Yesterday’s Disruptors, Today’s Encumbents

You know, I always found it annoying how online stores such as Amazon, or even IKEA, have been defined “disruptors” all these years. But nowadays I can mostly see how they changed the rules of the game, particularly in favour of the customers themselves, against their own workers, and suppliers. And so, nowadays, I can accept that they have been called that way for a reason.

Of course that’s not to say that I agree them being called that way still.

Since I have moved to London last year, I have been using both Amazon and IKEA shipping quite a bit, whether it is for the random bits and bobs (Amazon) or full blown household furniture (IKEA). It’s kind of needed sometimes, or at least very convenient, because you know there’s selection and (usually) good customer support.

But at the same time, things are no longer smooth as they used to be. Or maybe they are just as smooth, but we (I) got to expect better from them.

Let’s take IKEA: I wanted to order a number of items from them just last week: a garbage bin, a bedding set and some extra towels, as well as some spice jars. I put everything in my “bag”, and tried checking out. Somehow the PayPal integration failed, the loading page got stuck, and I tried restarting… and the site decided to lock my bag “for up to 45 minutes” because of the incomplete checkout.

I’m not sure how the locking is done and timed out, because an hour later it still didn’t let me order, despite logging out and back in. So I ended up going to Marks and Spencer’s website and order (more expensive) bedding set and towels from there. Alas their shipping option appears to be significantly worse as a track record (it got split into three deliveries, and only one made to my office’s mailroom by the expected date, but it was not urgent at all). But the checkout worked perfectly fine.

Unfortunately M&S didn’t have a bin, so I looked for one at Amazon and found something I liked for £25, so on Friday I ordered it with a “nominated day delivery” of Tuesday. That should be enough lead time, no? I also ordered a smaller trash container for the bathroom, to throw things like the non-sharps injection side-results.

Fast forward to Tuesday, when I took a day off work (because I needed to relax anyway), which I spent assembling the daybed I got from IKEA… a year ago (oops!) By 2pm I see that the smaller of the two bins is “Out for delivery”, but the bigger one (the one I really needed!) was not. Although with an expected delivery of the same day, between 7am and 10pm. I have immediately contacted Amazon on Twitter, pointing out the low likelihood of them delivery on the day, but they insisted that it was still going to be delivered.

Cue 4pm when I get an email (but obviously enough no Android push notification) that tells me that they are sorry, but a delay caused the delivery to be skipped on the day and that it would happen in a one-week window following it.

You read that right. They suggested that, for an item that was meant to delivered on October 2nd, and missed delivery, the new delivery window would be October 3rd to 9th. You can imagine just how happy, as a customer, I would be about that. So I called Amazon up, and asked them to cancel the delivery, because I already skipped a day of work (sure I was going to take the day off anyway, but I could have gone out to Kew Gardens instead of staying in to wait for them), and I wouldn’t want to spend an unbound amount of days home in the hope that they would be able to deliver a garbage bin. They confirmed it would be done and an email sent to me “within 24-48 hours” and I thanked them.

Then, I ordered a (different) bin on Argos. They actually had the same bin, but at £32. I didn’t need anything as fancy, and their lower end was actually much better looking than Amazon’s, so I settled for a £10 model. And for £3.95, they allow you to select a 3 hours delivery window — If I did that right when I realize the delivery would have been missed, Argos would have delivered the same day, instead I had to settle for the following day, Wednesday, between 7am and 10am. Indeed the day after, at at 7.20am, I was the happy owner of a cheap, simple garbage bin.

This is not the first time that, on Amazon’s failure, I redirected on Argos. And after this adventure, I think they’ll just be my first and default destination for anything that I want delivered at home (which is usually bulky stuff too uncomfortable to bring across London on the Piccadilly). The last time, it was a clothes iron and board, that somehow Amazon refused to do any nominated day delivery for. Argos was happy to deliver them on a Saturday morning intead. And practically speaking, a 7am-10am delivery weekday window means I can receive at any day, before heading to the office.

I wish that it all ended there, though.

On the same Wednesday that I received the Argos delivery, while at work, the Amazon app on my phone decided to notify me that the bin (the one that I asked to cancel the delivery of), was going to be delivered that day. I once again turned to Twitter where Amazon informed me that the request for cancellation might not have been reflected yet, and that they will not deliver if it was requested not to.

Except that at around 6pm, while I was commuting home, I also received another notification to tell me that the package was delivered. Checking this, it reported the package was delivered “to the resident” — except that my building requires a fob to access, and I was nowhere near home to let them in. So either they left it in the corridor (assuming someone else opened them the main door) or they left it outside altogether (in which case, it would be unlikely for it to stay around until I made it home).

Since the Amazon Android app allows you to contact them via chat, I did so, selecting the order with the bins, explain the situation, and explicitly talking about the nominated day delivery failure. At which point they confirm they would prepare a return request, and that they would organize for pick up. I also note with them that it’s a 40 litres bin, which makes the box very big and not something I’d bring to the post office myself. I also made sure to point out with them that, as I would not have an idea where they manage to leave the box without me, I would just leave it there, and let them pick it up the same way they left them. They confirmed all of this is okay, and after greetings disconnected the chat.

A few minutes later I get an email confirming the return request for… an unrelated set of bamboo spoons that arrived the same day. Not the one I was talking about, which would have been clear from both the bulk of the object we have been talking about, the delivery type, and the delivery address. And of course the price of the spoons was significantly lower than the bin. Sigh.

Another round of chat with Amazon, and they issued the return for the right item. They also told me not to worry about the pick up, and that I could keep the bin… which I don’t need anymore and would take a lot of space. I asked explicitly for a pick up anyway, and they agreed to organize it with Hermes. It was not until I got home and checked the email they sent me, that they expected me to print the return label — but I have no printer at home.

At least expecting Hermes to contact me, if anything to complain that they can’t access the building, I left the box in the hallway where they left it for the day after. Two days later, no pick up, no note, and no call later, I checked the status of the return to find out that they marked it as “completed”. While leaving the box with me. And I now have a fancy bin in the master bathroom, which is open to a good home in West London if someone were to want to deal with it (but probably not worth doing).

I’ll add a few more words about this later on, as Amazon in particular seems to be going the wrong way, for me at least.

Amazon, Project Gutenberg, and Italian Literature

This post starts in the strangest of places. The other night, my mother was complaining how few free Italian books are available on the Kindle Store.

Turns out, a friend of the family, who also has a Kindle, has been enjoying reading free English older books on hers. As my mother does not speak or read English, she’d been complaining that the same is not possible in Italian.

The books she’s referring to are older books, the copyright of which expired, and that are available on Project Gutenberg. Indeed, the selection of Italian books on that site is fairly limited, and it is something that I have indeed been sadden about before.

What has Project Gutenberg to do with Kindle? Well, Amazon appears to collect books from Project Gutenberg, convert them to Kindle’s native format, and “sell” them on the Kindle Store. I say “sell” because for the most part, these are available at $0.00, and are thus available for free.

While there is no reference to Project Gutenberg on their store pages, there’s usually a note on the book:

This book was converted from its physical edition to the digital format by a community of volunteers. You may find it for free on the web. Purchase of the Kindle edition includes wireless delivery.

Another important point is that (again, for the most part), the original language editions are also available! This is how I started reading Jules Verne’s Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours while trying to brush up my French to workable levels.

Having these works available on the Kindle Store, free of both direct cost and delivery charge, is in my opinion a great step to distribute knowledge and culture. As my nephews (blood-related and otherwise) start reaching reading age, I’m sure that what I will give them as presents is going to be Kindle readers, because between having access to this wide range of free books, and the embedded touch-on dictionary, they feel like something I’d have thoroughly enjoyed using when I was a kid myself.

Unfortunately, this is not all roses. the Kindle Store still georestrict some books, so from my Kindle Store (which is set in the US), I cannot download Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso in Italian (though I can download the translation for free, or buy for $0.99 a non-Project Gutenberg version of the original Italian text). And of course there is the problem of coverage for the various languages.

Italian, as I said, appears to be a pretty bad one when it comes to coverage. If I look at Luigi Pirandello’s books there are only seven entries, one of which is in English, and another one being a duplicate. Compare this with the actual list of his works and you can see that it’s very lacking. And since Pirandello died in 1936, his works are already in the public domain.

Since I have not actually being active with Project Gutenberg, I only have second hand knowledge of why this type of problem happens. One of the thing I remember having been told about this, is that most of the books you buy in Italian stores are either annotated editions, or updated for modern Italian, which causes their copyright to be extended do the death of the editor, annotator or translator.

This lack of access to Italian literature is a big bother, and quite a bit of a showstopper to giving a Kindle to my Italian “nephews”. I really wish I could find a way to fix the problem, whether it is by technical or political means.

On the political side, one could expect that, with the focus on culture of the previous Italian government, and the focus of the current government on the free-as-in-beer options, it would be easy to convince them to release all of the Italian literature that is in the public domain for free. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t even know where to start to ask them to do that.

On the technical side, maybe it is well due time that I spend a significant amount of time on my now seven years old project of extracting a copy of the data from the data files of Zanichelli’s Italian literature software (likely developed at least in part with public funds).

The software was developed for Windows 3.1 and can’t be run on any modern computer. I should probably send the ISOs of it to the Internet Archive, and they may be able to keep it running there on DosBox with a real copy of Windows 3.1, since Wine appears to not support the 16-bit OLE interfaces that the software depends on.

If you wonder what would be a neat thing for Microsoft to release as open-source, I would probably suggest the whole Windows 3.1 source code would be a starting point. If nothing else, with the right license it would be possible to replace the half-complete 16-bit DLLs of Wine with official, or nearly-official copies.

I guess it’s time to learn more about Windows 3.1 in my “copious spare time” (h/t Charles Stross), and start digging into this. Maybe Ryan’s 2ine might help, as OS/2 and Windows 3.1 are closer than the latter is to modern Windows.

Comixology for Android: bad engineering, and an exemplary tale against DRM

I grew up as a huge fan of comic books. Not only Italian Disney comics, which are something in by themselves, but also of US comics from Marvel. You could say that I grew up on Spider-Man and Duck Avenger. Unfortunately actually holding physical comic books nowadays is getting harder, simply because I’m travelling all the time, and I also try to keep as little physical media as I manage to, given the constraint of space of my apartment.

Digital comics are, thus, a big incentive for me to keep reading. And in particular, a few years ago I started buying my comics from Comixology, which was later bought by Amazon. The reason why I chose this particular service over others is that it allowed me to buy, and read, through a single service, the comics from Marvel, Dark Horse, Viz and a number of independent publishers. All of this sounded good to me.

I have not been reading a lot over the past few years, but as I moved to London, I found that the tube rides have the perfect span of time to catch up on the latest Spider-Man or finish up those Dresden Files graphic novels. So at some point last year I decided to get myself a second tablet, one that is easier to bring on the Tube than my neat but massive Samsung Tab A.

While Comixology is available for the Fire Tablet (being an Amazon property), I settled for the Lenovo Tab 4 8 Plus (what a mouthful!), which is a pretty neat “stock” Android tablet. Indeed, Lenovo customization of the tablet is fairly limited, and beside some clearly broken settings in the base firmware (which insisted on setting up Hangouts as SMS app, despite the tablet not having a baseband), it works quite neatly, and it has a positively long lasting battery.

The only real problem with that device is that it has very limited storage. It’s advertised as a 16GB device, but the truth is that only about half of it is available to the user. And that’s only after effectively uninstalling most of the pre-installed apps, most of which are thankfully not marked as system apps (which means you can fully uninstall them, instead of just keeping them disabled). Indeed, the more firmware updates, the fewer apps that are marked as system apps it seems — in my tablet the only three apps currently disabled are the File Manager, Gmail and Hangouts (this is a reading device, not a communication device). I can (and should) probably disable Maps, Calendar, and Photos as well, but that’s going to be for later.

Thankfully, this is not a big problem nowadays, as Android 6 introduced adoptable storage which allows you to use an additional SD cards for storage, transparently for both the system and the apps. It can be a bit slow depending on the card and the usage you make of the device, but as a reading device it works just great.

You were able to move apps to the SD card in older Android versions too, but in those cases you would end up with non-encrypted apps that would still store their data on the device’s main storage. For those cases, a number of applications, including for instance Audible (also an Amazon offering) allow you to select an external storage device to store their data files.

When I bought the tablet, SD card and installed Comixology on it, I didn’t know much about this part of Android to be honest. Indeed, I only checked if Comixology allowed storing the comics on the SD card, and since I found that was the case, I was all happy. I had adopted the SD card though, without realizing what that actually meant, though, and that was the first problem. Because then the documentation from Comixology didn’t actually match my experience: the setting to choose the SD card for storage didn’t appear, and I contacted tech support, who kept asking me questions about the device and what I was trying to do, but provided me no solution.

Instead, I noticed that everything was alright: as I adopted the SD card before installing the app, it got automatically installed on it, and it started using the card itself for storage, which allowed me to download as many comicbooks as I wanted, and not bother me at all.

Until some time earlier this year, I couldn’t update the app anymore. It kept failing with a strange Play Store error. So I decided to uninstall and reinstall it… at which point I had no way to move it back to the SD card! They disabled the option to allow the application to be moved in their manifest, and that’s why Play Store was unable to update it.

Over a month ago I contacted Comixology tech support, telling them what was going on, assuming that this was an oversight. Instead I kept getting stubborn responses that moving the app to the SD card didn’t move the comics (wrong), or insinuating I was using a rooted device (also wrong). I still haven’t managed to get them to reintroduce the movable app, even though the Kindle app, also from Amazon, moves to the SD card just fine. Ironically, you can read comics bought on Kindle Store with the Comixology app but, for some reason, not vice-versa. If I could just use the Kindle app I wouldn’t even bother with installing the Comixology app.

Now I cancelled my Comixology Unlimited subscription, cancelled my subscription to new issues of Spider-Man, Bleach, and a few other series, and am pondering what’s the best solution to my problems. I could use non-adopted storage for the tablet if I effectively dedicate it to Comixology — unfortunately in that case I won’t be able to download Google Play Books or Kindle content to the SD card as they don’t support the external storage mode. I could just read a few issues at a time, using the ~7GB storage space that I have available on the internal storage, but that’s also fairly annoying. More likely I’ll start buying the comics from another service that has a better understanding of the Android ecosystem.

Of course the issue remains that I have a lot of content on Comixology, and just a very limited subset of comics are DRM-free. This is not strictly speaking Comixology’s fault: the publishers are the one deciding whether to DRM their content or not. But it definitely shows an issue that many publishers don’t seem to grasp: in front of technical problems like this, the consumer will have better “protection” if they would have just pirated the comics!

For the moment, I can only hope that someone reading this post happens to work for, or know someone working for, Comixology or Amazon (in the product teams — I know a number of people in the Amazon production environment, but I know they are far away from the people who would be able to fix this), and they can update the Comixology app to be able to work with modern Android, so that I can resume reading all my comics easily.

Or if Amazon feels like that, I’d be okay with them giving me a Fire tablet to use in place of the Lenovo. Though I somewhat doubt that’s something they would be happy on doing.

Europe and USA: my personal market comparison

While I have already announced I’m moving to London, I don’t want to give the idea that I don’t trust Europe. One of my acquaintances, an eurosceptic, thought it was apt o congratulate me for dropping out of Europe when I announced my move, but that couldn’t be farthest from my intention. As I said already repeatedly now, my decision is all to be found in my lack of a social circle in Dublin, and the feelings of loneliness that really need to be taken care of.

Indeed, I’m more than an Europeist, I’m a Globalist, in so far as I don’t see any reason why we should have borders, or limitations on travel. So my hope is not just for Europe to become a bigger, more common block. Having run a business for a number of years in Italy, where business rules are overly complicated, and the tax system assumes that you’re a cheater by default, and fines you if you don’t invoice enough, I would have seriously loved the option to have an “European business” rather than an “Italian business” — since a good chunk of my customers were based outside of Italy anyway.

This concept of “European business”, unfortunately, does not exist. Even VAT handling in Europe is not unified, and even though we should have at least a common VAT ID registration, back when I set up my business, it required an explicit registration at the Finance Ministry to be able to make use of the ID outside of Italy. At the time, at least, I think Spain also opted out to registering their VAT IDs on the European system by default. Indeed that was the reason why Amazon used to the run separate processes for most European business customers, and for Italian and Spanish customers.

Speaking of Amazon, those of you reading me from outside Europe may be surprised to know that there is no such thing as “Amazon Europe”, – heck, we don’t even have Amazon Ireland! – at least as a consumer website. Each country has its own Amazon website, with similar, but not identical listings, prices and “rules of engagement” (what can be shipped where and for which prices). For the customers this has quite a few detrimental effects: the prices may be lower in a country that they may not usually look at the store of, or they may have to weight the options based on price, shipping restrictions and shipping costs.

Since, as I said, there is no Amazon Ireland, living in Dublin also is an interesting exercise with Amazon: you may want to order things from Amazon UK, either because of language reasons, or simply because it requires a power plug and Ireland has the same British plug as the UK. And most of the shipping costs are lower, either by themselves, or because there are re-mailers from Northern Ireland to Dublin, if you are okay with waiting an extra day. But at the same time, you’re forced to pay in GBP rather than Euro (well, okay not forced, but at least strongly advised to — Amazon currency conversion has a significantly worse exchange rate than any of my cards, especially Revolut) and some of the sellers will actually refuse to send to Ireland, for no specific reason. Sometimes, you can actually buy the same device from Amazon Germany, which will then ship from a UK-based storehouse anyway, despite the item not being available to send to Ireland from Amazon UK. And sometimes Amazon Italy may be a good 15% cheaper (on a multiple-hundreds euro item) than Amazon UK.

So why does Amazon not run a global European website? Or why doesn’t an European-native alternative appears? It looks to me like the European Union and its various bodies and people keep hoping to find European-native alternatives to the big American names all the times, at least on the papers, probably in the hope of not being tied to the destiny of American with what comes down in the future, particularly given how things have gone with the current politics on all sides. But in all their words, there does not appear to be any option of opening up opportunities for creating cross-Europe collaboration on corporations.

The current situation of the countries that make up Europe and the States that make up the USA, is that you are just not allowed to do certain types, or levels of business in all the countries without registering and operating as a company in that country. That is the case for instance of phone operators, that get licenses per country, and so each operates independent units. This becomes sometimes ludicrous because you then have Vodafone providing services in about half of Europe, but with such independent units that their level of competence for instance on security and privacy is extremely variable. In particular it looks like Vodafone Italy still has not learnt how to set up HTTPS correctly, and despite logging you in a TLS-encrypted connection, it does not set the cookie as secure, so a downgrade is enough to steal authentication cookies. In 2017.

If you remember, when I complained about the half-baked roaming directive results, I have suggested that one of my favourite options would be to have a “European number” — just give me a special “country code” that can be replaced by any one member’s code, and the phone number is still valid, and appears local. This is important because, despite the roaming directive allowing me to keep my regular Irish (for now) SIM card on my phone while travelling to either UK or Finland, it prevents me from getting a local phone number. And since signing up for some local services, including sometimes free WiFi hotspots from various cafes and establishment, relies on being able to receive a local SMS, it is sometimes more of an hindrance than a favour.

Both Revolut and Transferwise, as well as other similar “FinTech” companies have started providing users with what they call “borderless” accounts: Euro, Sterling and Dollar accounts all into one system. Unfortunately this is only half of the battle. Indeed, while I welcome in particular Revolut’s option of using a single balance that can provide all the currencies in a single card is a great option. But this only works to a point, because these accounts are “special” — in particular the Revolut Euro account is provided with a Lithuanian IBAN, but a UK BIC code, which makes a few system that still expect both throw up. And this is not even going into how SEPA Direct Debit just does not work: my Italian services can only debit an Italian bank, my Irish services can only charge an Irish bank, and my one French service can only charge a French bank. Using credit cards via VISA has actually better success rate for me, even though at least Vodafone Italy can only charge a specific one of my credit cards, rather than any of them. Oh yeah and let’s not forget the fact that you just can’t get your salary paid into a non-Irish bank account in Ireland.

Banks in Europe end up operating as country-wide silos, to the point that even Ulster Bank Republic of Ireland cannot (at least, can no longer) provide me with an Ulster Bank Northern Ireland bank account — or to be precise, cannot act on my already-existing foreigner bank account that is open in Northern Ireland. And because of all these things happening, the moment I will actually move to London I’ll have to figure out how to get a proper account there. I’m having trouble right now opening an account there already not because I don’t have the local tax ID but because they need proof of employment from a UK company, while I’m still employed by the Irish company. Of the same multinational. Oh my.

You could say that banks and telcos are special cases. They are partial monopolies and there are good reasons why they should be administered on a country-by-country basis. But the reality is that in the United States, these things are mostly solved — plenty of telco stuff is still pretty much local, but that’s because of network access and antitrust requirements, as well, to a point, the need of building and servicing local infrastructure (a solution to this is effectively splitting the operation of the telco from the provider of physical infrastructure, but that comes with its own problems). But at the very least, banking in the US is not something that people have to deal with when changing State, or having to work with companies of other states.

These silos are also visible to consumers in other forms, that may not be quite obvious. TV, movie and similar rights are also a problem the same way. Netflix for instance will only show a subset of the programming they have access to depending on the country you’re currently located in. This is because, except for the content they produce themselves, they have to acquire rights from different companies holding them in different countries, because different TV networks would already have secured rights and not want to let them broadcast in their place.

I brought up this part last, despite being probably the one most consumers know or even care about, because it shows the other problem that companies trying to build up support for Europe, or even to be started as Europe-native companies, have to deal with. TV networks are significantly more fragmented than in the USA. There is no HBO, despite Sky being present in a number of different countries. There is nothing akin to CNN. There are a number of 24-hours news channels that are reachable over more-or-less freeview means, but the truth is that if you want to watch TV in Europe, you need a local company to provide you with it. And the reason is not one that is easy to solve: different countries just speak different languages, sometimes more than once.

It’s not just a matter of providing a second channel in a different language: content needs to be translated, sometimes adapted. This is very clear in video games, where some countries (cough Germany cough) require cutting content explicitly, to avoid upsetting something or someone. Indeed, video games releases for many platforms, in the past at least including PC, but luckily it appears not the case nowadays, end up distributing games only in a subset of European languages at a time. Which is why I loathed playing Skyrim on the PlayStation 3, as the disk only includes Italian, French and German, but no English, which would be my default option (okay, nowadays I would probably play it in French to freshen up my understanding of it).

For American start-ups – but this is true also for open source project, and authors of media such as books, TV series or movies – internationalization or localization are problems that can be easily shelved for the “after we’re famous” pile. First make the fame, or the money, then export and care about other languages. In Europe that cannot possibly be the case. Even for English, that in the computer world is still for now the lingua franca (pun intended), I wouldn’t expect there would be a majority of users happy to use a non-localized software, particularly when you consider as part of that localization the differences in date handling. I mean, I started using “English (UK)” rather than the default American for my Google account years ago because I wanted a sane date format in Gmail!

All of this makes the fragmented European market harder for most projects, companies, and even ideas to move as fast as the American or (I presume, but have not enough detail about it) the Chinese market, in which a much wider audience can be gained without spending so much effort to deal with cross-border bureaucracy and cross-culture porting. But let me be clear, I do not think that the solution is to normalize Europe onto a single language. We can’t even do that for countries, and I don’t think it would be fair to anyone to even consider this. What we need is to remove as many other roadblocks as it’s feasible to remove, and then try to come up with an easier way to fund translation and localization processes, or an easier way to access rights at a Union level rather than on a country-by-country basis.

Unfortunately, I do not expect that this is going to happen in my lifetime. I still wish we’ll end up with a United Federation of Planets, at the end of the day, though.

Let’s have a serious talk about Ads

I have already expressed my opinion on Internet Ads months ago, so I would suggest you all to start reading from that, as I don’t want to have to repeat myself on this particular topic. What I want to talk right now is whether Ads actually work at all for things like my blog, or Autotools Mythbuster.

I’ll start by describing the “monetization” options that I use, and then talk a bit about how much they make, look into the costs and then take a short tour of what else I’m still using.

Right now, there are two sources of ads that I use on this blog: Google AdSense and Amazon Native Ads. Autotools Mythbuster only has AdSense, because the Amazon ads don’t really fit it well. On mobile platform, the only thing you really see is AdSense, as the Native Ads are all the way to the bottom (they don’t do page-level ads as far as I can tell), on desktop you only get to see the Amazon ads.

AdSense pays you both for clicks and for views of the ads on your site, although of course the former gives you significantly higher revenue. Amazon Native Ads only pays you for the items people actually buy, after clicking on the Ads on your site, as it is part of the Amazon Affiliate program. I have started using the Amazon Native Ads as an experiment over April and May, mostly out of curiosity of how they would perform.

The reason why I was curious of the performance is that AdSense, while it used to mostly make decision on which ads to show based on the content of the page, it has been mostly doing remarketing, which appears to creep some people app (I will make no further comments on this), while the idea that Amazon could show ads for content relevant to what I talked about appealed to me. It also turned out to have been an interesting way to find a bug with Amazon’s acapbot, because of course crawlers are hard. As it turns out, the amount of clicks coming from Amazon Native Ads is near zero, and the buying rate is even lower, but it still stacks fairly against AdSense.

To understand what I mean I need to give you some numbers, which is something people don’t seem to be very comfortable with in general. Google AdSense, overall, brings in a gross between €3 and €8 a month, with a very few rare cases in which it went all the way up to a staggering €12. Amazon Affiliates (which as I’ll get to does not only include Native Ads) varies very widely month after month, as it even reaches $50. Do note that all of this is still pre-tax, so you have to just about cut it in half to estimate (it’s actually closer to 35% but that’s a longer story).

I would say that between the two sources, over the past year I probably got around €200 before tax, so call it €120 net. I would have considered that not bad when I was self-employed, but nowadays I have different expectations, too. Getting the actual numbers of how much the domains cost me per year is a bit complicated, as some of those, including flameeyes.eu, are renewed for a block of years at the same time, but I can give you makefile.am as a point of reference (and yes that is an alias for Autotools Mythbuster) as €65.19 a year. The two servers (one storing configuration for easy re-deployment, and the other actually being the server you read the blog from) cost me €7.36/month (for the two of them), and the server I use for actually building stuff costs me €49/month. This already exceeds the gross revenue of the two advertising platforms. Oops.

Of course there is another consideration to make. Leaving aside my personal preferences on lifestyle, and thus where I spend my budget for things like entertainment and food, there is one expense I’m okay with sharing, and that is my current standing donations. My employer not only makes it possible to match donations, but it also makes it very easy to just set up a standing donation that gets taken directly at payroll time. Thanks to making this very simple, I have a standing €90/month donation, spread between Diabetes Ireland, EFF and Internet Archive, and a couple others, that I rotate every few months. And then there are Patreons I subscribe to.

This means that even if I were to just put all the revenue from those ads into donations, it would barely make an impact. Which is why by the time you read this post, my blog will have no ads left on (Autotools Mythbuster will continue for a month or two just so that the next payment is processed and not left in the system). They would be okay to be left there even if they make effectively no money, except that they still require paperwork to be filed for taxes, and this is why I have considered using Amazon Native Ads.

As I said, Amazon Native Ads are part of their Affiliate program, and while you can see in the reports how much revenue is coming from ads versus links, the payments, and thus the tax paperwork, is merged with the rest of the affiliate program. And I have been using affiliate links in a number of places, not just my blog, because in that case there is no drawback: Amazon is not tracking you any more or less than before, and it’s not getting in your way at all. The only places in which I actually let Amazon count the impression (view) is when I’m actually reviewing a product (book, game, hardware device), and even that is fairly minimal, and not any different from me just providing the image and a link to it — except I don’t have to deal with the images and the link breakage connected with that.

There is another reason why I am keeping the affiliates: while they require people to actually spend money to get me anything, they give you a percentages of the selling price of what was sold. Not what you linked to specifically, but what is sold in the session that the user initiated when they clicked on your link. This makes it interesting and ironic when people click on the link to buy Autotools Mythbuster and end up buying instead Autotools by Calcote.

Do I think this experience is universal or generally applicable? I doubt so. My blog does not get that many views anyway, and it went significantly down since I stopped blogging daily, and in particular it went down since I no longer talk about Gentoo that much. I guess part of the problem with that is that beside for people looking for particular information finding me on Google, the vast majority of the people end up on my blog either because they read it already, or follow me on various social media. I have an IFTTT recipe to post most of my entries on Twitter and LinkedIn (not Google+ because there is no way to do that automatically), and I used to have it auto-post new entries that would go to Planet Gentoo on /r/gentoo (much as I hate Reddit myself).

There is also the target audience problem: as most of the people reading this blog are geeks, it is very likely that they will have an adblocker installed, and they do not want to see the ads. I think uBlock may even make the affiliate links broken, while at it. They do block things like Skymiles Shooping and similar affiliate aggregators, because “privacy” (though there is not really any privacy problem there).

So at the end of the day, there is no gain for me to keep ads running, and there is some discomfort for my readers, thus I took them down. If I could, I would love to be able to just have ads for charities only, with no money going to me at all, but reminding people of the importance of donating, even a little bit, to organizations such as Internet Archive, which saved my bacon multiple times as I fixed the links from this blog to other sites, that in the mean time moved without redirects, or just got turned down. But that’s a topic for another day, I think.

The Italian ISBN fraud

Books
Photo credit: Moyan Brenn

The title of the post is probably considered clickbait, but I think there is a fraud going on in Italy related to ISBN, and since I noted on my Facebook page that I have more information on this than the average person, even those who are usually quite well informed, I thought it’s worth putting it down on paper.

It all started with an email I got from Amazon, in particular from the Kindle Direct Publishing service, which is how I publish Autotools Mythbuster as a Kindle book. At first I thought it was about the new VAT regulation for online services across Europe that are being announced by everybody and that will soon make most website give you ex-VAT prices and let you figure out how much you’re actually paying. And indeed it was, until you get to this post-script:

Lastly, as of January 1, 2015, Italy has put in place a new law. Applicable VAT for eBooks sold in Italy will depend on whether the book has an ISBN. All eBooks with an ISBN will have a 4% VAT rate and eBooks without an ISBN will have a 22% VAT rate. This is the rate that is added to your price on January 1st and is the rate deducted when an Italian customer purchases your book. If you obtain an ISBN after January 1st, the 4% VAT rate will then apply for future sales but we will not adjust your list price automatically.

Since I’ve always felt strongly that discriminating books on whether they are paper or bits is a bad idea, the reduced VAT rate for books was actually good news, but tying it to the ISBN? Not so much. And here’s why.

First of all, let’s bust the myth of the ISBN being a requirement to publish a book. It’s not, at least not universally. In particular, it’s not a requirement in either Italy, Republic of Ireland or the United States of America. It is also not clear for many that in many countries, including at least Italy and Republic of Ireland, it’s privately held companies that manage the ISBN distribution. In other countries there’s a government agency to do that, and it may well be that it’s more regulated there.

In the case of the UK agency (that also handles Republic of Ireland and is thus relevant to me), they make also explicit that there are plenty of situations in which you should not apply an ISBN, for instance for booklets that are not sold to the public (private events, museums, etc.). It might sound odd, but it makes perfect sense the moment when you realize what ISBN was designed to help with: distribution. The idea behind it is that any single edition of a book would have an unique code, so when your bookstore orders from the distributor, and the distributor from the publisher, you have the same ID over the place. A secondary benefit for citing references and bibliographies is often cited, but it is by far not the reason why ISBN was introduced.

So why would you tie the VAT rate on the presence of an ISBN? I can’t think of any particular good reason off the top of my head. It makes things quite more complex for online ebook stores, especially those that have not been limited to stocking books with an ISBN to begin with (such as Amazon, Kobo, …). But even more so it makes it almost impossible for authors to figure out how to charge the buyers, if they are both in Europe. All is still easy of course if you’re not trying to sell to Europe, or from Europe — wonder why we don’t have more European startups, eh?

The bothersome part is that there is no such rule about VAT for physical books! Indeed many people in Italy are acquainted with schemes in which you join a “club” that would send you a book every month (unless you opt-out month by month, and if you don’t you have to pay the price for it), and would sell books at a price much lower than the bookstore.

I’m sure they still exist although I’m not sure if Amazon makes them any interesting now, it was how I got into Lord of the Rings, as I ended up paying some €1.25 for it rather than the price of €30 for the same (hardcover) edition.

All those books were printed especially for the “club” and would thus not have an ISBN attached to them at all. One of the reason was probably to make it more difficult to sell them back second hand. But they have always been charged at 4% VAT anyway!

But the problems run further and that’s hard to see for most consumers because they don’t realize just how difficult the ISBN system is to navigate. Especially for “live” books like Autotools Mythbuster, every single revision needs its own unique ISBN — and since I usually do three to four updates to the book every year, that would be at least four different ISBNs per year. Add to that the fact that agencies decided that “ebook” is not a format, ePub, Mobi and PDF are, and you end up requiring multiple ISBNs per revision to cover for these formats.

Assume only two formats are needed for Autotools Mythbuster, which is only available om Amazon and Kobo. Assume three revisions an year (I would like to do more, I plan on spending more of 2015 writing documentation as I’m doing less hands-on work in Open Source lately). Now you need six ISBNs per year. If I was living in Canada, the problem is solved to begin with – ISBNs assignments in Canada are free – but I live in Ireland, and Nielsen is a for-profit company (I’ll leave Italy aside for a moment, will go back to it later). If I were to buy a block of 10 codes (the minimum amount), I would have to pay £120 plus VAT and that would last me for almost two years — but that requires me making some €300-400 in royalties over those two years to break even on the up-front cost — there are taxes to be payed over the royalties, you know.

This means well over two hundreds copies of the book to be sold — I would love to, but I’m sure there aren’t that many people interested in what I write. Not the two hundreds, but two hundreds every year — every update would have a hidden cost due to the ISBN needing to be updated, and if you provide the update for free (as I want to do), then you need to sell more copies incrementally.

Now I said above I’ll leave Italy aside — here is why: up until now, the Italian agency for ISBN assignment only allowed publishers to buy blocks of ISBN codes — independent authors had no choice and could not get an ISBN at all. It probably had something to do with the fact that the agency is owned by the Italian publishers association (Associazione Italiana Editori). Admittedly the price is quite more affordable if you are a publisher as it is €30 to join and €50 every 10 codes.

But of course with the new law coming into effect it would have been too much of a discrimination against independent authors to not allow them to get ISBNs at all. So the agency decided that starting this January (or rather, starting from next week, as they are on vacation until the 7th) they will hand out individual ISBNs for “authorpublishing” — sic, in English, I wonder how drunk they were to come up with such a term, when the globally used term would be self-publishing. Of course the fee for those is €25 per code instead, five times as expensive as a publisher would pay for them.

And there is no documentation on how to apply for those yet, because of course they are on vacation still (January 6th is holiday in Italy, it’s common for companies, schools, etc. to take the whole first week off.) and of course they only started providing the numbers when the law entered into effect, to avoid the discrimination. But of course it means that until the authors can find the time to look into the needed documentation, they will be discriminated. Again, only in Italy, as the rest of Europe does not have any such silly rule.

Now, at least a friend of mine was happy that at least for the majority of the ebooks we’ll see a reduced VAT — but will we? I doubt so, as with any VAT change, prices will likely remain the same. When VAT increased from 20% to 21%, stores advertised the increased price for a week, then they came back to what they were before — because something priced at €3.99 wouldn’t remain priced at €4.02 for long, it’s even less convenient. In this case, I doubt that any publisher will change their MSRP for the ebooks to match the reduced VAT — I think the only place where this is going to make a difference is Amazon, as their KDP interface now matches the US price to the ex-VAT price of the books, so that the prices across Amazon websites no longer match across markets as they apply the local VAT, but I wouldn’t be surprised that publishers would still set a MSRP to Amazon to match the same in-VAT price before and after the 22%→4% change, essentially increasing by over 10% their margin.

I’m definitely unconvinced of the new VAT regulations in Europe; they are essentially designed as a protectionistic measure for the various countries’ companies for online services. But right now they are just making it more complex for all the final customers to figure out how much they are paying, and Italy in particular they seem to just be trying to ruin the newly-renewed independent authors’ market which has been, to me, a nice gift of modern ebook distribution.

When (multimedia) fiefdoms crumble

Mike coined the term multimedia fiefdoms recently. He points to a number of different streaming, purchase and rental services for video content (movies, TV series) as the new battleground for users (consumers in this case). There are of course a few more sides in this battle, including music and books, but the idea is still perfectly valid.

What he didn’t get into the details of is what happens one of those fiefdoms capitulates, declaring itself won over, and goes away. It’s not a fun situation to be in, but we actually have plenty of examples of it, and these, more than anything else, should drive the discourse around and against DRM, in my opinion.

For some reasons, the main example of failed fiefdoms is to be found in books, and I lived through (and recounted) a few of those instances. For me personally, it all started four years ago, when I discovered Sony gave up on their LRF format and decided to adopt the “industry standard” ePub by supporting Adobe Digital Editions (ADEPT) DRM scheme on their devices. I was slow on the uptake, the announcement came two years earlier. For Sony, this meant tearing down their walled garden, even though they kept supporting the LRF format and their store for a while – they may even do still, I stopped following two years ago when I moved onto a Kindle – for the user it meant they were now free to buy books from a number of stores, including some publishers, bookstores with online presence and dedicated ebookstores.

But things didn’t always go smoothly: two years later, WHSmith partnered with Kobo, and essentially handed the latter all their online ebook market. When I read the announcement I was actually happy, especially since I could not buy books off WHSmith any more as they started looking for UK billing addresses. Unfortunately it also meant that only a third of the books that I bought from WHSmith were going to be ported over to Kobo due to an extreme cock-up with global rights even to digital books. If I did not go and break the DRM off all my ebooks for the sake of it, I would have lost four books, having to buy them anew again. Given this was not for the seller going bankrupt but for a sell-out of their customers, it was not understandable that they refused to compensate people. Luckily, it did port The Gone-Away World which is one of my favourite books.

Fast forward another year, and the Italian bookstore LaFeltrinelli decided to go the same way, with a major exception: they decided they would keep users on both platforms — that way if you want to buy a digital version of a book you’ll still buy it on the same website, but it’ll be provided by Kobo and in your Kobo library. And it seems like they at least have a better deal regarding books’ rights, as they seemed to have ported over most books anyway. But of course it did not work out as well as it should have been, throwing an error in my face and forcing me to call up Kobo (Italy) to have my accounts connected and the books ported.

The same year, I end up buying a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition, which is a pretty good tablet and has a great digitizer. Samsung ships Google Play in full (Store, Movies, Music, Books) but at the same time install its own App, Video, Music and Book store apps, it’s not surprising. But it does not take six months for them to decide that it’s not their greatest idea, in May this year, Samsung announced the turn down of their Music and Books stores — outside of South Korea at least. In this case there is no handover of the content to other providers, so any content bought on those platforms is just gone.

Not completely in vain; if you still have access to a Samsung device (and if you don’t, well, you had no access to the content anyway), a different kind of almost-compensation kicks in: the Korean company partnered with Amazon of all bookstores — surprising given that they are behind the new “Nook Tablet” by Barnes & Noble. Beside a branded «Kindle for Samsung» app, they provide one out of a choice of four books every month — the books are taken from Amazon’s KDP Select pool as far as I can tell, which is the same pool used as a base for the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library and the Kindle Unlimited offerings; they are not great but some of them are enjoyable enough. Amazon is also keeping honest and does not force you to read the books on your Samsung device — I indeed prefer reading from my Kindle.

Now the question is: how do you loop back all this to multimedia? Sure books are entertaining but they are by definition a single media, unless you refer to the Kindle Edition of American Gods. Well, for me it’s still the same problem of fiefdoms that Mike referred to; indeed every store used to be a walled garden for a long while, then Adobe came and conquered most with ePub and ADEPT — but then between Apple and their iBooks (which uses its own, incompatible DRM), and Amazon with the Kindle, the walls started crumbling down. Nowadays plenty of publishers allow you to buy the book, in ePub and usually many other formats at the same time, without DRM, because the publishers don’t care which device you want to read your book on (a Kindle, a Kobo, a Nook, an iPad, a Sony Reader, an Android tablet …), they only want for you to read the book, and get hooked, and buy more books.

Somehow the same does not seem to work for video content, although it did work to an extent, for a while at least, with music. But this is a different topic.

The reason why I’m posting this right now is that just today I got an email from Samsung that they are turning down their video store too — now their “Samsung Hub” platform gets to only push you games and apps, unless you happen to live in South Korea. It’s interesting to see how the battles between giants is causing small players to just get off the playing fields… but at the same time they bring their toys with them.

Once again, there is no compensation; if you rented something, watch it by the end of the year, if you bought something, sorry, you won’t be able to access it after new year. It’s a tough world. There is a lesson, somewhere, to be learnt about this.

Ramblings on audiobooks

In one of my previous posts I have noted I’m an avid audiobook consumer. I started when I was at the hospital, because I didn’t have the energy to read — and most likely, because of the blood sugar being out of control after coming back from the ICU: it turns out that blood sugar changes can make your eyesight go crazy; at some point I had to buy a pair of €20 glasses simply because my doctor prescribed me a new treatment and my eyesight ricocheted out of control for a week or so.

Nowadays, I have trouble sleeping if I’m not listening to something, and I end up with the Audible app installed in all my phones and tablets, with at least a few books preloaded whenever I travel. Of course as I said, I keep the majority of my audiobooks in the iPod, and the reason is that while most of my library is on Audible, not all of it is. There are a few books that I have bought on iTunes before finding out about Audible, and then there are a few I received in CD form, including The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Complete Radio Series which is my among my favourite playlists.

Unfortunately, to be able to convert these from CD to a format that the iPod could digest, I ended up having to buy a software called Audiobook Builder for Mac, which allows you to rip CDs and build M4B files out of them. What’s M4B? It’s the usual mp4 format container, just with an extension that makes iTunes consider it an audiobook, and with chapter markings in the stream. At the time I first ripped my audiobooks, ffmpeg/libav had no support for chapter markings, so that was not an option. I’ve been told that said support is there now, but I have not tried getting it to work.

Indeed, what I need to find out is how to build an audiobook file out of a string of mp3 files, and I have no idea how to fix that now that I no longer have access to my personal iTunes account on a mac to re-download the Audiobook Builder and process them. In particular, the list of mp3s that I’m looking forward to merge together are the years 2013 and 2014 of BBC’s The News Quiz, to which I’m addicted and listen continuously. Being able to join them all together so I can listen to them with a multi-day-running playlist is one of the very few things that still let me sleep relatively calmly — I say relatively because I really don’t remember when was the last time I have slept soundly in about an year by now.

Essentially, what I’d like is for Audible to let me sideload some content (the few books I did not buy from them, and the News Quiz series that I stitch together from the podcast), and create a playlist — then for what I’m concerned I don’t have to use an iPod at all. Well, beside the fact that I’d have to find a way to shut up notifications while playing audiobooks. Having Dragons of Autumn Twilight interrupted by the Facebook pop notification is not something that I’m looking forward for most of the time. And in some cases I even have had some background update disrupting my playback so there is definitely space for improvement.

Discovering new writers

I’m a book nerd among others. I love reading, although the time sometimes is lacking and I’m quite far off from the end of my queue of books to read. In particular, just before leaving for Dublin I got the collection of Ian Fleming’s novels for $2/each through Amazon and their Amazon Local deals. But while I have quite a few authors that I absolutely love, and to which I turn when I want to have an enjoyable read, I also like discovering new authors and new series.

Once upon a time, I used to listen to a BBC books podcast; that podcast is no more nowadays, but it made me discover one of my favourite books ever, The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway — and the author of the book as well, since I also loved his Angelmaker which I bought as soon as it came out. I also read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which I did not like as much but was not a bad read.

Unfortunately the podcast is now gone. I tried a few alternatives but none seems to be the kind of not-too-heavy and interesting programme that I used to listen to. So I needed a different source for discovering new authors and series. Suggestions by readers and other friends are obviously quite useful, but that usually bring me to fill my wishlist with new books that I haven’t bought yet.

What did help me last time to discover something new has been The Humble eBook Bundle which made me discover Mercedes Lackey, Invasion and the Secret World Chronicles — I look forward to read the second part, I’m trying to consume the rest of the queue before buying anything new.

It’s not just that buying the Bundle makes it cheaper – although I admit it does – but there’s also the fact that by mixing well-known authors together with newcomers, you know that you won’t be disappointed with the expense. In the case of the first bundle, I had the comics from penny Arcade, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and XKCD that I was very happy with getting, everything else would have been fine even if it completely sucked, luckily it didn’t though. With the second eBook bundle, I was happy with getting Doctorow’s book as well as Wil Wheaton. I haven’t gotten around reading them but I’m sure they are going to be quite the read.

Another, different approach is the one I tried to take with Amazon Local deals. I’m still subscribed to the Los Angeles deals, and it seems like every other month they come up with a “Get these Kindle titles at $1/each” kind of deal. Last time I decided to try some new authors, in the thriller/crime novel genre. Of these, I ended up buying a craptastic one which I’m going to recommend everybody not to read. It was unfortunate, at least it was only $1.

I’m still looking forward for more book recommendation — I really wish there was an alternative to Amazon’s “Recommended for you”, more like “Your friends read these books”, but even Anobii seems to be basically in non-maintenance mode. If you have some suggestions on podcasts to follow for new books coming out, I’m all ears (pun intended), so let me know in the comments!

My time abroad: Dublin tips

I’m actually writing this while “on vacation” in Italy (vacation being defined as in, I took days off work, but I’ve actually been writing thousands of words, between the blog, updates to Autotools Mythbuster and starting up a new project that will materialize in the future months), but I’ve been in Ireland for a few months already, and there are a few tips that I think might be useful for the next person moving to Dublin.

First of all, get a local SIM card. It’s easy and quick to get a prepay (top up) card. I actually ended up getting one from Three Ireland, for a very simple reason: their “Three like home” promotion allows me to use the card in Italy, the UK and a few more countries like if it was a local one. In particular, I’ve been using HSDPA connection with my Irish account while in Italy, without risking bankruptcy — the Three offer I got in Ireland is actually quite nice by itself: as long as I top up 20 euro per month, whether I spend it or keep it, they give me unlimited data (it shows up in my account as 2TB of data!). The same offer persists in Italy.

I’ve also found useful to get a pre-paid mobile hotspot device, for when guests happen to stop by: since it does not make sense for them to get an Irish SIM, I just hand them the small device and they connect their phone to that. When my sister came to visit, we were able to keep in touch via WhatsApp.. neither of us spent money with expensive international SMS, and she could use the maps even if I was not around. I decided to hedge my bets and I got a Vodafone hotspot; the device costed me €60, and came with a full month prepaid, I can then buy weekly packages when I get guests.

Technology-wise, I found that Dublin is surprisingly behind even compared to Italy: I could find no chainstores like Mediaworld or Mediamarkt, and I would suggest you avoid Maplin like a plague — I needed quickly two mickey-mouse cables with UK plugs, so I bought them there for a whopping €35 per cable… they are sold at €6 usually. I’ve been lucky at Peats (in Parnell Street) but it seems to be a very hit and miss on which employee is following you. Most of everything I ended up getting through Amazon — interestingly enough I got a mop (Mocio Vileda) through Amazon as well, because the local supermarkets in my area did no carry it, and the one I found it at (Dunnes in St Stephen Green) made it cumbersome to bring it back home; Amazon shipped it and I paid less for it.

Speaking of supermarkets, I got extremely lucky in my house hunting, and I live right in the middle of two EuroSpar — some of their prices are more similar to a convenience store than a supermarket, but they are not altogether too bad. I was able to find buckwheat flakes in their “healthy and gluten free” aisle, which I actually like (since I’m not a coeliac, I don’t usually try to eat gluten free — I just happen to dislike corn and rice flakes).

I also found out that ordering online at Tesco can actually save me money: it allows me to buy bigger boxes for things like detergents, as I don’t have to carry the heavy bags, and at the same time they tend to have enough offers to make up for the delivery charge of €4. Since they have a very neat mobile app (as well as website — they even ask you the level of JavaScript complexity you want to use, to switch to a more accessible website), I found that it’s convenient for me to prepare a basket over there, then drop by the EuroSpar to check for things that are cheaper over there (when I go there for coffee), and finally order it. For those who wonder why I still drop by the EuroSpar, as I said in a previous post they have an Insomnia coffee shop inside, which means I go there to have breakfast, or for a post-lunch coffee, whenever I’m not at work. Plus sometimes you need something right away and you don’t want to wait delivery, in which case I also go to there.

Anyway, more tips might follow at a later time, for the moment you have a few ideas of what I’m spending my time doing in Dublin…