Saturday, December 20, 2014

Evil-free internet shopping (or how to read books on an iphone without patronizing Amazon)

My many devoted readers will know about my obsession with Lorrie Moore.

This has been such a busy year that I completely missed the fact that she has a new short story collection until I sat down one Sunday in November to review the PW Best Books of 2014 list and saw it there: a new short story collection, Bark.

My first instinct was to go straight to Amazon and get it immediately--and then I thought, well, okay, this is a book I can by at any bookstore in America. Every book on this list is going to be available at any bookstore in America. Shouldn't I maybe do that instead?

We all know why Amazon is evil, but just for a little refresher, here are some highlights in order of terribleness in my personal opinion:

8. Disappearing Kindle content. In what everyone has already acknowledge was an ironic turn of events, 1984 and Animal Farm disappeared from Kindles everywhere Friday July 17 2009. The discount ebooks had been posted in violation of U.S. copyright law; Amazon, informed of the issue, made the illegal books disappear and distributed refunds to customers. Everyone was furious, not so much about the loss of their purchases as the overwhelming creep factor involved in the experience. (You'd think this incident would have given Apple some clue that the magically appearing U2 album of September 2014 would be unwelcome.)

7. Marketplace sellers. One of my least-favorite features as an Amazon customer is the difficulty in telling when you're buying from Amazon, or from some guy in Minnesota who will take two weeks to mail a package and has a totally different return policy. But there's an actual reason, other than mild-inconvenience, why the trend toward marketplace sellers is problematic. Basically, Amazon has successfully created an environment in which the only way these sellers feel they can survive is by selling through the Amazon platform; the company has found an ingenious way to earn a fee through sales by its direct competitors, further homogenizing everything.

6. Price fixing. Between the anti-Amazon author coalition, the Apple/DOJ settlement, and the rash of Amazon agency-model deals squeezing in before year end, this one can be a bit hard to frame. Is it the big six who have the problem, or Apple, or Amazon--or is it all some massive conspiracy? The general consensus seems to be this: in initial rounds of ebook negotiations back in the early oughts, publishers failed to appreciate the impact and importance of what would become the Kindle. When the deals were done and $9.99 or lower became the standard Amazon price, publishers felt threatened by low (and falling) ebook prices conceived the agency model, which put pricing at publisher's discretion, rather than retailers'. Amazon argued that a lower price point would lead to bigger sales; the publishers argued that a higher price point reflects value.

5. Censorship. In 2009, the company was shamed for excluding feminist, gay, and liberal texts from sales rankings. Because those kinds of books don't count, obviously. Amazon has been known to employ such tactics as removing the 'buy' button from all Macmillian titles (2010), or more recently jacking up prices and delaying shipments of Hachette titles (2014) as part of a contract negotiation tussle, infuriating basically every author whose name you know.

4. Taxes. Or lack thereof. Amazon doesn't pay state and local sales tax, and it passes those savings on to you. And your roads. And your public schools. And your emergency services. The company also avoids taxation internationally, sparking anger in the UKJapanGermany, among others. It's not that they're actually breaking laws (except maybe in Japan)...more taking advantage of outdated laws written with normal-sized businesses in mind and some extremely adept lobbying.

3. Differential pricing. That is, charging different customers different amounts based on previous internet traffic and buying patterns.

2. Undercutting indie booksellers. (And even corporate booksellers. Remember back in the day when Barnes and Noble was the bad guy?) Amazon's business plan has always included strategic low-pricing: in the early days, selling print books below cost and eating shipping fees was designed to increase market share and eliminate brick and mortar competition. The same strategy has persevered in the ebook market, where Amazon beats out the competition by roughly $2.00. Of course, avoiding state and local sales tax probably makes this a lot easier.

1. Labor practices. Amazon fulfillment centers have been described as Industrial Revolution style assembly lines monitored by overseers in charge of of maintaining quotas, who doll out reprimands to workers for things like talking to one another and pausing to catch their breath. The list goes on: per hour quotas that rise in step with length of employment, culminating in eventual firing. Failure to meet expectations, or a clever way to get rid of people who are now entitled to benefits? Searches on entering and leaving the warehouse. Lack of climate control; workers collapsing from heatstroke or working in subzero conditions. Hiring temps, again, in order to skimp on benefits. Union busting.

So: no Amazon. I started to look into alternatives.

The status quo:

Amazon Kindle version is $9.99. I can order it and have it open on my phone in under a minute from anywhere. The same book is also available on my kindle and my home computer, all three of which sync against each other, so I never loose my place. My book is stored in the Amazon cloud, so I can download it again anytime I get a new device and I'm not responsible for maintaining the files myself; it's also in Amazon's own proprietary file format, which means its tied to an Amazon device or app. Its not clear what would happen for example, Amazon failed, or started charging a monthly service fee or any one of a dozen other business models. Plus, as previously discussed, there's the evil.

The alternatives:
Disclaimer: I'm going to ignore the many awesome sites that offer out-of-copyright books (Project Guttenberg) or those that are specially for self-published authors (Smashwords, Lulu); I'm interested in buying a best seller.

iTunes. For those more concerned with issues of format and ownership than buying into a massive corporate machine, there's always this old standby. Books from the iTunes bookstore are delivered in ePub format, an open ebook standard which you can use across virtually any device except the Kindle. Just like your music, iTunes ebooks are available across a limited number of devices. You, the user, own your file, and you are responsible for backing it up.

Google. Everything I just said about iTunes can be said with equal truth about Google Play ebooks. If you care about the supporting the indies or screwing the man, this is obviously not recommended. To their credit, Google did actually try an indie-driven model, but it didn't work out. The devious thing about Google is that they know your search history, and, if you're a Chrome user, they know your Amazon browsing history as well, so your first visit to the Google bookstore will include pretty much exactly what you might expect.

Google books come in a few formats: for those out of copyright, pdf scans or ePubs are the norm. Those for sale from a mainstream press will still be in ePub format, but will have the .ACSM file extension. This is an Adobe software used to keep you from steeling. The price for Bark is an identical $9.99 and like all things Google,  your books live in the cloud, and you don't have to worry about keeping track of the files.

Barnes & Noble. Everyone knows that B&N's online bookstore and Kindle-like device, the Nook, aren't doing so hot, so we can more or less skip this one. For the sake of argument, though, you can get Bark for $11.99 at barnesandnoble.com in ePub format, which you can then read on your Nook. Nook will also read ePub files from other stores, for example, you can transfer books from your Sony reader to your Nook, but it doesn't go the other way, ie you can't read Nook books on another reader. Be warned: the end is nigh.

Kobo. Since it was acquired by the rapidly growing Japanese e-commerce beast Rakuten in 2011, shopping at Kobo really isn't all that different from shopping at Amazon. Your buying from a company that sells 100 million different items and promises to deliver them all overnight (this is not an exaggeration; its from their Wired profile two years ago). (Incidentally, they also own a big old share of Pintrest--I still haven't worked out how Pintrest makes money, but all that crap made out of mason jars is looking pretty corporate about now.) Anyway, direct from the Kobo site, Bark in ePub format will cost you $11.99. You can actually get the paperback from the Rakuten website and have it shipped for another fifty cents.

But here's where it gets interesting. Kobo partners with brick-and-mortar indie bookstores (a full list is available on indiebound.org), allowing them to sell ebooks on their own store sites. I can get that same $11.99 ePub copy from the website of San Francisco's own Green Apple books--or at first glance, it seems like I can.

A little background on book sales here. Typically, only stores big enough to take advantage of graduated bulk discounting buy direct from publishers, everyone else goes through a book distributor (Ingram or Publishers Group West are big out here in California) who can buy books in enough volume to take advantage of publisher discounts, save small presses the expense of in-house indie sales staff, and sell the books to independent booksellers at a better price than they'd get on their own. The publishing industry also has a bizarre depression-era returns policy which allows booksellers to return unsold books to the publisher for credit. There are some exceptions (magazines and certain mass market paperbacks are not eligible) but generally, if the public doesn't buy it, it goes back and probably ends up getting pulped. This is why those of us in the publishing industry love it when authors go to bookstores and sign every copy--they can't be returned!

You might assume your neighborhood books store has the same arrangement with Kobo as with their normal distributor, with a discounted business-to-business price and a similar profit margin, but this is not, in fact, the case. The language is vague here, but you're not really buying the ebook from the bookstore. They don't own it, even on a credit returns basis, and they aren't making normal profits from its sale. Instead, they receive a kickback more akin to the Amazon 'Smile' program, or what your grocery store might do to support the local schools: a 'portion' of each sale goes to the store you've selected, but you're still buying the book from Kobo, who bought the right to sell it from the publisher.

So, not great. But getting better. 

Initial set up is a little worky. You'll need to add the Kobo Indie App on your ereading device(s) and specify which participating Indie seller you want to receive a little boost from your purchases. Kobo, like Amazon, has a cloud where your activity is stored. You can download your books again; if you loose your files, its going to be okay.

The Public Library. Yes, your friendly neighborhood library has ebooks. If you go there once a decade, you probably already know this.

There are a couple of different ways this can work on the business end of things, depending on the service. In some models, libraries essentially have a subscription to a publisher or distributor's titles. Often, this arrangement includes a cap on how many 'copies' the library can use; alternatively, the library may pay incrementally for whatever their patrons check out over a certain threshold. Many libraries have formed consortiums specifically to take advantage of programs like this, sharing e-resources across several institutions.

For example, Berkeley Public Library subscribes to OverDrive, an ebook distributor who's subscription-based model allows libraries to create their own digital collections with their own specific numbers of e-copies available. In effect, if one patron has 'checked out' the library's e-Bark, it's not going to be there for me to check out until they 'return it'.

In another model, which I'm sure is publisher preferred, the library buys and owns the title, but its only good for a certain number of reads. In imitation of a print book, the ebook version gets artificially worn out over time and must be replaced. This seems to be on its way out, as the restrictions make everyone angry.

Obviously, like all libraries, you have to give your ebook back. Conveniently (if you've finished the book; if not, perhaps less so) it will magically vanish from your account when your lending period ends.

Feedbooks. In common with Amazon, Feedbooks is a distribution platform for mainstream titles as well as a publishing platform for indie authored titles. Unlike Amazon, it supports the Creative Commons licensing, and is very much focused on establishing format standards and protocols that will allow for cross platform use.

The search functionality and browsing aren't nearly on par with what you'd see on a Google Play or an Amazon, but if you know what you're looking for, getting it is easy.

Compatibility wise, Feedbooks titles are better than most, though still complicated and imperfect. Anything out of copyright can be read on multiple platforms, including Kindle. Copyrighted DRM material (anything you paid for in the store, basically) will not run on Kindle, but will work on devices that read Adobe Digital Editions, and of course there are apps for every device (again, other than Kindle). Bark is available at $11.99. Again, interface is a little rough...there's no 'send to' function, but you can download from more than one device, apparently with no specific limits.

So here it is: my very own digital edition of Lorrie Moore's Bark, on my very own power guzzling iphone, ready for action.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Tangents inspired by "The Liars' Club" and "Lit" by Mary Karr

I've been slowly making my way though Mary Karr's stunning memoir the Liar's Club in my spare time for something like a month now, but it wasn't until a recent 15 hour plane flight that I had a chance to sit down and and finish it.

I love everything about Liar's Club, its sequel Lit (which I actually read first for some reason) and Karr herself. Her talent, her dry humor, her uncompromising cynicism, her wit, her gift for quick incisive characterization, and her ability to starkly expose and examine her own behavior all make me respect her enormously. Plus, I really enjoy it whenever someone interviews her (prime examples here and here).

Karr's memoirs are full of unlikely events, often fueled by manic instability and substance abuse. Its consistently surprising, often shocking. But the thing that strikes me most about Karr's work, especially having given it a couple of weeks to settle, is probably the way she makes God not-quite-so-unpalatable.

I haven't been much of a God person lately. Like the last 15 years or so. Much of a God person is how I described it to a coworker once, thereby inserting my foot into my mouth. I've hung onto the phrase since. Its a handy way to articulate my exact position--beyond agnostic, but not quite all the way up to the rabid atheism that makes you want to actually argue with people. It also seems to suggest to the super-religious that I'm too lazy and ignorant to make big conversion points, which is handy.

What I generally keep to myself is that I really used to believe in a big way, and that there are times I really wish I still could. I remember the comfort there is in faith, the mystery, the sense of purpose, the incredible scope inherent in the idea of God--its something no other atheist I've known personally has really been able to appreciate.

These days, I'm sometimes too apt (like the other liberal democrat city-dwellers) to think of religious practice as a kind of mass delusion embraced by the weak, the shallow, the victimized, the under-educated, and the controlling, hateful charlatans who hope to take advantage of them. In fits of politically correct tolerance, I even occasionally fall back on the anthropological approach, which basically boils down to 'why would anyone think this shit.' (NB: Nothing makes you look like an asshole quite like speculating on the possible motivations of people you have never met. Political figures are exempt from this rule.)

But when smart, snarky feminist Mary Karr talks about her conversion--to Catholicism of all things--it reminds me of everything I admire and respect in true religious devotion. Rigor, discipline, scholarship, accountability, and most of all living in a conscious and conscientious way, investing small acts with mindfulness, engaging in a level of reflection otherwise almost unheard of in day-to-day existence. A religious expression that is personal and genuine--not just a string of catch phrases repeated by rote, but an evolving experience, the hard work of being an honest and decent human being.

I don't want to give the wrong impression. There's a lot more in these works then religion--God doesn't occupy more than about three chapters across the both books--but that's what I keep returning to in retrospect.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A sofa is forever

Before I moved into my last apartment, I was obsessed by this idea of a sauce pan. I had a big sauce pan (like for popcorn, or once-a-winter huge stew), and a tiny sauce pan (like for actual sauce), but no mid-sized sauce pan (like for any normal thing that you might conceivably cook). I actually had nightmares about this. Like wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night cannot-go-back-to-sleep anxiety dreams.

As I prepare to move into my new place February 1st, my obsession with housewares has returned--only this time, the thing I can't stop thinking about is a sofa.

Let me back up. Five or six years ago, my parents replaced their living room furniture for the first time in--well, ever, pretty much. And they gifted me their old sofa bed. It was a ridiculous object for a semi-transient 20-something to own--massive, heavy and older than I am by at least three years. 

The Sofa in 2010, with strategic patching.
I absolutely adored it. I actually chose apartments based on whether or not it would fit inside. I dragged that thing around through four different moves as it decayed before my eyes, acquiring cat scratches at one apartment, the back growing weak and wobbly in another, the mattress on the fold-out bed compressing, the cushions shrinking like dried sponges. Like some rare and valuable collectable taken out from under the glass, it aged more in five years with me than in 25 with my scrupulous family.

I didn't care. I had the actual original receipt from when my parents bought it. I remembered building forts out of the cushions as a little kid. I slept on the fold-out for weeks at a time as a teenager, once because I found a mouse in my room, another time as a protest against my white lace-covered daybed. I have a scar on my leg from where the mettle frame cut me once. I loved the way the fuzzy upholstery felt against my face. To this day, I miss that thing like it was a dead pet.

Eventually, though, I was brought to see reason: it was old; it was uncomfortable; it was impossible to drag up and down stairs; no one I knew was willing to help me move it again; even my my baby brother didn't want it. So, at length I abandoned it with my harpy scank roommates (who are so completely undeserving of the gift that is that sofa, by the way).

Today, a sofa bed has once again become my weird, borderline unhealthy object of transference. I think about it while I go to sleep. Why?

Its not that I'm this big entertainer or anything, but I hate the idea of having a bed as the main focal point of the place where I live. Why not? one might reasonably ask. After all, I lived in roughly 7 different cramped, San Francisco shotgun-style apartment, with no common space and extra beds jammed in the closets and laundry areas since, oh, about 2005. And dorms, before that. So, you know. Its not like I'm shy about having people sit on my bed (though I'd prefer they keep their feet off it).

I don't know what it is exactly. A living room is sort of a personalized public space. And that appeals to me. And a living room has a sofa, not a bed. That's not it though; not entirely. I like that sofas are big: they can't be crammed in here or there. They anchor the place where you live. A sofa is a piece of furniture. I like that sofas last: they're the kind of thing you pick out in your 20s and still own in your 50s (at least in my family). It's a big, old, investment; status and stability.

Plus my place is tiny. I need floor space to pace in; it helps me to think.

Come tax return season, God and the IRS willing, I'm thinking this. Maybe.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Politics?

At this point, I should probably take that one little word out of the subtitle. The fact is, at the time I started this whole blog thing, I had: a) definite interest in the mid-term elections, b) an intellectual willingness examine issues from different sides, and c) a great deal of spare time, during which I needed give the appearance of working on something.

These days, between my two-and-a-half hour daily commute, frantic-fanatic work environment, grad school, semi-regular writing, and bare semblance of social life, I find my waking hours are pretty well filled up. That, and I can hardly bare to glance in the direction of the whole political sphere at all. I've caught a bit of news coverage, a few convention speeches, and most of the debates, but all of that leaves me not so much well informed as angry and depressed.

I feel bad for Obama, I really do. He seems to have fought his way into office (over my preferred candidate, ah-hem) only to enjoy a startling fall from grace, fading in a few short years from a bastion of hope and change to the main obstacle in the way of the sweeping tide of corporate Christian right. Keep your finger in the dam, bro, that's all I can say--and, best case scenario, I really think that's all anyone who likes women, the environment, education, or any form of regulatory enforcement can reasonably expect for the next four years.

As for the rest...

Mitt Romney is just a tool. That's all there is to it. I honestly don't think he's a bad person--he's just bumbling, weak, wishy-washy, and divorced from reality. He's like the stereotypical sheltered high school nerd, book smart and culturally clueless, arrogant yet eager for approval, repeating whatever the cool kids say by rout, unsuspicious of just how far off the mark he really is. The examples are manifold, from the ridiculous (dog on the roof of the car, binders full of women) to the disturbing (healthcare, England).

I have a visceral reaction to Paul Ryan so strong I actually get nervous nausea when he talks. Something about his big slow-blinking eyes, set back deep in his scull like Shelley Duvall's, that way he has of raising his eyebrows, and his parentheses bracketed smile, makes me so profoundly uncomfortable.

If I have to hear smilin' Joe Biden mention Scranton just once more, I just don't know what I'll do.

What really baffles me are these so-called 'independent' or 'undecided' voters. Where are these people, and more importantly, where are their brains?

This must be a news media fiction. Maybe in the 90s when the two main party candidates essentially stood toe-to-toe on opposite sides of the fifty yard line, and candidates like Ralph Nader or Harry Browne were really out there, voters on either end of the spectrum might reasonably waver. But now--with the two candidates at completely opposite polls, with only one shared goal (job creation) and virtually no similarity in any of their policies or strategies--who could possibly have any doubt?

I suppose maybe, maybe...if you cared about nothing but the tax code, and wanted determine which candidate's policy would save you more? But, as my rant so far has now doubt illustrated, very few people are so rational in their decision-making process.

Monday, August 1, 2011

An ode to absent roommates. (Six years. Six addresses. 23 roommates. The end of an erra.)

I reflect fondly on your boyfriend’s Grey Goose bottle bong, and the incredibly strong weed that sent me to my first ever publishing job still stoned, and thrilled to have my very own rolly office chair to play with.

Also, on the lime green living room with the hammock in it, the mouse that lived in the leather chair, the Katrina fire pit, and the owl with the glowing eyes. The way my bathtub used to vibrate from the base on your speakers, the same song over and over again as you wrote it. The bouncy boxing party when the cops came, that terrible girl who climbed in the window and covered my bed with mud, the way you told her that Native Americans invented the dimmer switch, and the way she believed you.

I miss drinking whiskey and torturing the downstairs neighbor. Painting the living room Gothic Rose pink and listening to that one Be Good Tanyas album over and over again. Eating ice cream and watching Bride and Prejudice. Buying bargain bin underwear in Oakland and dancing at the KitKat Club. Even the time you flipped the breaker box for April Fools.

I do not miss the way you itemized the dirty dishes and assigned pantry space based on percentage of total rent. The way you walked through my office (also known as the laundry room) to get outside, even when I asked you not to. The way you ignored my advice then blamed me when things went wrong. That time you locked me out because I said your dinner party was terrible, which it was.

I do not miss your drunk hipster friends passed out in my bedroom, or the vomit dried to a crust in the bottom of the tub when I came back from a long weekend in Santa Cruz. I don’t miss your loud friends playing cards at 3:00 AM on Tuesday, or the way you never cleaned, or the notes you left, complaining about fruit juice on the counter even though the sink was packed with your dirty dishes. I never understood how your boyfriend just moved in one day. I thought your bike was stupid, and I still do.

I hated coming home early the Friday before a holiday weekend to find you passed out on the sofa surrounded by nitrous canisters, and the way you let your cat destroy my sofa, then tried to make me get rid of it because it was so shabby. I hated you for your preachy crap about cars and street parking, your awful “films” and your insistence that I ask you about your day. I hated that restaurant you worked at. I don’t care what you say; it's a cult. I hated never knowing what might have drugs in it--like those Altoids in the dish in the living room, or those brownies I ate for breakfast once, when I was running late for a PPR meeting, leaving me, once again, stoned in an office chair.

I hated your tantrums, and your made-up stories about your own heroic encounters with famous people. I hated your oily hair, and the way all your texts were always tagged ‘urgent.’ Your crazy cats, who continued the destruction of my sofa and always ran away when I entered a room. Your horror movie sex noises, your disgusting contact lenses, the way your hair stuck to the walls of the bathroom after you blow dried it. Also the hair in the shower drain and the animal hair all over the floors. The sad sound of your dog, crying and flinging herself at the back of your bedroom door. The cat box in the hall closet. The way you never paid PG&E on time, ever, and the self-righteous way you tried to dick me out of my deposit. The dumb shit you said, and the fact that you never ever cleaned anything, except sometimes, after a party.

Good bye, good and bad. It's hard to feel honestly nostalgic about anything so recent and so nuts, but somehow, I think I'll manage...

Saturday, July 9, 2011

MORE new house photos...



Victrola/vanity.




Bedroom/houseplant storage area.



Kitchen table (thanks Al!) and newly re-covered chairs (thank you Craigslist free page and Peapod).



Kitchen (notice the subtle color change?).



The other part of the kitchen.



Freshly painted bathroom.



More bathroom.



Still more bathroom.



To be continued (once I've cleaned the office)...