Or … is Amazon becoming the publishing Industry?

A recent Blog Kindle post asked “Is Amazon’s Kindle Destroying the Publishing Industry?“.  The post defends Kindle seeing the traditional publishers as reactionaries, whose business model depended on paper publishing and, effectively. keeping authors from their public.

However, as an author myself (albeit academic) this seems to completely miss the reasons for the publishing industry.  The printing of physical volumes has long been a minimal part of the value, indeed traditional publishers have made good use of the changes in physical print industry to outsource actual production.  The core value for the author are the things around this: marketing, distribution and payment management.

Of these, distribution is of course much easier now with the web, whether delivering electronic copies, or physical copies via print-on demand services.  However, the other core values persist – at their best publishers do not ring fence the public from the author, but on the contrary connect the two.

I recall as a child being in the Puffin Club and receiving the monthly magazine.  I could not afford many books at the time, but since have read many of the books described in its pages and recall the excitement of reading those reviews.  A friend has a collection of the early Puffins (1-200) in their original covers; although some stories age, some are better, some worse, still just being a Puffin Book was a pretty good indication it was worth reading.

The myth we are being peddled is of a dis-intermediated networked world where customers connect directly to suppliers, authors to readers1, musicians to fans.  For me, this has some truth, I am well enough known and well enough connected to distribute effectively.  However for most that ‘direct’ connection is mediated by one of a small number of global sites … and smaller number of companies: YouTube, Twitter, Google, iTunes, eBay, not to forget Amazon.

For publishing as in other areas, what matters is not physical production, the paper, but the route, the connection, the channel.

And crucially Kindle is not just the device, but the channel.

The issue is not whether Kindle kills the publishing industry, but whether Amazon becomes the publishing industry.  Furthermore, if Amazon’s standard markdown and distribution deals for small publishers are anything to go by, Amazon is hardly going to be a cuddly home for future authors.

To some extent this is an apparently inexorable path that has happened in the traditional industries, with a few large publishing conglomerates buying up the smaller publishing houses, and on the high street a few large bookstore chains such as Waterstones, Barnes & Noble squeezing out the small bookshops (remember “You’ve Got Mail“), and it is hard to have sympathy with Waterstones recent financial problems given this history.

Philip Jones of the Bookseller recently blogged about these changes, noting that it is in fact book selling, not publishing that is struggling with profits … even Amazon – no wonder Amazon want more of the publishing action.  However, while Jones notes that the “digital will lead to smaller book chains, stocking fewer titles” in fact “It wasn’t digital that drove this, but it is about to deliver the coup de grâce.”

Which does seem a depressing vision both as author and reader.

  1. Maybe unbound.co.uk is actually doing this – see Guardian article, although it sounds more useful to the already successful writer than the new author.[back]

Mathematics, Jewishness, and Direction

When I was nearly 18 I was part of the British team to the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) in Bucharest (see my account of the experience).  The US team were Jewish1, all eight of them.  While this was noteworthy, it was not surprising. There does seem to be a remarkable number of high achieving Jewish mathematicians, including nearly a quarter of Fields Medal recipients (the Maths equivalent of the Nobel Prize) and half of the mathematics members of the US National Academy of Sciences2.

Is this culture or genes, nature or nurture?

As with most things, I’d guess the answer is a mix.  But, if of culture, what? There is a tradition of Biblical numerology, but hardly widespread enough to make the substantial effects. Is it to do with the discipline of learning Hebrew, maybe just discipline, or perhaps is it that mathematics is one of the fields where there has been less prejudice in academic appointments3.

I have just read a paper, “Disembodying Cognition” by Anjan Chatterjee, that may shed a little light on this.  The paper is an excellent overview of current neuroscience research  on embodiment and also its limits (hence ‘disembodying’).  One positive embodiment result related to representations of actions, such as someone kicking a ball, which are often depicted with the agent on the left and the acted upon object on the right.  However, when these experiments are repeated for Arab participants, the direction effects are reversed (p.102).  Chaterjee surmises that this is due to the right-to-left reading direction in Arabic.

In mathematics an equation is strictly symmetrical, simply stating that two thinsg are equal.  However, we typically see equations such as:

y = 3x + 7

where the declarative reading may well be:

y is the same as “3x + 7”

but the more procedural ‘arithmatic’ reading is:

take x, multiple by three, add seven and this gives y

In programming languages this is of course the normal semantics … and can give rise to confusion in statements such as:

x = x + 1

This is both confusing if read as an equation (why some programming languages have := read as “becomes equal to”), but also conflicts with the left-to-right reading of English and European languages.

COBOL which was designed for business use, used English-like syntax, which did read left to right:

ADD Tiree-Total TO Coll-Total GIVING Overall-Total.

Returning to Jewish mathematicians, does the right-to-left reading of Hebrew help in early understanding of algebra?  But if so then surely there should be many more contemporary Arab mathematicians also.  This is clearly not the full story, but maybe it is one contributory factor.

And, at the risk of confusing all of us brought up with the ‘conventional’ way of writing equations, would it be easier for English-speaking children if they were introduced to the mathematically equivalent, but linguistically more comprehensible:

3x + 7 = y

  1. Although they did have to ‘forget’ while they were there otherwise they would have starved on the all-pork cuisine[back]
  2. Source jews.org “Jews in Mathematics“.[back]
  3. The Russians did not send a team to the IMO in 1978.  There were three explanations of this (i) because it was in Romania, (ii) because the Romanians had invited a Chinese team and (iii), because the Russian national mathematical Olympiad had also produced an all Jewish team and the major Moscow university that always admitted the team did not want that many Jewish students.  Whether the last explanation is true or not, it certainly is consonant with the levels of explicit discrimination in the USSR at the time. [back]

Osama Bin Laden – if only we had let him go to court 10 years ago

Just hearing the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death and thinking what a waste of 10 years and numerous lives. Straight after 9/11 the Taliban put Osama bin Laden under house arrest and offered to hand him over to an international Islamic court. Just imagine the world today of we had taken up this offer. Instead of a Robin Hood figure and now a martyr, he would have been a criminal tried and convicted.

Osama bin Laden had few friends in the governments of the Mulsim world, even the Taliban, which had been secretly trying to get rid of him to the US for some years before 9/11. Maybe the Islamic court would have had him imprisoned or executed itself. Maybe it would have extradited him to the US to stand trial there. Either way it would have been under an Islamic aegis, rather than perceived as an act against Islam.

Just imagine the world now with no Afghan war, no perceived invasion of Muslim countries (although maybe the Iraq war would have happened earlier without Afghanistan to take attention). So many thousands of lives. Possibly no Bali, Madrid or London bombings.

One of the reason there was no public pressure at the time for this legal rather than military route was the lack of reporting. I was perhaps fortunate to be flying on 9/11 and spent the three weeks after in South Africa where the detention was well reported. When I returned home, it was mentioned just a few times in interviews and discussions and in each case the interviewer ignored it and moved on to a fresh questions as if it were too embarrassing to be discussed. I heard later that, in the early days after 9/11, the BBC was more open in its reporting, but got its ‘wrists slapped’ by government, and so, by the time I was back, was avoiding difficult issues; something that sadly seems to be the case since in many conflicts.

If 10 years ago we had cared more for justice than revenge, then Osama bin Laden could have been a symbol of unity between Islamic and Western worlds, jointly prosecuted and condemned for the killing of innocents. Instead he has become a cause of division, that is unlikely to end with his death,