glands.

It now appears that, back in the days when the Neanderthals were the big hunters on the block, already equipped with spears and fire, our direct ancestors down in Africa were obtaining most of their meat by chasing down prey, what is known as “persistence hunting.” We weren’t faster than many animals, but we had the endurance to chase them hour after hour, until they had nothing left and just stood staring at us, panting and helpless, as we closed in on them.

Kinda creepy, really.

So, if we evolved for running, why do most runners get injured? Answer: Shoes.

Running shoes encourage bad technique. We land on our heels and steer the impact up into our knees and ankles. No one would land on their heel running barefoot—or, if they did so, they wouldn’t do it twice. Our feet are filled with sensory feedback neurons along with a positively geodesic network of bones and tendons. Our feet tell us how to run, and if we run incorrectly, it will hurt—not later, not with a delay, but right then. Watch a top Kenyan or Ethiopian runner—all of whom learned to run barefoot—and you won’t see a long, reaching stride with a hard landing. Even though they tend to be lanky and leggy, they run with light steps and short strides, and a very rapid pace.

Running barefoot tends to make the runner move with the light, quick touch that someone shows when walking barefoot on hot pavement or pointy gravel. No crashing down. Little, light, fast steps.

Running with massive padded running shoes is the foot equivalent of running blindfolded, and the more specialized running shoes have become, the higher the rate of injury. (Even Nike has finally realized this, which is the origin of the minimalist running shoe, the Nike Free.)

All of those sports-medicine corrections and orthotics for pronation and supination? It turns out our feet are supposed to roll and flex at every step. The human foot--what Da Vinci called "the masterpiece of engineering"--is designed to not only absorb and spread impact, but also to capture some of the energy of impact and utilize it for recoil. Encase your foot in a shoe designed to keep the foot from rolling through its full range of motion and you have eliminated not only a self-protection mechanism, but also a means for running with less energy expenditure.

The Tarahumara don’t run barefoot. They run in huaraches, sandals that are no more than a thin piece of tire rubber that ties on to the foot. This is enough to protect from puncture woulds, but not enough to imprison the feet or prevent feedback from the ground.

In early December, I bought a pair of VFFs, and went for a very tentative, very cautious run. You can feel the gravel under the soles of your feet. Put you foot down heel-first and you will gasp in pain—and you will adjust how you run.

My calves have been sore since December—sometimes a mild soreness, like I’ve had a good workout with weights, sometimes a more pressing soreness that told me I had pushed a little too far too soon. But I now have almost 100 miles on my VFFs, and my knees and ankles and hips all feel fine.

In other words, I’m a believer. I’ll never be a great runner, but if I feel like getting some exercise by running a half dozen miles, I can now do it without fear of injury. It’s one of the things all humans were designed to do.

And McDougall’s book? Yes, they finally do have the race, though for a time it seems it won’t be possible.

But it would be wrong of me to tell you how it all ends. You actually might want to read it. And, if you do, and you’re a writer, stop every so often to admire McDougall’s command of structure. Tricky, tricky, tricky storytelling.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Book Review That Never Gets to the Book Review

This is a book review. Really. Problem is, I seem to have such a lengthy preamble below that I don’t get to the book. I'll review it in the next post. Promise

Let me make something clear from the outset: I’m not a runner kind of guy.

Oh, I’ve tried over the years. It goes something like this. 1) Make up my mind to take up running. 2) Run a few times. 3) Develop persistent pain, usually in knee. 4) Take time off until knee stops hurting. 5) Run again, this time injuring knee within minutes. 6) Repeat perhaps five cycles of 4) and 5). 7) See sports medicine doctor, who prescribes orthotics and increasingly boat-sized running shoes. 8) Re-injure self anyway. 9) See doctor again, who says, “You know, some people just aren’t built for running.” 10) Quit for a long time.

Now, it’s a bit odd to me that I can walk forever, or even rack up 20-mile days wearing a full backpack, and suffer nary an ache or pain. Start up even a slow jog, however, and every step is a danger to my knees. And ankles. And those around me, upon whom I might topple.

When a doctor tells me some people aren’t built for running, I’m inclined to accept the analysis. When I was young, my legs were all out of whack; I was born so pigeon-toed and knock-kneed that they used to make me wear these painful leg braces at night that twisted my feet outwards so that my toes pointed to the wall. To this day I have spectacular turnout, but that really only useful if you’re a ballet dancer.

On top of this, I have what one doctor described as “Irish knees,” which sounds like a build-up to a joke, but isn’t. In this condition, the thighbone is more-or-less above the shinbone, as ought to be the case, but the knee is offset inward. As the doctor pointed out, this makes for quite a handsomely shaped leg (especially in women), with a flow and shape to it; but, alas, it leaves something to be desired in a mechanical sense.

As if all that weren’t enough, I have what is commonly called Morton’s foot, though as far as I can discover Morton didn’t have it himself. My toes are uncommonly long—finger-feet, some people call them—and the longest by far is not my big toe, but my, if you will, index toe. That’s Morton’s foot, sometimes called Morton’s toe.

My foot, unretouched. And to answer the inevitable question, yes, as a matter of fact, I can peel bananas with my feet.

Once again, some people think there is an aesthetic advantage, though looking at the picture above might seem like a good counterargument. Morton’s foot is also known as Greek foot or Classical foot. Greek statues usually have Morton’s foot—as opposed to the big-toe-biggest foot which the Greeks labeled Egyptian foot. And later artists seem to have agreed with the Greeks; paintings of people frolicking in glades and gardens form the 18th and 19th centuries generally show people with Morton’s foot.

No matter what the art schools say about it, though, Morton’s foot is unbalanced. If someone like me tries to stand on the balls of their feet, they instead find themselves balancing on the protruding bone behind their longest toe. People with Egyptian feet can rise up onto the balls of their feet and the base of all of their toes will touch the floor firmly. Do this with a good case of Morton’s foot, and you will teeter side-to-side; you can be on the ball of the Morton’s toe and the ball of the big toe, or on the ball of the Morton’s toe and the ball of the three little toes, but there is no way you will be balanced on all five at once.

The ball of the Morton’s toe is also the part that strikes the ground first, and that’s apparently not a good thing. One wonders how Phedippedes, who ran the first marathon, managed it; I mean, if anybody was going to have Greek foot or Classical foot, a Classical Greek seems like a primary candidate. Maybe the Morton’s foot is why he died when he arrived in Athens after running from Marathon. (n.b. In the preceding days he had run from Athens to Sparta and back to Athens—a distance of 206 miles, so it’s rather doubtful that the puny 26 miles from Marathon to Athens actually killed him, Greek feet or not.)

(Before I go any further, let me come clean about something. I'm a Pisces. That sign rules the feet, or perhaps the other way round.)

As far as I know, there’s no Greeks or Irish in my family tree, so the Irish knees and Greek feet seem a bit suspicious to me. Perhaps my mother had an affair with, perhaps, Aidan O’Pappadopolous? Or maybe from the waist down I’m one of those pan-EU projects, and I just haven’t yet discovered that my shins are from Denmark (“We call these Danish Modern shins”), the underside of my foot is from London (“We call this condition Marble Arch”), and my thighbones are from one of those former Eastern Bloc countries.

In any case, I’m now running again, and this time running injury-free (knock wood). I’m still not anyone you might mistake for fast, and the Olympic Committee hasn’t taken an interest in my prospects, but at least it’s another exercise option open to me. And I owe it to a remarkable book. No, it’s not the Bible, and it’s not an instructional manual, and it’s not from the self-help section. But I’ll explain what it is, and why I beleive it is brilliantly put together, in the next post.

I once took a computer graphics class, and in one of the assignments we had to do a series of self-portraits. Naturally I did at least one of my foot.

Well, okay, the real article isn't quite that stretched-out and melty. And isn't that green and scaly, either.

At least not most days.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dickens Era Redux, Wave of the Future, or Something Else Entirely?

I'm talking about the cocky Australian upstart Seizure Magazine--which appears as Seizure Online (the purely electronic version) and Seizure Offline (a monthly paperback). And, although it's nominally Australian, the primary print release is through Amazon US, and the electronic release is, well, the internet, and the authors are from anywhere, so it's really an international venture.

The world doesn't stand in dire need of another online story outlet. (But another one certainly can't hurt, either.) While Seizure does publish a certain number of short stories, however, the central aim of Seizure is to publish novels--serialized at first in both digital and hardcopy form, and then, if markets, money and whatever allow, as standalone books.

Seizure came to my attention because my enfant-terrible acquaintance Rufi Cole has given them her first novel, The Violin Face, which began its serialization in the first issue. (I think she ought to have gone down the conventional route; she's publishable and agentable--but for the fact that she doesn't have the temperament to put up with the hefty helpings of bullshit involved in getting to standard publication these days.)

The Violin Face has a structure that I think lends itself to serialization--the prose equivalent of what theater calls "French scenes." In classical French plays, Character A would be onstage and would be joined by Character B; then Character C would enter and Character A would leave, etc.. It was as if the focus of the play was handed from one character to another. Violin Face does this with a rotating POV, where each chapter is told from a different POV, and that POV belongs to someone who was portrayed in the previous chapter. Only one character has two chapters (the first and last chapters of the book.) This POV discontinuity makes it a natural for publication as a periodical.

There was a time when a great many novels were published first in magazines, but the practice has nearly disappeared. I'll be following with interest to see if the tradition can be revived in a 21st-Century fashion.

As to the terms and conditions, I'm not quite sure how they all work. The magazine has an editorial team and works closely with writers in prepublication. The writer retains most rights. How the details of profit-sharing work isn't clear.

Like MNW, they want submissions over the transom--the first 10,000 words, via e-mail. An interesting policy is that they prefer their reads to be wholly "cold"--no synopsis, no blurbs. (That alone makes me want to give them at least some applause!)

I'll be following the fortunes of Seizure with great interest. Any attempt to launch a new (or maybe rather old) publishing model in the present bookselling climate is both bold and admirable.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Talented Miss Highsmith

To my mind, two of the most brilliant and underappreciated authors of the last century were American women working repressed and female-unfriendly years of the 1950s and 1960s, Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson. Highsmith has always been more admired in Europe than in the US; and Jackson has never really had the recognition she is due.

I’m presently meandering my way through The Talented Miss Highsmith, the massive new biography of Highsmith. Joan Schenkar has attempted a biography shaped to the ideal design put forth by Virginia Woolf: a “husk” (the chronological events of the life) and the “atom” (the interior world). Schenkar has placed the chronological material in a lengthy appendix titled “Just the Facts,” while the bulk of the (quite hefty) book is organized along thematic chapters.

Schenkar clearly admires Highsmith (called “Pat” throughout the book), but she also clearly doesn’t like Highsmith, and, as with so many biographers, there is an undertone of surprise throughout the book as she notes that Pat Wasn’t A Very Nice Person. (I encountered this reaction in its most severe form a few years ago reading a biography of Peter Sellers. The author was continually shocked—shocked, I’ll have you know—at Sellers’ nastiness in interpersonal relations.)

Exactly why artists are expected to be generous, balanced people has never been clear to me, and actors, who spend their careers pretending to be other people, and writers, who spend their careers cloistered with the problems of imaginary people, don’t strike me as obvious models of mental stability. Highsmith herself said, “All writers are in the business for their health,” and I don’t think she meant the aerobic benefits of hammering on typewriter keys. I’m not proposing that all writers must be misanthropic or cruel to those close to them, but I’m not taken aback when I discover they aren’t paragons of behavior, or even the sorts of people you’d want to meet for a drink.

Schenkar is smart enough to understand that much of Highsmith’s genius arises from her rather twisted approach to life, but she is bothered by some quirks that I pass over with a shrug. In particular, the biographer dwells on the idea that Highsmith wrote her diaries (a major source for the biography) with an eye to posterity. She becomes particularly exercised when Highsmith has a series of dated entries that had to have been written days after the events described.

I find I can’t be bothered by this, and I don’t even accept that it is a deceptive or deplorable practice. After all, unless you are Richardson’s Pamela, who seems capable of writing letters or making diary entries in real time while the house burns down around her, diaries are always recollections. True, the convention is that the entries are the dates of the writing, but I see no reason that someone shouldn’t write down their recollections of November 17th dated November 17th, even if they are writing on November 20th. Nor am I wholly convinced that diarists like Highsmith are journaling for posterity; even if such a writer strikes poses or distorts facts in what they commit to paper, I think most of us engage in something less than searing honesty or icy clarity about ourselves even in our private thoughts.

Looking back over what I have written here, I realize it sounds as if I’m complaining about Schenkar’s book. On the contrary, I’m enjoying it, and, as this post shows, it provokes a lot of pondering on my part. And the title is well-chosen: although Highsmith might not have left a trail of well-concealed murders behind her, she was as amoral and focused as her anti-hero Tom Ripley. She might not be a model for how to conduct your life, but she offers a fine example of how a mental illness (in her case, I suppose a shrink would diagnose some form of sociopathy) can be channeled into art. Good for Pat, I say, and kudos to Joan Schenkar, too.

With a little luck, she’ll turn her attention to Shirley Jackson next. I've read about Jackson's husk, but I'd like to understand her atom.