Thursday, March 31, 2011

A good week ...

As previously mentioned, C4SS hit its "200 mainstream media reprints" milestone this week, and today we made our quarterly fundraising goal.

A few minutes ago, I entered, proofed and scheduled the 5,000th post, for publication later today, at Rational Review News Digest's "new" (since December) web site.

I get the feeling that if I go outside today, I'll find a shiny new penny lying tails-up on the sidewalk.

But I think I'll take a nap instead. Tamara's supposed to bring me a new wok and some vegetables for stir-fry tonight, so I'll get to try on the new (to me) Magic Chef chef's coat I found at the thrift store last night. Huzzah!

The End of Days is Here

[Update: As you can see from the "meter" below, the fundraiser has reached its goal, thanks to 62 donors, including one whom I'm not sure I have permission to name, but who came in with a $1,500 contribution today, and all of whom have my sincere thanks. The "meter" lists 63 donors, but I'm not thanking that last one, because it's me, "re-donating" $100 of my December pay as promised - KN@PPSTER]

As in "the end of days in the Center for a Stateless Society's Q1 Fundraiser," it being the last day of Q1 and all.

By way of springing good news on people when I'm asking them for money, C4SS just reached 200 "mainstream media reprints" of our articles (in 21 countries on five continents!), 10 months into our efforts toward that end, and a couple of months ahead of my prediction for that milestone.

Is that number "soft?" I suppose so, but the softness goes two ways. The "mainstream medianess" of some of the pickups/citations is open to reasonable question, but it's also a very good bet that I've missed reprints in smaller papers that don't run everything in their Google-indexed online editions (occasionally I catch one of these in a PDF long after the fact).

Why is that number indicative of C4SS's worthiness of support? As I mentioned late in 2010, I received a fundraising letter from another freedom movement institution -- one that I respect very much and don't care to name -- citing the fact that they'd managed to get 500 of their op-eds into newspapers ... since 1988! So it seems to me that if you're interested in supporting pro-freedom newspaper penetration projects, C4SS is a lot of bang for very little buck (I'll let you do your own comparisons of C4SS's budget to those of other organizations, but suffice it to say that the money that funds us for months would fund some of those orgs for minutes).

And speaking of bang for buck, C4SS's fundraising model is rear- rather than forward-facing. We do our work "on spec," and hope you'll find what we've already done worth paying for, instead of asking you to buy the proverbial pig in a poke. If I'm not mistaken, most C4SS personnel (myself included) are hopefully awaiting payment for work done in December 2010.

My intent, as per usual practice, is to re-donate $50 from my next semi-monthly ($320), or $100 from my next monthly ($640), C4SS "paycheck." I much appreciate anything that KN@PPSTER's readers might care to do by way of pre-emptively matching that today.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Blog stats can be depressing

It's not that they're so low. When I go for long periods without daily political blogging, I expect my site visits to drop below 100 a day.

When they get that low, though, some of the visits stand out.

Each day -- each and every day -- I get several visits from people who want to know how to separate acetaminophen from hydrocodone. Three guesses why.

Worse, each day -- each and every day -- I get at least one visit from some random reprobate whose major life goal is apparently joining the Ku Klux Klan.

Why, oh why don't I ever get visits from sex workers offering me review visits? Or restaurateurs seeking my opinion of their new lines of gourmet chocolate-covered pork rinds? But nooooooooo, poor KN@PPSTER just gets the junkies and the bigots.

You Say Anarchy Like it's a Bad Thing

My response (at C4SS) to William Lind's latest at The American Conservative:

The real nut of Lind's objection to anarchy seems to be that "externally there is no one with whom other states can deal." He treats this as a bug. I consider it a feature.

What kind of "dealing" takes place between states? The least onerous form of trade between states -- the baseline -- is a continuous barter, between their political classes, of wealth stolen from their productive classes.

From there, it only gets worse, up to all-out war that makes any conceivable stateless "war of all against all" look like a friendly game of flag football: Massive armies (cajoled or even conscripted from among the productive class, of course -- if you're looking for the political class, consult your directory of "undisclosed locations") arrayed against each other, brandishing terrible weapons that only acolytes of the state could manage the psychosis necessary to imagine, or work up the hubris to invest the massive amounts of unearned wealth required to develop.

Here's the whole enchilada.

A wee bit of market research

[Update: C4SS has scheduled an online "roundtable chat" on this topic for April 10th. See you there! - KN@PPSTER]

It seems like every couple of months for years, I see an online notice from some anarchist/voluntaryist/libertarian, to the following effect: "I'm going into the arbitration business. More on that real soon now."

And then ... nothing.

It occurs to me that what brings these aspiring arbitrators up short may not be that they discover or decide they're incompetent to arbitrate cases according to some pre-announced ruleset, but rather that they run up against some daunting "front-end" technical barriers. For example:

How do the would-be arbitrators put their offering in front of potential customers?

How do those customers easily and conveniently complete, sign and register General Submissions for Arbitration, and possibly pay retainers associated with those submissions?

How does the arbitrator accept those submissions and retainers?

How are records kept?

How are disputes between people with GSAs on file with different arbitrators handled, etc.?

I have it in mind that the solution to this is an online "arbitration commons," and I'm interested in your opinion as to whether or not that's true, and if so whether or not the following is a useful (and complete) description of such a commons:


An arbitration commons is an online environment in which arbitrators and customers publicly interact in the following ways:

1) Arbitrators can post, and prospective customers can view, "packages" of arbitration services (or offers to create custom "packages") available for sale.

2) Prospective customers can publicly post Submissions To Arbitration (most commonly General Submissions to Arbitration, but specialized/customized forms may be available).

3) Desirable optional additions to (2) would include the ability to digitally sign Arbitration Submissions within the commons itself, and to tender payment of retainers and/or arbitration fees associated with said submissions through integrated gateways.

4) Arbitrators can publicly accept posted Arbitration Submissions.

5) Desirable optional additions to (3) would include the ability to digitally sign Arbitration Submissions within the commons itself, and to accept/publicly verify payments from customers through integrated gateways.

6) Additional optional elements of an arbitration commons might include venue services (teleconferencing, etc.); public postings of arbitration opinions/verdicts and notices of verdict non-compliance; manual or automatic public disclosure of inter-arbitrator agreements and the shunt/appeal trees derived from those agreements, etc.


An arbitration commons could conceivably be operated as a "non-profit" at the expense of some number of arbitrators or other interested parties for the purpose of advancing arbitration as a revolutionary alternative to the existing state civil justice system.

Alternatively, a single proprietor or partnership could operate the commons and charge fees to users -- most likely a periodic "merchant account" subscription payment from participating arbitrators and/or some kind of rake-off of retainer payments.


1) If you are an aspiring arbitrator, would the existence of an arbitration commons as described above make you more inclined to throw in and get your arbitration business going?

2) If you're a potential customer for arbitration services, would the existence of an arbitration commons as described above make you more inclined to submit a GSA with an arbitrator (presumably with some kind of reasonable periodic retainer, plus reasonable fees for actual case handling) and actually make use of the services in preference to state systems?

3) As an aspiring arbitrator and/or potential customer, are there particular individuals or organizations whose names, if associated with an arbitration commons (as participant, proprietor, whatever) would make you more or less likely to participate or cause you to trust the mechanism more or less?

4) Am I leaving out any necessary elements in my description of an online arbitration commons?

Note: This is "front end" stuff. Yes, I understand that enforcement of arbitration decisions at the "back end" is also an important element; my working theory at the moment is that, at least on the scale represented by the current freedom movement, negative social preferencing ("shunning") of those who enter into arbitration then refuse to abide by the results can be an effective enforcement strategy.

Talk at me.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Just sayin' ...

Someday, I will find myself at a party, making small talk with some guy I've never met before but who knows the hosts, and I'll ask him what he does for a living.

"I design packaging," he'll say. "Just as an example, I designed the packages for Shop-n-Save Deli Style Cheeses."

And then I will brain him with the nearest heavy, blunt object.

I've probably spent more time trying to get the goddamn things open than I have eating what's in them.

Interfaith Sculpture?

For no particular reason except to see the sights, we drove out from the Lou to Portage de Sioux, Missouri on Sunday. While there, we visited the shrine of Our Lady of the Waters Rivers, a statue dedicated in 1957 and placed overlooking the Mississippi River. The front view is a straightforwardly Roman Catholic:

But the rear view leads me to speculate that perhaps certain concessions were extracted by an anonymous Jewish philanthropist in return for funding the thing:

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Return of the Return of Anarchism

Seems like every other week (or at least whenever a bunch of people wearing black bandanas over their faces smash a window), some yahoo wants to tell me that anarchism is a "long-dead philosophy" just now "rising from the grave."

The latest variation on said theme comes from Abe Greenwald at Commentary. I respond at the Center for a Stateless Society:

Like those rumors of Mark Twain's death, recurring claims of anarchism’s demise and resurrection are greatly exaggerated. Greenwald misinterprets his own observations. It is not resurrection he sees, it's resurgence: A cyclical phenomenon driven primarily by the reliably recurring failure of the modern state to deliver on its most basic promises of peace, prosperity and respect for human rights.

Whole thing here.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Beg to differ

Quoth Eric Posner @ The Volokh Conspiracy [hat tip -- Smitty @ The Other McCain]:

There is no constituency for reforming the executive. That is a simple political fact about the United States, and therefore no one with real influence is willing to follow the necessary implications of originalism for executive power. Why not? Because Americans want a strong president. They want a strong president to defend the United States from terrorists, to deliver humanitarian interventions, to respond to natural disasters like Katrina, to resolve financial crises, to combat climate change, to fix the deficit. The call for leadership by a strong executive in response to the crisis du jour is reflexive.

George W. Bush ran on an at least nominally "reform/weaken the executive" platform -- a "humble" foreign policy, restoring "honor" and "integrity" to a White House he portrayed as having run wild, etc. -- in 2000.

Barack H. Obama made executive overreach a central theme of his presidential campaign in 2008.

There's definitely a constituency for a less powerful executive sometimes, and that constituency can decisively influence the outcome of a presidential election.

When the crisis du jour is very recent and/or particularly horrific, it's probably easier to bring together the constituency for a strong/decisive executive. In 2004, Bush rode that theme to a second victory by invoking 9/11 and portraying John Kerry as the kind of guy who would consult the UN for permission before wiping the presidential ass.

But when the boogieman stuff has faded and aged a bit, and when the executive overreaches are easy to portray as either hubris (Bush/GOP 2008) or tactics to distract attention from jiggery-pokery or just plain pokery (Clinton/Dems 2000), the "maybe we shouldn't elect such pushy assholes" constituency can be mobilized.

Of course, Bush and Obama are also strong evidence for the notion that the "humble executive" crap generally goes out the window as soon as new boogiemen arrive on the scene.

So yeah, we're probably screwed.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

I could pick any number of moments, but I'll probably always best remember her this way:

There go my (not entirely fictive) aspirations to Number Ninedom.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

WTF is a "curation layer?"

To understand the term "curation layer," we should probably break it down into its two component parts, in reverse order.


I suspect that "layer" is one of those terms that's racing fast toward useless/meaningless status through over-use and constant recycling, but it's still just barely hanging on to its utility.

In the Open Systems Interconnection model (read all about it if you're that interested), a "layer" is "a collection of similar functions that provide services to the layer above it and receives services from the layer below it." That's not the only definition of "layer" in tech jargon, but it will do quite nicely for our purposes.


"Curation" is "the selection of, care for and presentation of the objects entered into a collection."

Still clear as mud, right? Let's get to a short, sweet definition that's a bit clearer:

A "curation layer" is just a new name someone (it may have been Demand Media) drummed up to describe the set of tools that a given web site operator uses to organize content in ways that maximize that content's accessibility for different purposes.

Why the new name?

Because for some reason, "curation" is all the rage lately.

Because IT workers are always looking for new labels to slap on what they've already done and thereby convince their bosses that they're still actually doing, um, something.

Because when you're taking it in the search engine shorts (cough ... Demand Media ... cough), the quickest way to convince stockholders, media et. al that you're doing something to address the situation is to throw out some new gee-whiz term. They'll pretend they understand what the hell you're talking about, then walk away convinced (hopefully) that you understand what the hell you're talking about and that things are about to start looking up again.

Look at the bottom of this post for "Labels." You're looking at part of this post's curation layer.

Wordpress (and other) tags are curation layer stuff. So are SEO keywords and descriptions. And tables of contents, widgets that gin up "related posts" lists, etc.

"Content curation" is nothing more or less than making it easier for users to find what they think they're looking for, whether it's all the posts from August of 2004, all of the references to some keyword or key phrase ("Ron Paul nude!"), everything pertinent to the politics of Central Asia, you name it.

The "curation layer" is nothing more or less than whatever set of tools you're using for "content curation." It's a "layer" because it sits between the user or the creator and the content, passing information back and forth between the two.

There. That wasn't as complicated as you thought it would be, was it?

Note: This post is the first installment of Tech WTF? -- yet another occasional KN@PPSTER series. The goal of Tech WTF? is to explain new Internet terminology during the short timeframe between its introduction and its reduction to uselessness/meaninglessness by marketers - KN@PPSTER]

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Some book notes

I don't write a lot of book reviews these days, but sometimes it seems worth mentioning what I've been reading. A few notes, and one fairly in-depth review:

I recently finished Erne Lewis's An Act of Self-Defense. If you're into the "freedom fighters get their back up and take on the state ... with guns!" genre (I am), you'll like it. I had a bit of a "suspension of disbelief" problem with these particular activists taking up arms in a cause I can't personally imagine anyone getting that stirred up about (term limits), but it's still a well-told story.

I'm working my way through Hide In Light, by James Mann. I read different books in different ways, and this one seems to call for the "bite off a little bit, chew on it for awhile, come back later" approach, but I'm enjoying it as I go. The premise (without giving too much away, try "what if the next step in human evolution is something we already know about but think of as an ugly and horrifying aberration?") is interesting, and for reasons that will become obvious if you read both stories, the protagonist (Adam Winter) reminds me of Johnny "Dread" Wulgaru in Tad Williams's Otherland tetralogy. Author James Mann blogs at Truth To Power.

On deck, some non-fiction:

The Most Dangerous Superstition, by Larken Rose. Haven't read it yet, but it comes highly recommended and I expect to enjoy it given its central argument:

The belief in "authority," which includes all belief in "government," is irrational and self-contradictory; it is contrary to civilization and morality, and constitutes the most dangerous, destructive superstition that has ever existed.

The Conscience of an Anarchist, by Gary Chartier. It's exactly what it sounds like, and having seen it in early draft, I'm excited to hear that it's available for pre-order.

Finally, a novel that I just finished (through the magic of abject review copy pleading) but that you can't get in the US just yet without some kind of special ordering mojo: Ken MacLeod's The Restoration Game, published last year in the UK and coming to the US this September. Take my word for it: You want to read this book.

MacLeod's work is always good and usually fantastic, but from my point of view this is his most exciting offering since the Fall Revolution cycle (available in two two-book volumes, Fractions and Divisions), which wrapped more than a decade ago. I'm not putting down the stuff that falls between the two points, mind you, but The Restoration Game is a welcome return to form in certain respects.

It's not a return to "left-anarchists versus anarcho-capitalists in space," but it definitely hits a lot of the same lovely riffs as those parts of the Fall Revolution cycle which deal with late 20th/early 21st century geopolitics: Earnest but hardened lefties versus the US and the USSR but, like it or not, caught up in the New Great Game. From nearly every page, Myra Godwin threatens to pop up with a word of advice or a stern tradecraft/realpolitik reminder for protagonist Lucy Stone.

As always, MacLeod's science fiction chops mesh perfectly with those themes. The science fiction aspect thoroughly informs, but never overwhelms, the story. It's obvious from the beginning that he's going to drag us through Bostrom's Simulation Hypothesis, but not necessarily from which side or toward what outcome. That part hangs over the story without dragging it down, and the payoff is worth the journey.

In my opinion, MacLeod has successfully worked two novels into The Restoration Game, skillfully interweaving them so one doesn't damage the other. One novel is a fully realized John LeCarre-type (post-Smiley) political thriller. The other pulls its own weight, and then some, as speculative fiction.

Once again for emphasis: You want to read this book. If you need more detail, bordering on spoiler territory (I've tried to keep it non-specific so as not to intrude on the enjoyment), read Andy Sawyer's review at Strange Horizons. And by all means please visit and bookmark MacLeod's personal blog, The Early Days of a Better Nation.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The latest in incredibly stupid

PC Magazine:

Twitter on Friday issued a clear statement to developers that placed a moratorium on third-party apps.

Why? When you have to ask "why," the answer is usually "money." But here's the official line from Ryan Sarver, Twitter's "director of platform":

We need to ensure that tweets and tweet actions, are rendered in a consistent way so that people have the same experience with tweets no matter what they are ...

There's a time and place for uniformity of experience. It's called McDonald's.

Twitter's revenue model, if it ever gets its act together, will be the sale of advertising. So yes, I can see why they might API-block apps that don't run the ads they sell.

Beyond that, denying users the ability to tailor their Twitter experience to their own preferences (by denying developers the ability to offer other options) can only hurt, not help, Twitter.

Some people like Twitter's in-house experience (I'm one of them, although I've been flirting with Seesmic lately).

Others want to use Tweetie, Tweetdeck, whatever.

Unless Twitter is playing some deep game in which mass migration to some other API -- StatusNet, for example -- followed by fiery corporate death is part of the plan, it needs to extract cranium from rectum ASAP.


The fact that Manning's abusive mistreatment is going on at Quantico -- where I spent nine months as a Marine officer in basic school -- and that Marines are lying about it, makes me feel ashamed for the Corps.

That's Daniel Ellsberg, in the Guardian.

Unlike Ellsberg, I only spent a few weeks at Quantico (for marksmanship instructor school), but I agree: The Marine Corps's involvement in this affair is a stain on its honor.

Knowing my readership as I do, I'm sure that some of you don't believe there is, or can be, any honor in service (possibly especially military service) to the state to begin with.

I disagree, and that's a conversation that we've had before and can have again, but that I'm not particularly interested in having here, about this. Suffice it to say that I can't imagine most of the Marines I served with countenancing this kind of evil.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Light Begins to Dawn ...

... and personally I think some corporate fortunes are going to fall hard as this "$800 tablet" trend comes to a screeching halt before it really gets started.

I almost certainly wasn't the first blogger to discover that you can get into a decent Android tablet for less than $200, but I caught on before blowing big money, anyway.

Today, the Wall Street Journal's Brett Arends takes notice:

A lot of people are likely to stand in line to pay $500 or more for Apple's iPad 2 when it goes on sale Friday.

I didn't want to spend $500 for a tablet computer. I didn't even want to spend $400.

So instead I went online and bought a brand-new tablet for a bit less.

The cost? Less than $200 ... and about 20 minutes of my time.

No kidding.

I don't think Apple itself will come to grief. Their business model has always centered around being the fashionable high end in hardware. But Motorola and Samsung (to name two) are probably going to take big hits to their bottom lines if they're betting big on selling tablets in the $500+ range.

A few weeks ago, I was at my local Micro Center. The managers there all recognize my family, because we're always in there buying something (not always something new or expensive, but something). One of the managers came over to chat me up, and we talked tablets. I told him that I was waiting to see an e-reader/low-end tablet in the $100 price range, and that I expected to see truckloads of them at Micro Center when the bottom fell out.

He got a little cagey with me, and told me (quote as best I can remember) "at this point, there's really no way of predicting Micro Center's future with tablets."

That statement was what motivated me, a few days later, to go ahead and jump on the Velocity Micro Cruz Reader for $120 elsewhere. And naturally, within two weeks, what do I see at Micro Center? One of my other top picks ... priced to sell at $109, with an "open box" return for less than $90 (when Micro Center sees me coming, they sigh and start clearing a path to the "open box" returns area).

I suspect some corporate policy prevented that manager from giving me a wink and a nudge and saying "wait a couple of weeks and we'll have a deal for you." His job was to interest me in what they had in stock, at the current pricing. He didn't push that too hard, because he's dealt with me enough times to know I don't work that way. Unfortunately, it probably cost him a sale.

Anyway, whether or not you heard it here first, you are hearing it here: Unless you're an Apple cultist (NTTAWWT), don't blow $800, or even $500, on a tablet. Chances are you can find one that does everything you really want to do for less than $200, maybe even less than $100.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Ee, Uh, Ooh Ah Ah ...

I grew up in rural southern Missouri, and contra Bill McClellan's take on the pronunciation controversy, the state has always been "Mizz Ur Ee," not "Mizz Ur Uh" to me.

Apropos of said controversy, I have a state-name-pronunciation-related story to tell. Nothing important, but I found it funny at the time, so why not? You don't have to read it if you don't want to.

Timeframe, late April or early May of 1991.

Location: The general area of Ammo Supply Point 3 in the desert outside Ras al M'Shab, Saudi Arabia.

General Circumstances: The First Gulf War was, in theory, over. My US Marine Corps Reserve Unit (Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines) had gone home in March, but I had volunteered to stay awhile longer and serve with Provisional Rifle Company, 24th Marines.

Our job was to provide exterior security for ASP 3. We quartered in a US Navy Seabee base a short distance away. I was third shift (11pm-7am) Sergeant of the Guard, which meant that I went around each night with the second shift SOG, posting my guards in towers and bunkers, relieving the previous shift's guards, running some security patrols in the desert around the ASP in a big, noisy stolen* German 7-ton truck, then going around at 7 with the day shift SOG to relieve my guys and post his.

The story: During a Sergeant of the Guard's off-time, he still needed to be available to help out the Officer of the Day, a job our platoon commander and platoon sergeant split between them in 12-hour shifts.

One morning or early afternoon, one of the posts reported that some Arabs were setting up a camp site within the ASP's external security perimeter (the internal perimeter was a berm; the external perimeter was a shoddy fence, full of holes, a quarter mile out from said berm). The platoon commander gave me a yell, we jumped in another stolen* truck (a little Nissan flatbed) and went out to chase them away.

The conversation:

Platoon Commander: A salaam aleikum!

Arab #1: Howdy!

Platoon Commander: Uh, hi.

Arab #1: I'm (name), this is (name, pointing to Arab #2).

Platoon Commander: I'm Lieutenant (name), this is Sergeant Knapp.

Arab #1: Lieutenant (name)? Where are you from?

Platoon Commander: Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Arab #1: Are you related to (first name, last name)?

Platoon Commander: Uh, yeah, he's my dad.

Arab #1: Far out! I studied engineering under him at (university). And where are you (points at me) from?

Me: Mizz Ur Ee.

Arab #2: Isn't that Mizz Ur Uh?

After which, as anyone who has encountered itinerant Arabs in the desert will know, we had to sit a spell with them and drink their incredibly strong coffee. It would have been unthinkably rude not to do so, and besides they had good coffee and we didn't (I didn't drink coffee until I went to Saudi Arabia, because American coffee just tasted like dirty hot water to me).

They claimed they were out camping from Dahran and hunting lizards. There's an iguana-like lizard native to the area that some of the desert tribes apparently beat to death with sticks and eat as a matter of custom, and their citified members come out to "keep in touch with their roots," or something like that. Unfortunately, the lizards weren't edible at the moment because the smoke from hundreds of burning oil wells (visible on the horizon) was in pretty much everything (air, flora, fauna ...) and had the meat all fouled up.

At no time was there much doubt in our minds that they were agents of the Maslahat Al-Istikhbarat Al-Aammah ("General Intelligence Presidency," the Kingdom's equivalent of the CIA), sent to keep an eye on what was up at the ASP. Lots of units were turning in lots of ordnance there on their way south from Kuwait. The monarchy was almost certainly concerned that that ordnance not fall into the hands of people who might not like the monarchy (those guys were bringing abandoned Iraqi arms right down the highway by the pickup-truck-load, though). Also, there had been some rumors that maybe some of the stuff at the ASP was ... special ... which might have had something to do with their curiosity.

Anyway, they moved their tent outside the fence upon our polite requirement that they do so, stayed a couple of days, and went on their merry way.

So anyway, apparently the Mizz Ur Ee versus Mizz Ur Uh controversy is a global thing.


* Every military unit has, as part of its Table of Organization & Equipment, a certain number of vehicles (HMMMVs, five-ton trucks, whatever). In theory, these are all the vehicles a unit needs to accomplish its mission.

The problem with that theory is that as soon as you get into an operational environment that's spread out over more than walking distance, every officer suddenly decides that his job is so important that he absolutely must have a vehicle assigned for his sole personal use. And every military unit has one or two enlisted personnel whose secondary Military Occupational Specialty, above and beyond their "real" jobs, is "rat-fucking" -- seizing anything useful that's been left sitting unattended by outsiders for more than a few seconds and contributing it to the unit's informal TO&E.

So, by the time a unit had been in Saudi Arabia for a week, most of its vehicles had been stolen, and if that unit's rat-fuckers were skilled, they had in turn stolen about half again as many vehicles as the formal TO&E called for. Some of these vehicles were official US military equipment, which meant that their previous owners' RUC (Reporting Unit Code) had to be sanded off the bumper and replaced by the RUC of the commandeering unit. Other vehicles had previously been the property of foreign military units or unfortunate civilians.

Anyway, the Provisional Rifle Company didn't, if I recall correctly, have any official TO&E vehicles. The units from which we had volunteered had taken their vehicles (or some semblance thereof) home, and we were left with three vehicles of unknown, but highly suspicious, provenance (I've already mentioned two; the third was a very nice Jeep Grand Cherokee that some colonel must have badly missed -- no keys, but our rat-fuckers knew how to get around that).

At Camp 15 (near the Al Jubail Naval Airport), an "amnesty lot" was established at the end of the war. Any vehicle could be left there, no questions asked. The place looked like it covered about 40 acres as of late May, 1991, and it was wall-to-wall vehicles, including our three.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The pilgrimage has gained momentum

R.E.M.'s new album, Collapse Into Now, drops on March 8th, and until then you can stream it via That Thar Evil State Media.

I've only given it one run-through so far, but guys, I think they're back, even still sans the much-missed Bill Berry.

In theory they never went away, but frankly I haven't really been excited about an R.E.M. album since Monster. That tour was the first and only time I've seen them live (although I discovered them around the time of The Reckoning and have been a fan since). A pair of "lawn seat" tickets and $100 got me and my date 13th-row seats from a scalper. Despite health issues with three of the four band members -- Berry had an aneurism prior to that show, Mike Mills an intestinal adhesion and Michael Stipe a hernia shortly after -- it was a helluva show, with Sonic Youth opening.

Based on these tracks, particularly "All the Best," "Ɯberlin" and "Oh My Heart," if there's a tour, I'm sooo there.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

TV Recommendation: Torchwood

While it's technically a spinoff of the Doctor Who reboot, I think of it more as Buffy the Vampire Slayer Meets the Better Parts of 24 in Wales.

Yeah, I know this is a bit late. I like to give shows a few seasons before I start watching them. That way I don't have to cliff-hang from week to week. At least not until I catch up, anyway. I'm about midway into Torchwood's second season at the moment. The third season is a five-part miniseries ("Children of Earth"); the fourth, another miniseries ("Miracle Day"), is set to run later this year.

Available on DVD, via Netflix streaming, etc.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

E-Book Pricing: This Will Not Stand

A book chosen at random from the coming week's New York Times mass market paperback fiction best-seller list: The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson. Haven't read it. Don't know if I ever will. That's not what this is about. Here's what this is about:

Mass market paperback cover price: $9.99
Amazon Kindle e-book price: $8.99
Borders e-book price: $8.99
Barnes and Noble e-book price: $8.99

Materials cost of an e-book: $0
Printing cost of an e-book: $0
Storage/warehousing cost of an e-book: $0
Shipping cost of an e-book: $0

Okay, not exactly $0. There's hard drive storage space, bandwidth, etc. But the efficient cost of storing/downloading a single copy of an e-book is damn close to $0.

Another difference between paperbacks and e-books is returns. Send 50 copies of Midnight House to Wal-Mart, and the publisher may get 25 ripped-off covers of copies that didn't sell sent back for a refund of the wholesale price. An e-book that's sold generally stays sold.

And yet e-book prices hover around (and sometimes exceed!) paperback prices.

Why? Because you're willing to pay those prices. If you weren't willing to pay those prices, those prices would come down.

How far down? Well, as far down as they can come and still bring in a profit for the seller. And the seller would continue to produce e-books as long as they continued to produce a better profit than he thinks producing something else would.

A little Googling says that the average author's royalty on book sales is somewhere in the range of $1 to $1.20 per copy. I don't know anyone who doesn't want authors to get paid for their work. I'd like to see them get paid more than $1-$1.20 a copy, actually.

And yes, even absent dead-tree considerations, a publisher still has costs. An editor has to evaluate the book, decide whether or not to publish it, and work with the author to make such changes as are required to get it "there" for publication. The author usually receives an advance on royalties, which means some of the publisher's money is put at risk. There are overhead and administrative costs (data entry/formatting/cataloging, etc.). And that storage and bandwidth and such. There are affiliate commissions. And so on, and so forth.

Still, it seems to me that as a stand-alone operation -- i.e. if the e-book sales are not expected to subsidize hardcover and paperback losses -- an e-book that sells at all well for $5 a pop should produce a fat profit.

The obvious exceptions are titles like textbooks: Books with a limited market but whose readers really, really have to have them and will pay whatever it costs to get them.

For "normal" e-books, the $8-$11 pricing scheme that seems to prevail at the moment looks like it was intentionally designed to encourage bootleg/pirate epubs.

Assuming that DMCA, DRM and all the other schemes to crush that phenomenon fail miserably -- and that's a very safe assumption -- I predict a $4.99-$5.99 price point (in March 1, 2011 dollars) for "current catalog" mass market e-books within two years.