DRM, the Designated Regret Model for ebook readers

Some people prefer to read on vacation, some prefer to do it while listening to music, some prefer silence, some prefer to do it upside down or in the bath or only between the hours of 4 and 6 in the afternoon. With physical books, we are at the mercy of the publishers and designers for the format of the book, but it is only with ebooks that we are at the mercy of international digital conglomerates about the exact manner in which we can access an object for which we have paid.

The need to ensure the profitability of people’s work, especially for small and/or independent publishers and authors is obvious. Digital media formats have absolutely changed the game in terms of ease of “unauthorized” redistribution of materials. (The very concept of redistribution of intellectual property being “un/authorized” poses a number of significant philosophical questions.) At the same time, there is something very wrong with the way in which DRM software has been implemented.

The metaphysics of intellectual “property” – do you really own the ideas? can anyone be said to own an idea once it has been put out into the world? where do we draw the line between influence, extrapolation, and plagiarism? can two people spontaneously produce the same ideas? how do you litigate such a case? – are impossible to cover here, if onlyb because there are so few good answers. (And even fewer which are acceptable to the Disney corporation, Bono, and, presumably, the entity or entities which make up the romance novelist “Nora Roberts”.)

One of my issues with ebooks, like many others, is the way in which they destroy the materiality of books. In this case, I don’t mean the way they feel, or smell, or sound, or taste, or whatever sensory aspect people usually invoke. I mean that almost every book I own, and certainly the ones I love, are the means with which I discourse with the author.

Unlike the sterile overprotectiveness which causes such divisions amongst “Booktubers” – the collective reader/writer community of YouTube – my books are heavily marked up. I have usually extensively highlighted, annotated, dog-eared, and sticky-noted any book I found worth my while, in addition to having dropped, sat and spilled and slept on it. I like to lend my books out, and get them back with a little additional wear showing that the other person enjoyed it enough to carry it around with them. (Obviously, I’d prefer that my books come back in a form where they are still legible and mostly intact, but I’m never particularly concerned about their physical status beyond those basics.)

In other words, I’m exceedingly particular about the ways in which I’m allowed to interact with my books. Ereaders, such as the Kindle Paperwhite (and certainly its predecessors), were never going to work for me, because highlighting and annotating are low-priority functions. For now, the ebook app which works best for me is Google Play Books. This is largely thanks to the automatic syncing of highlights/notes to a Google Doc.

Other apps have attempted similar features, but Google has done a remarkable job of making it easy to annotate your reading and make those annotations accessible and usable. Four highlight colors, which are all imported along with their content to the annotations document (It shouldn’t be necessary to remind developers that exporting the color of the highlight is as important as exporting its content but here we are. I’m looking at you, Xodo), allow a range of different active reading methods, and any notes added to a given highlight are exported as a related annotation along with the highlighted text (Again, I didn’t think we needed to remind people of this, but…). It isn’t fully customizable, but it is remarkably flexible.

This isn’t to say that Amazon’s Kindle app can’t or doesn’t do some or all of these things. I merely happen to like Google’s material design. But I’m not actually here to extoll the virtues of one ereader or ebook app over another.

I’m here to talk about personal preference. Almost everyone has had an experience where the format, layout, or design of a book has negatively impacted their experience of it. Some people have almost certainly found themselves unwilling, unable, or at great pains to continue reading a book based on one of those factors, be it font choice, page gutter, or book size. Ebooks are intended to be less susceptible to those types of user experience failures thanks to flowing text, which allows the reader to resize and reformat the text to their liking, making it easier to read purely in terms of eyeball mechanics. (Obviously, format contingent works, such as House of Leaves, are unable to benefit from this kind of malleability.)

When the use multiple and/or variable devices – in a range of sizes and weights – is factored in, the portability and maneuverability made available to readers is unparalleled. (Consider the difference between reading something like David Graeber’s Debt, the first 5,000 years (534 pages), Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (641 pages) or K-punk: the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (891 pages) in a physical format versus a digital one. It’s the difference between being able to read them in bed and needing a table.) Additionally, for people who like to annotate as they read, the digital space is without limitation, because comments and ideas are liberated from the confines of the margin.

This kind of flexibility should make ebooks vastly appealing to people. In so many other parts of our lives, we have been converted by the adaptability, convenience, immediacy, and shareability of the digital world. Newspapers, magazines, videos, television, etc…. And yet, not so with ebooks. This is not down merely to the fact that “book people” are all luddites who prefer the “physicality” of the book.

It’s because publishers have done next to nothing to make the ebook an appealing alternative to its physical counterpart.

The real advantages of the physical book over the ebook are as follows: anything with the prefix “re-”. Re-selling. Re-gifting. Re-mixing. Re-using. Re-reading. Books, unlike most other commodities, are rarely entirely personal. Cars, underwear, and plates of nachos are all things we acquire with the understanding that they are not intended to be shared. I don’t offer to give you my car or a perfect nacho just because I enjoyed it. Books, on the other hand, are regularly swapped, lent, borrowed, entrusted, assigned, given, and gifted.

Adam Driver and the perfect nachos in What If? (2013)

The treatment of a book like a single-use, limited-use, or personal commodity is to fundamentally misconstrue the social use and function of “the book” as a cultural object. Intellectual property may cover the ideas embedded within a book’s pages and may need protecting. But books, in general, exist and proliferate explicitly because those ideas are intended to be distributed.

Why, specifically, am I so mad about this? How does DRM software specifically tie into this screed about the nature of books and ebooks?

The issue moved from the theoretical (intellectual property management in the digital age) to the personal. In the capitalist fashion, this was through financial investment and subsequent “buyer’s remorse”.

It is now abundantly clear to me that the primary way of ensuring that an ebook is not wildly proliferated across the web is to tie the file (in my case, an epub) to a specific reader application (in my case, Adobe Digital Editions). If you do or cannot buy your ebook through one of the combo purchasing/reading ebook ecosystems in accordance with your personal preference (Amazon → Kindle, Google Play Store → Google Books, Barnes & Noble → Nook, Kobo → Kobo, etc.), you may make the mistake of attempting to purchase a DRM protected ebook from somewhere else.

I made the mistake of not reading the fine print.

Always read the fine print. Even if you have to search for it, always, always read it.

Ebooks.com was, I thought, an oasis in the desert. It seemed I would be able to purchase an epub of K-punk: the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (which is not available through Google Play Books) from them. In my unbridled enthusiasm to dig into the writing of Mark Fisher, I did so.

Don’t want to download the ebooks.com app? Click this link and download an epub, instead. (This was were reading the fine print comes in.) But I didn’t get to download an epub, actually.

What I could download is an acsm file. ACSM stands for “Adobe Content Server Message” and it is a file format which Adobe uses to pull content protected by Adobe’s DRM software to your computer. My unmitigated irritation does not permit me the patience to dig into the technical details of how Adobe uses this method to enable permissions across devices through Adobe Digital Editions to access the ebook. Suffice to say, you create or use an account associated with Adobe products and are able to sync that account’s library.

Just to add insult to injury, once you have opened the ACSM file with Adobe Digital Editions, a copy of the epub (as in, an actual booktitle.epub file) does come to live on your device. Forget opening it, though. It is impossible to open with any software other than an Adobe product. (While someone has undoubtedly designed software specifically designed to crack the DRM code embedded in the file, but I’m not actually interested in stealing anything today.)

The end result of all this is that I cannot read a book I paid $13 to access using the ebook reader of my choice.

Reading is an incredibly personal, intimate experience. Some people prefer to read on vacation, some prefer to do it while listening to music, some prefer silence, some prefer to do it upside down or in the bath or only between the hours of 4 and 6 in the afternoon. With physical books, we are at the mercy of the publishers and designers for the format of the book, but it is only with ebooks that we are at the mercy of international digital conglomerates about the exact manner in which we can access an object for which we have paid.

You know what I found really galling, though? The thing that finally pushed me over the edge, after paying to be digitally inconvenienced?

Ebooks.com says they cannot accept returns, because they have not handed over a physical object. Therefore, there is nothing to return, according to them. Given how many times I had to feed my email address into Adobe Digital Editions and ebooks.com, I find it exceedingly improbable that they would not be able to revoke my access to any DRM encoded file which requires the usage of their proprietary software to be read.

This isn’t Schrödinger’s epub. The file can’t both exist enough to be monitored and secured with proprietary software and simultaneously be so immaterial that I can’t have my access to it revoked in return for my $13.

It is probable that neither publishers nor the wider “book people” community care very much about how ebooks are managed. The publishers are probably happy to conform to the digital mediocrity produced by proprietary DRM software, as it does the work of securing their IP and therefore their profits, while “book people” are happy to take it as proof that the physical book is still preferable to the digital one, and everyone else is more interested in audiobook integration than anything else.

So this is my rallying cry into the void:

We all deserve better ebooks. Authors and publishers deserve DRM software that limit the amount of mass, “unauthorized” distribution of the material that produces their livelihood, and readers deserve DRM software that doesn’t completely incapacitate their engagement and enjoyment of that same material.

Whether this means cutting out the middle man, so I can buy my ebooks directly from the publisher, or if it means an aggressive diversification of the distribution channels so that more books are available across more services, I neither know nor care. Ideally, it would involve a practice of building new DRM code which enables transfer of the files without copying them, in addition to non-proprietary or locked formats.

Whatever publishers and authors decide, at the moment, the only ones with any respect for their audience are the ones brave enough to distribute their ebooks DRM free.

Week in Review 008

A busy week, from meeting Patton Oswalt and swapping reading recommendations to visiting the Bauhaus centennial exhibit at the Boston MFA.

Reading:

  • Broken Stars by Ken Liu, ed.
  • Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You by Scotto Moore.
  • European Identity and Citizenship: between Modernity and postmodernity by Sanja Ivic

Listening…

  • The Magnus Archives

Watching:

Movies:

  • Plaire, Aimer, et Courir Vite (2018)
  • Le Livre D’Image (2018)

TV Shows:

  • AP Bio
  • Russian Doll
  • The Marvelous Ms Maisel
  • Deadly Class

I’m exhausted. I can’t believe it’s been only a week, possibly because the last few days have felt like an entire week just by themselves.


On Saturday, I had the absolutely unparalleled good fortune to meet Patton Oswalt. He was in Providence to perform a comedy show at the Veterans Memorial Theater, and he graciously accepted our invitation to visit the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council. I cannot thank him enough for taking the time to visit us, and it was such an absolute privilege to make his acquaintance in person.

We swapped reading recommendations. Mr. Oswalt suggested “WET PAIN” by Terence Taylor which can be found Whispers in the Night: Dark Dreams III co-edited by Tananarive Due and Brandon Massey. He said he learned of it from Ms. Due who, in addition to her work as an author and editor, executive produced Horror Noire: a history of Black horror (2019) which can be streamed online through Shudder. We discussed Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” briefly and so I recommended (as ever) Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom.


The latter half of my Friday was spent pleasantly with a friend in Boston. We visited the MFA to see the Bauhaus exhibit. There is also an exhibit of Bauhaus works up at the Harvard museum, which we will hopefully have the opportunity visit.

This year is the centennial of the founding of the Bauhaus School (1919). There are times I lament my passion for their particular modernist style, if only because it can seem conventional, bordering on the cliché. Nevertheless, the way Moholy-Nagy creates a sense of a three dimensional interaction and interrelation of objects in his abstract paintings will never cease to delight me. In one of the paintings of his they have on display, the transparency of the paint where two of his shapes overlap makes it seem—as my friend so eloquently phrased it—as if one were a fabric appliqué.

I was also quite taken with the Kandinsky pieces they had on display. It feels as though I shouldn’t have been surprised at how much white space his drawings contained, but I was. I could happily have spent all evening in front of his “Little World” pictures trying to figure out how he achieved such balance in an otherwise random-seeming distribution of elements.

Mostly, what I love about the Bauhaus is the way the work of these artists fills me with a sense of possibility. Every time I have the opportunity to steep myself in their abstract geometries, I can feel the edges of a new language pressing up against me. Movement and essence are made concrete, not something that can be pinned down, but something inherent which can be expressed with lines on a page.

(Other design movements which make me feel this way are Russian Constructivism and Punk/DIY collage.)


This week, I accidentally got into it on Twitter with the MAG fandom. Shockingly, 280 characters is not really enough space to adequately convey nuance and context. I found being accused by strangers on the internet of wanting to censor people or command moral authority to be extremely insulting.

I work in a front-facing position within a dedicated fan space, in a fandom defined by a serious controversy. My personal and professional experiences have lead me to believe that “fandom,” far from being a space insulated from disagreement and political and cultural debate, must be a place where people are able to engage critically with the mores, biases, personal and historical narratives, and other foundations and assumptions which are inherited from the original work or developed within the surrounding community.

I work at an organization dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft.

If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that sometimes the only thing you can say in response to another fan’s interpretation is, “I disagree strongly – possibly to the point of considering your position to be harmful – and this is why.” Because it is only in that moment where we are part of the same community – as fans – that we can have this discussion as people who share in something bigger than ourselves.

But I don’t wish to linger on this topic; it is exhausting, unproductive, and has already claimed too much of my time.


Ideally, I’ll have a little something up this week about Broken Stars, the second collection of contemporary Chinese SF translated and edited by Ken Liu. I adored Invisible Planets, which I cannot recommend strongly enough. (Upon finishing it, I immediately bought two copies to give as gifts, and pre-ordered Broken Stars. I have also leant out my copy of the first collection so that the people in my life can share in its wonders.) Go read both of them!

Week in Review 2019: 005-7

Read:

  • The Hounds of Tindalos. Frank Belknap Long.
  • The Crisis of Criticism. Maurice Berger, ed.
  • Introduction, Age of Lovecraft.
  • The Baffler: Issue 43. [partial]
  • “Intra-European Racism in Nineteenth-Century Anthropology,” History and Anthropology, Vol. 20, No. 1, March 2009, pp. 37–56. Gustav Jahoda.
  • Broken Stars. Ken Liu, ed. [started]

Watched:

  • An appalling quantity of Comedy Central’s “This is Not Happening” on Youtube.
  • Anime Crimes Division, seasons 1 & 2.
  • First 3 episodes of Hap & Leonard

SF44 : the Boston 24-hr Science-Fiction Film Marathon

  • Innerspace (1987)
  • Dr. Cyclops (1940)
  • Rollerball (1975)
  • Woman in the Moon (1929)
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
  • Annihilation (2018)
  • Sourcecode (2011) [partial]
  • Sunshine (2007)
  • Escape from New York (1981)

There were a few movies I slept through which I have not included in this list. For a full schedule, check out the Boston SciFi Film Fest forum. They have complete lists of all movies shown at the ‘Thon in a variety of configurations.

The stand-out films for me (and my coterie of Youths) were Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.

Despite its 3+ hr runtime, the Lang film was completely engrossing. The film was written by Thea von Harbou, who also wrote the screenplay for Metropolis. I was particularly impressed by the nuance of the romantic tensions in the film. While it is obvious that Friede (Gerda Maurus) is in love with Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch) she is nevertheless set on marrying Hanz Windegger (Gustav v. Wangenheim). The crux of these relationships is that Helius is deadset on protecting Friede at the expense of her desire to see the mission she has worked on through to the end. Hanz, meanwhile, is perfectly willing to support her choice to travel with the men to the moon.

Because I hope that some of you will have the chance to see the film for yourselves, I’ll not tell you how it all shakes out. But I will say that I was impressed by the characterizations and the choices made throughout. It is quite clear to me that Hollywood can only benefit from revisiting the silent era if they’re tired of being told they don’t know how to write convincing female characters.

Sunshine was completely different. Alex Garland successfully incorporated a similiar level of nuance in the interpersonal relationships throughout the film. Similarly, the film focuses on the intersection between the quest for scientific knowledge and the personal, individual desires of the people who have set out to accomplish an immense task.

It is difficult, now, to separate entirely what I was thinking at the time from the brief scroll through the movie’s Wikipedia page in the immediate aftermath. I know Danny Boyle wanted to present an apocalyptic narrative which could have the gravity of climate change without sharing any of its fundamental characteristics. I certainly believe he achieved that feat.

Sunshine focuses on the second manned mission to the sun, who are hoping to deliver a nuclear payload which will re-ignite the dying star and preserve human life on Earth. While they should be able to make the trip back, it is not guaranteed.

If you know anything about Alex Garland, then you know it is something less than possible that they will make it home.

I cannot help but compare Sunshine to the other Alex Garland film they showed, 2018’s Annihilation. Ultimately, I think Sunshine succeeds in evoking that ineffable quality which is present in the Jeff Vandermeer original, but which was lost in Garland’s translation of the story from book to screen. Both the 2007 film and Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy rely on a transcendental quality which Garland never manages to evoke in his adaptation of Annihilation.

Pervasive throughout Sunshine is the understanding that the mission at hand exceeds the comprehension of any of the individuals undertaking it. The combination of urgency and fixation–echoed in the combined life-giving and destructive powers of the Sun–overwhelm the crew. The action they are undertaking is the greatest thing that they will ever accomplish, literally an achievement which will overshadow not only anything else that they have ever accomplished or will accomplish, but argueably, greater than anything anyone has ever accomplished in the whole of human history up to that point.

Yet none of them can be said to exist as meaningful individuals, despite the singularity of the mission.

By collapsing the whole into the singular and the singular into the human totality, Garland and Boyle manage to produce an existential narrative which succesfully encompasses multiple registers of meaning ranging from the most fundamentally human to the most abstracted divine view of humanity.

It helps that both Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans are able to project both unlikeability and decency without forcing the audience to believe one supercedes the other.


This week is also the French Film Festival, here in Providence. So I’ve got a full week of new French movies to take in. I fully anticipate that my capacity to consistently produce one language at a time will have completely evaporated by the time March rolls around.

Degeneration, Aquaman redux

That's a bold strategy cotton gif from Dodgeball

I figure blogs are also the place to put all the darlings you had to kill in the process of writing—you know—real people stuff. So here is an entire section about human evolution that had to get cut from my post about the role of genetic determinism in Aquaman.


Obviously, the DCU is not contingent on reality. A comparative timeline nevertheless provides insight into the implications of the biological and evolutionary logic the films employ.

Please understand that both “But it’s not real” and “Zeus did it” are considered acceptable explanations of the events and outcomes in the DCU.

This is not intended to be a critique of the accuracy—historical or otherwise—of the DCU.

That the Atlanteans were able to turn into crab people and fish people and, simultaneously, that descendants who retained a more humanoid form were nevertheless able to procreate with H. Sapiens will remain firmly outside the purview of this piece. That would clearly constitute a foolish and unnecessary attempt to apply the limits of scientific knowledge to a work of fantasy. The use of historical and anthropological evidence is, of course, perfectly sensible under these circumstances.

The “First Invasion of Earth” which united Mankind, the Atlanteans, and the Amazons supposedly took place 30,000 years before 2018. (“Invasion of Earth”) That would have been nearly 20,000 years before the emergence of agriculture, and about the same time that H. Sapiens arrived in the Americas. (“Homo Sapiens” “Map of Human Migration”) Quite literally, this puts that original event closer to the epoch where Europe was a Cro-Magnon stomping ground than it would to the emergence of Ancient Egyptian civilization (about 5,000 years ago), which predates Ancient Greece by 2,000 years.

Atlantis is supposed to have fallen into the ocean sometime after that initial conflict, presumably within a few thousand years (at the outside). That would give the various Atlantean kingdoms less than 30,000 years to evolve into distinct species. By contrast, H. Sapiens is believed to have been in Australia as many as 60,000 years ago. (“Map”) Aboriginal Australians are, obviously, hominids of the same species as every other member of H. Sapiens, including the British settlers who colonized their territories less than 500 years ago.

It is unknown whether the kingdoms of Atlantis incorporated technological innovations such as gene editing to enable their “evolution” into different species, but it remains unlikely that they achieved such a level of morphological differentiation and presumed speciation presented in the films in the 30,000 years between the fall of Atlantis and the modern day through natural selection.

Bibliography:

Aquaman. Directed by James Wan. United States: Warner Bros., 2018. Film.

“Atlantis.” DC Extended Universe Wiki. Accessed February 20, 2019. https://dcextendeduniverse.fandom.com/wiki/Atlantis.

“Homo Sapiens | Meaning & Stages of Human Evolution.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 20, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Homo-sapiens.

“Invasion of Earth | DC Extended Universe Wiki | FANDOM Powered by Wikia.” Accessed February 20, 2019. https://dcextendeduniverse.fandom.com/wiki/Invasion_of_Earth.

“Map of Human Migration.” Genographic Project (blog). Accessed February 20, 2019. https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/human-journey/.