Maybe Amazon needs the money

It took the Bits blog in the NY Times to point this out:

Amazon is willing to alienate those customers it usually lavishes so much attention on. And it is willing to be vilified on the Internet for undermining writers, further denting its reputation.
To make all that trouble worthwhile, the goal must be pretty tempting.
Amazon hasn’t really explained what it is after, but here’s one compelling theory: The company just doesn’t have enough money to finance everything it wants to do. Rather than trim its ambitions, it is putting one side of its business through the wringer to pay for another.

I'm sure there's more to it, of course, but that does seem obvious.
Iran continues to rot

Afghanistan hit the public radar this past week with the announcement that U.S troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2016.

What will conditions in the country be like? Worse than they are now.

Iran, meanwhile, continues to deteriorate, as Prime Minister Nouri Maliki consolidates power and continues to drive toward a Shiite-dominated monopoly on power. It's no surprise that there is serious Sunni opposition, nor is it shocking that al Qaeda related groups are on the upswing. Meanwhile, the level of corruption is stunning, and the country's economy - despite resurgent oil production - makes the Great Depression look like boom times.

Iran is the beneficiary and to some extent the instigator of all this. In many ways Maliki, who received training there during Saddam's days, is simply a vassal.

Dexter Filkins' report on Iraq in the New Yorker is a few months old now, but as relevant as ever. Here he is referring to the decision in 2011 by the Obama White House to bless Maliki's power grab. (The "meeting" in the sections is a reference to a deal involving corruption and the effective dismissal of U.S. forces from the country, which helped the Iranians extend their influence, and at least arguably assisted Maliki as well.)

The U.S. obtained a transcript of the meeting, and knew the exact terms of the agreement. Yet it decided not to contest Iran’s interference. At a meeting of the National Security Council a month later, the White House signed off on the new regime. Officials who had spent much of the previous decade trying to secure American interests in the country were outraged. “We lost four thousand five hundred Americans only to let the Iranians dictate the outcome of the war? To result in strategic defeat?” the former American diplomat told me. “Fuck that.” At least one U.S. diplomat in Baghdad resigned in protest. And Ayad Allawi, the secular Iraqi leader who captured the most votes, was deeply embittered. “I needed American support,” he told me last summer. “But they wanted to leave, and they handed the country to the Iranians. Iraq is a failed state now, an Iranian colony.”

It's no wonder that many Sunni Iraqis hate the present government. The next development will most likely be an active move against the Kurds in the north; that will provoke an even more bitter civil war than the one currently raging there.

Now on sale

If Iran actually agrees to end its nuclear weapons program, this is what will happen next . . .

On sale in your favorite bookstore, airport, newsstand, etc . . .
More on Amazon vs. Hatchette

The Atlantic has a decent summary of the situation and the implications, including this:

More liberal discounting practices will give Amazon the power to continue to gain market share and it's easy to imagine a scenario where it controls three-quarters of all book sales in the U.S. At the same time, higher co-op payments would make book publishers less profitable and less likely to invest in riskier book projects.

One point missing in the Atlantic piece is the fact that Amazon is also a publisher, and is therefore in the position of using its monopoly power to push its own books. And there has been more than a little speculation that the ultimate goal is to put the big five publishers out of business, which would make it easier to change the terms Amazon offers independent authors (which includes me under the KDP program).

"Veterans sign a blank check to their country . . ."
   - Chris Kyle
Amazon's war on authors . . .

. . . escalates. Item:

Amazon, under fire in much of the literary community for energetically discouraging customers from buying books from the publisher Hachette, has abruptly escalated the battle.
The retailer began refusing orders late Thursday for coming Hachette books, including J.K. Rowling’s new novel. The paperback edition of Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” — a book Amazon disliked so much it denounced it — is suddenly listed as “unavailable.”  In some cases, even the pages promoting the books have disappeared. Anne Rivers Siddons’s new novel, “The Girls of August,” coming in July, no longer has a page for the physical book or even the Kindle edition. Only the audio edition is still being sold (for more than $60). Otherwise it is as if it did not exist.The confrontation with Hachette has turned into the biggest display of Amazon’s dominance since it briefly stripped another publisher, Macmillan, of its “buy” buttons in 2010. It seems likely to encourage debate about the enormous power the company wields. No company in American history has exerted the control over the American book market — physical, digital and secondhand — that Amazon does.

Link to Barnes and Noble on-line.
Dem bums . . .

Came across this while researching something I'm working on. I love Durocher's patter: it's a reminder that, while he's often considered "crusty," the ataboys greatly outnumbered the criticism.

China & the e-wars

The decision to charge Chinese army hackers with U.S. crimes has finally brought some media attention to a war that has been raging for years. While it's well-known that Chinese companies have been stealing American (and other) IP in various ways, e-hacking goes well beyond that. For example:

The United Steelworkers union lost computer records containing trade policy strategies and discussions about rare earth metals and auto parts.
All four had something in common besides the data thefts: Each was publicly pushing back against China’s trade policies by seeking help from the World Trade Organization or the Commerce Department.
A Justice Department indictment released on Monday — which accuses five Chinese military personnel of the attacks — reads like a chronology of most of the major trade disputes between the United States and China in the last five years.
In most instances, the American company or union that defied Beijing ended up facing extensive break-ins by Chinese military hackers, according to the documents. It is a pattern that could discourage further trade policy challenges.

That's from a NYT story, which brings me back to the original FBI charges and the media coverage thereof. The Times has done a series of stories that has essentially equated the industrial spying that China does with the NSA's spying. That's a line that China has used, and it's patently absurd. The NSA doesn't own American companies, and isn't renting its work out to them. Nor is it engaged in the sort of intellectual property theft or the harassment of civilian firms that China is. While other media organizations have also failed to draw the distinctions, the ironic thing is that the Times has been a victim of Chinese attacks, and so the expertise on the situation is readily available.

I guess that they're trying to come off as objective by reporting the analogies, but at best the tone of their coverage so far muddies the issue. Unfortunately, no other mainstream media source is doing a better job; most aren't even reporting on the issue in depth at all.

The indictment by the FBI seems to me an attempt to start drawing a line on what is acceptable and what isn't when it comes to cyber spying and, ultimately, cyber warfare. The elephant in the room, though, is cyber-theft, which threatens people and commerce in all countries and eventually will have to be dealt with in a comprehensive manner at the international level. Invading private company databases - whether to steal credit card information or IP - will ultimately carry with it draconian if not medieval penalties, but that's not going to happen if nation-sponsored hackers can do it without consequence.

Iran's leader - we're building nukes . . .

. . . like it or not.


(Reuters) - Iran's Supreme Leader described as "stupid and idiotic" Western expectations for his country to curb its missile development, striking a defiant tone ahead of a fresh round of nuclear talks. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Iran's Revolutionary Guards to mass produce missiles and said the nuclear negotiations were not the place to discuss Tehran's defense program or to solve the problem of sanctions damaging the Iranian economy.
"They expect us to limit our missile program while they constantly threaten with military action," Khamenei was quoted as telling the IRNA news agency while on a visit to an aeronautics fair held by the Revolutionary Guards.
Reuters story.

The only reason to have missiles that are capable of delivering nukes is . . . to deliver nukes.

How much more explicit can you get?

This isn't posturing for negotiations. This is a country that is hostile to the U.S., bent on destroying Israel, and will produce nuclear weapons. Sooner, rather than later.

And, they're on a mission from god. The math ought to be pretty obvious.

More on Amazon & Hatchette . . .

From Publisher's Weekly:

Publishers, for the most part, believe it is necessary to hold the line with Amazon--and refuse being too generous on discount terms and co-op--in order to ensure that various retailers can remain viable. In other words, publishers see caving into Amazon's demands on terms as a direct blow to smaller retailer players, and independent bookstores.
While Amazon helped to expand the market for books when it grew its online bookstore and jump-started the e-book market with its introduction of the Kindle, many feel Amazon is now focused on driving its competitors out of business. As the head of a major house put it: “Every nickel more we give Amazon will help them accelerate their efforts to put another independent out of business.”


Like a lot of authors, has done a lot for me. It's made it easier for readers to get my backlist, and it's allowed me to publish books that have gone out of print. As a reader, it's been even better - I can now get practically any book I'm interested in whenever I want. There have been several times - working on American Gun, for example - when that was critically important.

But at the same time, Amazon has hurt authors as well. The target in the dispute with Hatchette may be the publishing house, but the people who will really suffer are the writers who will lose royalties because they lose sales. That diminishes all writers, lowering their pay - which for most of us isn't all that much to begin with. It also makes it difficult if not impossible for other stores, on-line and off, to compete fairly. If you can only get a book from one place in the world . . . well, the implications are scary.

Dale Brown's latest

Long-time Dale Brown fans are going to enjoy his latest effort. among Dale's many accomplishments over the years has been his ability to stay on the cutting edge of technology. He's at the top of the game here - though I suspect some people might be surprised to find that the future he's talking isn't as far away as they might think.

Speaking as a writer, one of the hardest things to do when you have a continuing series is keep it new and exciting. Dale accomplishes that in the new book, following up on a twist from his last book, Tiger's Claw. I won't spoil it, but it was a daring development, one I'm sure that could have subjected him to a lot of criticism, but it really pays off with the new work. There's some great character work at the heart of that - another Dale Brown hallmark.

You can preview the novel - and find links to buy - here. screws writers . . .

 . . . specifically, those who publish with Hatchette.


Among Amazon’s tactics against Hachette, some of which it has been employing for months, are charging more for its books and suggesting that readers might enjoy instead a book from another author. If customers for some reason persist and buy a Hachette book anyway, Amazon is saying it will take weeks to deliver it.
The scorched-earth tactics arose out of failed contract negotiations. Amazon was seeking better terms, Hachette was balking, so Amazon began cutting it off. Writers from Malcolm Gladwell to J. D. Salinger are affected, although some Hachette authors were unscathed.

NY Times story.
Meanwhile, in Syria . . .

Assad has all but won. From the Telegraph:

The last remaining rebel fighters in Homs have been evacuated by the busload, under an unprecedented ceasefire agreement that dealt the final blow to the opposition in the Syrian city once described as the “capital of the revolution”.
After nearly two years of government siege, hundreds of weary rebels abandoned their last stronghold, the heart of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, handing him a symbolic victory weeks before his likely re-election.

The cost has been tremendous, in lives, in money, and in geopoliticcs. But he's still standing. Iran has gained - but so has Israel, at least to some degree. Of course, given that we're talking about the Middle East, things can always change - and certainly will.
Is it wrong . . .

 . . . to find this story funny? Though undoubtedly I'd have a different opinion if I'd been affected by the delays.

The primary air traffic control system around Los Angeles shut down last week because data from the a U-2 spy plane's flight plan confused software that helps track and route aircraft around the region, the Federal Aviation Administration said Monday.

Story and explanation. 

Here's more on the U2 to make up for inappropriate humor. (Yes, the Blackbird flies higher. Never mind.)

Well, duh . . .

Dumbest mainstream media headline of the day, Ukraine division:

So Far, U.S. Sanctions Over Ukraine May Be Inflicting Only Limited Pain on Russia

It's in the NYT, of course; don't waste your time reading the story. On the other hand, Anne Applebaum published this in Slate:

 . . .the West needs to rethink its military strategies in order to counter new tactics—paramilitary and psychological—that Russia has begun to deploy. But we could also begin to think even more strategically about the threat to both the eastern and the western halves of Europe that is posed by Russian influence on international energy markets in general, and on European natural gas pipelines in particular. I don’t mean the immediate threat to turn off the gas, but the long-term threat posed by companies such as Gazprom, state entities in everything but name, and their monopolistic practices. The danger they pose is both political and economic. Gazprom goes out of its way to hire senior European politicians, including former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, and spends millions trying to influence political decisions across the continent. Meanwhile, Europeans pay more than double what Americans pay for natural gas, not least because so many of them are buying from a supplier that is deliberately pushing prices upward. 


The Eleventh Gun . . .

We have a trade edition of American Gun publishing soon, and it includes an essay on Chris and some thoughts about what the "eleventh gun" would be. Here's the start:

With the publication of American Sniper in January 2012, Chris Kyle rocketed to worldwide fame. Suddenly, the easy-going Texas cowboy, ranch hand, bronco buster, Navy SEAL, weapons instructor, father, husband, son, brother became known to the world as THE AMERICAN SNIPER, all capital letters, all bold print.

It was a distinction he’d never sought. Urged and prodded to tell his story, he finally decided to go ahead not because he felt his experiences were unique, but because they reflected things all servicemen and women had been through during the war in Iraq. He specifically wanted to honor two men who’d died with him during the conflict, and in fact decided that the lion’s share of the money for the book would go to them; he never took a cent from the book that made him famous.

The success of the story did more than honor the fallen. It gave people a way to thank brothers, sons, neighbors who’d gone off to war. It gave them a person who could stand in not just for lost soldiers but for others who’d served without fanfare or acclaim. From the moment the book came out, Chris became the neighbor who’d gone off to war but had never been thanked. He became the spouse they hadn’t entirely understood, the son-in-law or uncle who’d struggled to adjust without complaining. People came to see him by the hundreds not so much to buy the book, not even to shake his hand, but simply to thank him – and through him every man and woman in uniform who’d sacrificed time, money, and happiness for our country. With the publication of the book, Chris’s name became synonymous with service to the country. There were few places he could go without be recognized and fussed over. In return, he’d usually respond with an aw-shucks grin and a bit of shrug, as if to say I don’t really deserve this, but thanks for thinking about our country and our service people in general. I’m not really supposed to be famous, but if it helps others, so be it.

But Chris was famous before the book came out. Granted, it was on a much smaller and different scale. He was already a legend in the SEAL community, known as the guy who had killed well over 150 enemy combatants with precision marksmanship. Soldiers and Marines who’d been in Ramadi and some of the other hell holes where he’d done his job knew Chris as the “man on the rooftop” who saved their lives, or made their job safer. He was the guy who’d run up the street under fire to drag a wounded Marine back to safety, and to rescue stranded journalists. Most didn’t know his name, but they certainly knew that he had been there.

And then there was his fame within a small circle of family and friends, where Chris was well-known as the guy you could call on for backup or a helping hand. He’d put up relatives who needed a place to stay; he’d cleared trees from random roads and driveways after hurricanes. He’d proven that you could make a small but significant difference in lives with a smile and a pickup truck. And after the Navy he’d volunteered to help severely wounded veterans rehab and readjust to civilian life on retreats and campouts.
The fame that came from American Sniper widened the circle of people he helped considerably. When the book came out, he was suddenly in great demand to do benefits and offer a few words of encouragement, which he did to the point of exhaustion, generally for free and covering his own expenses. The way he helped really didn’t change; there was just more of it. He still devoted himself to small but significant gestures, whether it was taking an amputee hunting or talking to a kid just back from the war. Fame brought a tsunami of opportunities, but the man at the center of the wave hadn’t changed. Fame had been accidental byproduct of something he had to do, and there was no better proof than the fact that it only helped him do more of what he had done before the world knew who he was.

If American Sniper was a story that had to be told, American Gun was a story Chris wanted to tell. It was a tale, or rather a collection of interwoven tales, that summed up American history and some of the themes critical to the country’s character. It was a story of America told through the prism of tools he knew very well. Most people don’t think of snipers, let alone SEALs, as historians, but to his family and close friends the idea for the book was absolutely Chris. . . .

The book publishes around Memorial Day; you can order it at all the usual outlets.
Spy vs. spy in Ukraine

The "apartheid" comment got all the attention when a Daily Beast reporter snuck into a supposedly off-limits meeting to record Kerry's unguarded comments, but this is far more relevant:

“Intel is producing taped conversations of intelligence operatives taking their orders from Moscow and everybody can tell the difference in the accents, in the idioms, in the language. We know exactly who’s giving those orders, we know where they are coming from,” Kerry said at a private meeting of the Trilateral Commission in Washington. A recording of Kerry’s remarks was obtained by The Daily Beast.
Kerry didn’t name specific Russian officials implicated in the recordings. But he claimed that the intercepts provided proof of the Russians deliberately fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine—and lying about it to U.S. officials and the public.
“It’s not an accident that you have some of the same people identified who were in Crimea and in Georgia and who are now in east Ukraine,” said Kerry. “This is insulting to everybody’s intelligence, let alone to our notions about how we ought to be behaving in the 21st century. It’s thuggism, it’s rogue state-ism. It’s the worst order of behavior.”


Of course, the Russians already proved they were taping American diplomats, publicizing a conversation in February to make it look like the Americans were running things behind the scenes. (Actually, the best part of that conversation was the diss of the Europeans, which at least showed the State Department is smarter than most people give it credit for. Reuters story here, in case you've forgotten.)

Putin's immediate goal in Ukraine is fairly obvious - create a (real or de facto) breakaway state in the east and chaos in the rest. It's also obvious that this will be accomplished soon, and without the sort of bloodshed or blow-back a full invasion might cause.

But you have to wonder how this benefits Russia in the long run. Having poor, weak states on your borders means having a variety of problems, especially if you've gone out of your way to alienate a good portion of their citizens. And in the meantime, aggression in Ukraine has harmed relations with Europe and the U.S. It may be that Europe remains toothless, credulous and somewhat senile in dealing with Russia and the entire eastern end of the continent; certainly the way many corporate heads have rushed to suck up to Putin make one believe that will be the case. But it's not necessarily a given. A doubling or even tripling of Europe's collective defense budget would have a negligible effect on government balance sheets (they spend a pittance now), but present Russia with serious problems. And if economics is the real measure of power in the 21st century, antagonizing your customers is never a good long-term business strategy.

As far as the U.S. goes, no matter what anyone says, Ukraine will always be way down on the priority list of any administration. You will never see U.S. troops there, absent a much larger conflict. But Russia's actions are Exhibit One for anyone who thinks - correctly - that the defense budget has been cut too far to the bone. And they are argument 4,568,982 for a more realistic foreign policy, and not just in eastern Europe.

The outright and obvious lies Putin's administration has made concerning Ukraine are part of a much broader pattern. Putin's real politik is not doing much good in the rest of the world, but it's hurting Russians the most. You'd think more people would have recognized that by now.