The long tail

There is a great story in last month’s Wired (The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson, now on the web) about the economy of digital distribution.

It talks about the importance we attach to hit status; if a song is not “Thriller”, if a book is not “Les Trois Mousquetaires”, if a film is not “Das Boot”, it might as well not exist. We can go to the store, and only buy hits: this is because shelf space is limited. Even if there are millions of fans for an obscure alternative band, that does not mean your local CD store will sell enough of them to justify putting their CDs on the shelves in the first place.

The digital arena changes this; suddenly, shelf space is unlimited:

Wired/Chris Anderson: “To see how, meet Robbie Vann-Adib�, the CEO of Ecast, a digital jukebox company whose barroom players offer more than 150,000 tracks – and some surprising usage statistics. He hints at them with a question that visitors invariably get wrong: “What percentage of the top 10,000 titles in any online media store (Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, or any other) will rent or sell at least once a month?”

Most people guess 20 percent, and for good reason: We’ve been trained to think that way. The 80-20 rule, also known as Pareto’s principle (after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who devised the concept in 1906), is all around us. Only 20 percent of major studio films will be hits. Same for TV shows, games, and mass-market books – 20 percent all. The odds are even worse for major-label CDs, where fewer than 10 percent are profitable, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

But the right answer, says Vann-Adib�, is 99 percent. There is demand for nearly every one of those top 10,000 tracks. He sees it in his own jukebox statistics; each month, thousands of people put in their dollars for songs that no traditional jukebox anywhere has ever carried.

As a volunteer for Distributed Proofreaders, a site that produces hundreds of ebooks per month for Project Gutenberg, I find the idea that even the most obscure texts I help produce will find a reader very gratifying.

Tabbed Browsing

Why is tabbed browsing so much better than, er, untabbed browsing? An Internet Explorer user said he did not understand why I like Firefox: “What does it matter if you click on tabs at the top of the browser window, or on icons in the task bar?” I could not tell him, just that it does.

Spaceshipone wins the Ansari X Prize

Woohoo! SpaceShipOne just won the Ansari X Prize by completing a trip to the edge of space twice within five days. The X Prize was offered to the first private organisation to reach the edge of space twice within fourteen days, so Scaled Composite, makers of the winning space ship, stayed well within the limits.

A mixed bag of responses trailed the news at Slashdot, because some mistakenly thought that going orbital will be for the grasping any day know for private enterprise, and others downplayed the achievement, because the US airforce managed to do the same in the 1960. However, the US airforce abandoned HTOL space faring for vertically launching, expendable rockets; whereas the accomplishment of Burt Rutan and his team may mark the start of smarter and cheaper space travel.

10th annual Interactive Fiction competition

This weekend the 10th annual Interactive Fiction competition has started (be careful, the site might still be a little wobbly from its slashdotting).

Interactive Fiction is a fancy-schmancy word for ‘text adventures’; those who know me know I have a weak spot for those.

Anyway, some 40 people have written a computer puzzler that is solvable within two hours. If you choose to participate in judging, you must play at least five games, for as long as you want, although after at most two hours of play you are duty-bound to score the game.

As every year, I will be trying to play my minimum of five games. Last year had an unusually good batch of entries, with the winner of that year being one of the best of the genre so far.

Chilling effect

Akma reports that Mary Hess was advised by the legal department of her publisher to remove all song lyrics from her book about song lyrics.

Gift wrap

“Is it a gift?,” the woman behind the counter asked me. The friend who is going to be on the receiving end of the book I was buying tends to bristle at the Dutch way of dancing around the real question. I presume a North-American would ask straight away if I wanted the book wrapped.

Yes, it’s a gift, I confirmed. I like the dancing around.

Before, the woman had been staring out the window with her back to the counter. Outside, the tiniest touch of blue in the sky suggesting that twilight wasn’t officially over yet, a long file of horse-drawn buggies was rolling by. I remembered a similar procession the year before, and how long it had taken to pass. The lady behind me and I both wished silently that the sales woman would get over her amazement. Then I realized she wasn’t looking at the carts and horses, but at the store’s security guard who was pushing up the sun shields. She turned around, and, startled to see me, apologised for keeping me waiting.

First, she removed the price sticker. It wouldn’t go off completely. Then, she took a cloth and something that looked like a bottle of cough syrup. Being someone who competes in jumping at conclusions on an Olympic level, I figured she had spilt the cough syrup and was going to clean the counter with the rag before wrapping my book on it. As it turned out, the bottle contained some kind of solvent to loosen the sticker’s glue. Still, things took quite some time. The lady behind me had switched queues, and the American who took her place came forward to see and inquire in his best Dutch what was going on. “What gebujt ej hiej allemahl?,” he asked with a friendly smile.

The sales woman took her time to get it right. The book was beautifully wrapped, and I felt guilty; yes, it’s a gift, I had said. I had bought it, because I seemed to remember I had not given my friend a gift for her birthday. I wasn’t sure about that, though, and so the ‘gift’ may end up on my own bookshelves.

Symposium on copyright reform, Oct. 15

Bits of Freedom will be organising a symposium on copyright reform in the beautiful Berlage Exchange in Amsterdam on October 15, 2004. Entrance is free, but unfortunately there are no more seats left. Perhaps if I had known about it sooner I would have been able to go, but it seems BoF had their plans “on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of The Leopard’“.

Speakers, amongst others, are the copyright lawyers Christiaan Alberdink Thijm (he of Kazaa and Zoekmp3.nl fame, whose book on copyright for the digital age seems to be sold out), and Bernt Hugenholz, co-author of the Dutch Creative Commons licenses.

If all these Dutch copyfighters manage to buy books before I can get to them, and snatch tickets to copyright reform congresses away before me, how come I cannot find these people on the web?

The service fallacy?

In defense of a reform of software copyright to get to a Free Software type situation (programs that are not custom-built should be free to use, copy and modify), proponents often point out that programmers can still make money. It is estimated that about 90% of the software in the world is custom made. They also point out that if you still want to make money in the commodity software world (typically games, operating systems, office software et cetera), you can do so by providing art (still to be copyrighted) or services. For instance, a GNU/Linux distributor can supply support for his product.

The problem with that is that it does not really help the geeks, does it? For services, unlike programming, you need people skills. That is something that a lot of geeks lack.

The dead

Today, singer André Hazes died. He was someone who never seemed to grasp in time when people were being sarcastic, but his naïvety sometimes paid off. Someone would joke that he should sing rock ‘n’ roll, and he would, and not that bad either. Huge swaths of the population took to him, and of the rest many liked him because they thought him camp. Like a Liberace, always hovering between cool and uncool, to the point that even the discerning part of the audience never quite knew how to pigeonhole him.

Sarcasm, irony, cynicism; what were the differences again? An unsettling bit of irony (or is it really cynicism?): Amsterdam TV channel AT5 published the news of Hazes’ death, and put an ad for a music festival beneath it that everyone immediately associates with the sort of music Andr� Hazes used to sing. Irony, but then the eye gets caught by the ad to the left, that claims that a company called Ad’sense can connect any bit of advertising with any bit of content. Let’s hope that that is not what has happened here, or AT5’s management should crawl in a hole and stay there till the shame has passed.


Screenshot from AT5.nl, cropped.

Barbarian culture

David Weinberger is struggling with the same copyright questions that I do, but he’s going to do it while facing what he presumes is the enemy.