What Are Gemstar’s Plans for E-books?

Jeff Kirvin has a longish piece about Gemstar’s plans for e-books. Gemstar acquired two other e-book device manufacturers, Nuvomedia and Softbook.

Gemstar recently announced the release of two new models, but Kirvin is less than thrilled at Gemstar’s plans noting,

Gemstar will be releasing two new devices, the REB 1100 (replacing the Rocket eBook at $300) and the REB 1200 (replacing the Softbook at $700). Content for these devices will be exclusively through Gemstar’s own proprietary ebookstore, via the built-in 56k modem in both devices. Gemstar seems intent on cutting the web out of the ebook buying process altogether. Gemstar spokesman Tom Morrow said, “The important thing is that we are tethered to everyone who has a device.”

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be “tethered” to anything. To my way of thinking, the freedom of buying books on the web and reading them on my PocketPC is one of the great things about ebooks. Gemstar wants to lock me down to a just their bookstore, and if they don’t have the ebook I want, I’m just out of luck? No thanks. Gemstar has also decided to end the support of the RocketLibrarian program and the practice of allowing users to create their own content from HTML or text. The only content of any kind for the REB devices will come from Gemstar’s library. Rupert Murdoch recently doubled his investment in Gemstar, bringing him up to 43 percent ownership. Murdoch talked about publishers being able to “completely bypass the printer, the paper manufacturer and the post office in the delivery of regular magazines and even of newspapers. That’s looking many years out, but it’s not looking too many years down the line for magazines.”

Certainly a stupid direction to take the company in if this is accurate, but is it indeed true? According to a FAQ while Kirvin is right about Gemstar ditching the ability to easily transfer text and HTML to the e-book readers, they will support the open eBook format and allow anyone to offer books in that formatt for the devices:

Will the Gemstar eBook support the open eBook format?

Yes. The current OeB specification is based on our technical implementation. We are also working closely with Microsoft in establishing the Open eBook standards and the OeB process.

It would be better if they also supported plain old text or HTML, but if the information at the Gemstar site is correct, you’re really not tied to a single vendor or source for e-books with these devices.

Update: I e-mailed Kirvin about the discrepancy and he said that he received an e-mail from Gemstar to the effect that they would be honoring pre-existing agreements with Barnes and Noble and Powells, but that all new content would come solely from Gemstar. If this is in fact true, it would be pretty much suicide for the devices in my opinion.

Leave to Work Out, and Everything Changes

All I did was spend a hour in the gym and when I come back I learn the Israelis decided to escalate the Middle Eastern conflict into full-scale war, and then Greg Pierce, inspired by Mark Morgan’s flat discussion hack, went ahead and demoed a version that he’s working on that uses some new Conversant code — and it looks great.

Are Vouchers Racist?

USA Today had a story the other day about an Applied Research Center study of school vouchers. The Applied Research Center is a liberal think tank that claims California’s voucher proposal would essentially benefit affluent white kids while harming poor black kids. The claim is that since the vouchers are only worth $4,000 and some private school tuition is more than $4,000, the only people who will take advantage of the vouchers are affluent whites who probably send their kids to private schools anyway.

Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice did an excellent job refuting this claim telling USA Today that,

Public schools are the greatest engine of racial inequality in our society today. They are segregated both by race and economic status. School choice, by contrast, gives low-income and minority kids a real opportunity to access high-quality educational opportunities. This study substitutes ideology for scholarship.

As Bolick pointed out, the $4,000 voucher actually represents a larger opportunity to poorer families than to wealthier ones. That $4,000 would help send a lot of kids whose families otherwise would have a very difficult time affording a private education to a better school (I know we’ve got families in my neighborhood who would be able to send their kids to much better alternatives if they had this sort of program available).

Regardless, though, Bolick is right that there is nothing more racist than public schools which repeatedly fail minority students and leave many black Americans unprepared to excel in college and professionally.


Vouchers’ ‘racist impact’ predicted. USA Today, October 11, 2000.

Woman Suing Duke After Getting Cut by the Football Team

The Associated Press has a story about testimony in a lawsuit brought by Heather Sue Mercer against Duke University. It seems Ms. Mercer tried out for the football team as a walk-on kicker. She was given a 20-minute tryout by coach Fred Goldsmith who testified he cut her because she wasn’t good enough.

One of the kickers who made that team testified that in her tryout, Mercer’s field goal range was limited to about 35 yards. Such a limited range would prevent any kicker, male or female, from making a college football team at a decent university (Duke’s then-starting kicker hit several from 45+ yards, including one from 50 yards).

Goldsmith testified,

She was evaluated like a man would have been. I decided to judge her like a man who was not making a contribution to the team.

He also added that he admired her for trying out and offered her a manager position which she turned down.

Pro-Hunting Amendments Up for Vote in Arizona, Virginia

When people go to the polls in Arizona in a few weeks, along with deciding on a presidential candidate and other elected offices, voters will decide the fate of Proposition 102 which amends the state constitution there to read,

The state shall manage wildlife in public trust for the people, as provided by law, to assure continued existence of wildlife populations in the state. An initiative that permits, limits or prohibits the taking of wildlife, or the methods or seasons thereof, shall not become law unless approved by at least two-thirds of the votes cast on the proposition.

Meanwhile, Virginia voters will decide whether or not to add a new section to their state’s constitution that would read, “The people have a right to hunt, fish and harvest game, subject to such regulations and restrictions as the General Assembly may prescribe by general law,” although there is currently a lawsuit brought by The Fund for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States attempting to have that measure removed.

In 1998, Utah became the first state to enact such a change to its constitution. Is this a good way to go about protecting the rights of hunters and fisherman from animal rights activists and the more extreme parts of the environmental movement?

The thing that pops out about these ballot measures is how bizarre they might seem to the people who founded the United States and these individual states. The idea that there might come a time when people might try to outlaw hunting and fishing — activities, after all, which were occurring in North America long before the ancestors of most voters even realized there was a North American continent — would have sounded absurd. That some hunting and fishing groups sponsor such measures is testimony to how different attitudes about animals in contemporary America.

The Arizona Daily Star, for example, interviewed M. Dane Waters of the Initiative & Referendum Institute who said that Proposition 102 is a “blatant attempt to take away the fundamental rights of everyday Arizona citizens” by making a special exemption for certain referendums. Yet is it any more blatant an attack on rights than that carried forth by those who would outlaw or severely restrict fishing and hunting?

One of the interesting features of initiatives designed to limit fishing and hunting is their unintended consequences. Animal rights activists, for example, successfully pushed for a 1994 initiative in Arizona that banned leg-hold traps, which the activists claim are cruel. As biologist John Phelps of the Arizona Game and Fish Department told the Arizona Daily Star, however, the result is that an important tool was taken away with sometimes counterproductive results,

From our point of view we’ve been deprived of one response to damage and nuisance problems [from coyotes and other predators]… Now the response is more likely to be a lethal one.

Personally, though, I think the Virginia approach of putting the right to fish and hunt, with reasonable regulations, directly in the state constitution is a much better approach than trying to up the ante on initiatives which probably comes across as anti-democratic to many people.


Vote rights a side issue of wildlife measure. Maureen O’Connell, Arizona Daily Star, October 5, 2000.

Lawsuit filed over Virginia’s deceptive “right-to-hunt” amendment. Press release, The Fund for Animals, October 2, 2000.

Give Me More Options

Okay, an email arrives in my mailbox a few minutes ago from Mark Morgan (one of the excellent things about Conversant is you can subscribe to these sites via e-mail) pointing out that Dave Winer’s Manila CMS has added a flat discussion view to its toolset.

This is one of the few things on the short list of things that I’d like to do on my sites but that Conversant can’t do yet … sort of. Morgan himself hacked a pretty good implementation of a flat view within Conversant that I plan on implementing soon, and Seth Dillingham did say that a flat discussion view is on the list of things to add to Conversant, though it was on schedule for a Q1 2001 date since there are other features that are being worked on.

One of the things I keep congratulating Seth on is the fact that when Conversant implements a feature, generally it has a pretty open structure so I can implement a feature the way I want. Personally I’m amazed that this isn’t the default attitude of software developers, but in discussing Manila’s implementation of the flat discussion group view, Winer illustrates the typical attitude of developers toward users.

Somebody asked Winer how he would handle letting people break long threads into multiple pages, which is a pretty standard feature in flat threaded discussion group software. Winer’s response,

First, there’s no limit to the size of a browser page.

Second, when the page gets “full”, start a new topic.

Yuck. First, although there is no limit to the size of the browser page, some of us have difficulty keeping thing straight when the page gets huge. Also, I don’t know about Winer but I have had people write me from remote locations — one person was accessing my site from a remote part of Alaska — where getting reliable 28.8k connections is iffy and huge pages would pretty much destroy the ability for them to participate in a meaningful way.

As for starting new topics when a page gets “full”, personally I’ve visited sites that did this, and I really hate that approach. Lots of people swear by it, but I think it’s self-defeating to have say 12 different thread pages going on about the same topic.

But beyond whether Winer or I are right about the “best” way to format a flat discussion group thread (and this is all a matter of personal preference), why not just write your software so that you support whatever option the administrator and/or user is most comfortable with? Since the page being served in this case is dynamic anyway, why not give administrators, and preferably users, control over how many messages they are served? It seems like such a small thing, why impose the “one true interface” on users?

The other thing I dislike about traditional flat discussion groups, which Winer’s uses, is they tend to order the messages in strict chronological order. This is helpful the first time you read the thread, but is a real pain in the butt, in my opinion, when you’re revisiting a thread. I much prefer ordering the messages in reverse chronological order so I always see the newest messages first. Others vehemently argue for the opposite. Again, let administrators, and preferably users, make that choice.

Mark refers to leaving out these sort of options as “only partway doing things.” Sometimes developers initially only partially implement a feature with the intent of adding on and fully implementing other features later, which is fine, but the goal to my mind should always be to make features as flexible as possible, especially in something like a CMS system.