Category Archives: media

E(-)state Planning: What Happens to Kindle Books When You Die?

I woke up wondering “what happens to your Kindle books when you die?” Though not an urgent question, it’s relevant considering I live in a Kindle-converting household. The ownership of the 1,000+ paper books in the house will be pretty clear when I die, but what about my Kindle books?

Based on a Google search, I’ve found two related arguments:

  1. Kindle books are licensed to you and the license expires when you die.
  2. Kindle books are licensed to your account, which can theoretically continue after you die.
Next I went back and read the actual current Kindle terms of use. It’s refreshingly brief. As was pointed out by the referenced sources, there are two relevant passages under “Digital Content”:
the Content Provider grants you a non-exclusive right to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Kindle or a Reading Application or as otherwise permitted as part of the Service, solely on the number of Kindles or Other Devices specified in the Kindle Store, and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.
you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove or modify any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In addition, you may not bypass, modify, defeat, or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.

I’m not even slightly a lawyer, but my take on this is that the letter of the agreement indicates you can’t bequeath your Kindle content in your will, as that would fall into the “otherwise assign” category.

However, having seen some of the tricks lawyers are able to pull, and wanting to sympathize with the second “account” interpretation, I have to ask, when they say “grants you a non-exclusive right,” who do they mean by “you?” And, important to this discussion, does “you” extend beyond your physical presence into your electronic presence? Because imagine this scenario: You own two Kindles. You sync both Kindles to your account and download two “copies” of the same book. You hand one of your Kindles to someone and say, “hey, read this, and let’s talk about it.” They take your Kindle home with them for a few weeks. When they’re done, they hand your Kindle back to you. In that transaction, you didn’t “sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights.” But someone else was able to read a book from your account, outside your presence, seemingly without violating the license agreement. In court, the counter-argument might be that this somehow served to “bypass, modify, defeat, or circumvent security features.” But would a jury buy that?

Assuming you think handing someone your Kindle isn’t breach of contract, let’s take the next step. What if you leave your physical Kindle to someone in your will? No problem there. The device is property. What if you take another step and leave them the device, still activated, and include an envelope containing your Amazon account username and password? Easy enough to do. But what are the implications? Is this materially different from the first scenario, the loaning of an activated Kindle? Perhaps in intent, but let’s set that aside from a moment.

At least initially, your heir needs to take no action to continue reading “your” books. You’ve given them a device which has access to the content licensed to “you.” As anyone who has gone through a probate knows, the concept of person-hood does not completely disintegrate after death. I’ve received and cashed checks in the name of a dead person up to four years after first standing at her occupied grave. Granted, there was some assignment of rights making that possible. But it’s not uncommon for us to act upon the wishes of the dead, written and unwritten, spoken and unspoken, for years after they die. They’re still a person, and we’re still taking actions on their behalf. This is totally accepted in our culture and our legal system.

So let’s get back to the Kindle. You have a physical Kindle you now own, with an account “loaned” to you by a dead person. So far, you (the heir) have taken no action different from borrowing an activated Kindle. You might not have to take any action for several years. Probably you should log into the account and change the notification email address, remove any credit cards, cancel subscriptions, etc. This is, in fact, what the executor of the estate would be expected to do. Would the executor be required to close or delete the account if it were rendered incapable of incurring new charges? Probably not–their job is primarily to settle financial claims.

So let’s say the account is changed in such a way that it can be maintained in perpetuity without further input. That Kindle should have access to that content “forever.” But what happens when the physical Kindle dies? Does buying a new Kindle and assigning it to the dead person’s account (or connecting Cloud Reader to that account) constitute an effort to “bypass, modify, defeat, or circumvent security?” I’d still argue no. All security inherent in the system is still present. The DRM on the files in intact; the account has a password. They didn’t say you may not “bypass, modify, defeat, or circumvent” the license.

What surprised me in all of this is that Amazon hasn’t been more explicit about what happens when an account holder dies. I’d guess this is because reminding customers of their mortality is bad marketing, but also because it probably hasn’t come up very often, and almost certainly hasn’t ended up in court. I’m betting there will eventually be a clarification on this one way or another. Until then, I’d say make sure your Amazon account credentials are in your estate planning package.

On SNS Backlash and Opting Out

Following up on my post from yesterday, I was thinking about social networks in term of personal return on investment: for some of us there really isn’t any. It seems Dave Slusher has some of the same concerns, and cites a Scoble post for contributing to his opting out of the whole SNS thing. There’s wonderful symmetry here because it’s largely Scoble that got me even considering joining a SNS.

What I’ve decided is that SNS is a bad idea for me for the same reason it’s a good idea for Scoble. Scoble’s a pundit. His job is to connect to a lot of people, keep his eyes and ears open for the next new hotness, and then distribute that information via his various output channels. Nice work if you can get it. But it’s not my work. Trying to maintain even a single presence online for me is definitely more trouble than it’s “worth.” My ROI on this blog is certainly negative, both in the short term (hosting costs, opportunity costs for time spent on each post and tweak) and the long term (expressing my honest opinions will almost certainly cost me friends and business down the road, versus the relative safety of staying politely quiet or concentrating on a more traditional, less sincere “marketing strategy”).

From this perspective, if I join, I become basically a social network wage slave. I sacrifice my time, energy, privacy, etc. and contribute content to this “thing” that ultimately doesn’t benefit me, certainly not as much as it benefits the network itself, or power users in a certain niche, like Scoble. To be one of the mooing masses on a social network has exactly the same cost-benefit ratio of being a cow in any other sphere. The obvious argument against what I’m saying would be to contend that SNS is not a zero-sum game, that everyone gains and no one loses. I’m not buying it. Like Slusher, I don’t feel like there’s been one tangible benefit to me from SNS involvement, or for that matter from maintaining any kind of content-based online presence (most especially including this blog). And, like Slusher, I know there are a million better, more fulfilling things I could be doing with my time.

Early Hef with Bonus RAW in The Realist

This 1961 “interview” with Hugh Hefner is amusingly dated but surprisingly prescient on (just) a couple of points, including the always-looming puritan menace (or the perception thereof) and Hef’s own future-present (projecting himself in later life: ‘I’ll have all those “Playmates of the Month” around to keep my interest.’).

Yet there’s no escaping that Hef’s pseudo-intellectual, self-styled “masculism” always left him sounding like an inflated dick. A few issues later we have none other than Robert Anton Wilson pointing out Hef’s politico-economic naivete, while of course espousing his own socialist-anarchist worldview.

In both cases, these short, fringe-published works are remarkably true to the later-life character of these men. There’s a lot of other good stuff in The Realist archive if you poke around.

The End of Harry Potter… Just in Time?

Here’s an interesting argument that reading Harry Potter isn’t “real” reading–for adults, and it also debunks the “gateway” metaphor for kids–but simply participation in one more carefully-choreographed, highly-mediated event. I guess the good news is that culturally we appear to have some tolerance ceiling for carefully-choreographed, highly-mediated experiences. Maybe.

Getting past the idea of Harry Potter and his rabid fans being the philistines at the hedgerow of serious literature, this article also touches on the idea of the death of criticism and the ascendancy of the review. The difference is that a review is essentially a piece of marketing material, most often in favor of the piece, only occasionally against (in the context of defusing an over-hyped “project”). Criticism by contrast is comparative, attempting to get at the meaning of a work’s broad relation to other works and cultural memes.

The broader issue here is whether reading is purely escapist entertainment (book reviews perform the function of TV Guide), or whether it has deeper personal importance and meaning (the critical approach). This is an important distinction because in the former case reading is essentially trivial: like most mass media today, a base, simplistic reflection of populism and mediocrity (and what is Harry Potter, a book or movie consumed by millions of people over the same weekend, if not a mass medium?). In the latter case, if reading has personal meaning and importance, then the prevalence and condition of critical, thoughtful readers becomes a culturally vital issue. Harper’s has an extended article on this topic that I highly recommend.

The Real Problem with Corporate Transparency

Or maybe it’s a problem with trying to feign corporate transparency. In any case, it tends to demonstrate to the world the fact that some of your employees are particularly craven and one-dimensional, for example when this Google blogger puts her foot in her mouth up to her ribcage. And then recants, or retracts or CYAs or something. ZDNet has decent analysis.

Some of this woman’s statements are just so patently dumb that I still want to believe it’s a hoax. “…whether Mr. Moore wants to challenge the healthcare industry, advertising is a very democratic and effective way to participate in a public dialogue” Seriously? You mean as opposed to going out and interviewing people for a documentary on the topic?

This is why your CEO doesn’t want you blogging.

Crude Awakening

I took a couple of hours last night when I should have been working and instead watched Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash, part of The Sundance Channel project, “The Green.” The documentary provides a solid overview of a topic that I believe is going to be the next global warming, both in terms of the far-reaching effects and also in how ineffectually we deal with them. Like global warming, the idea of peak oil–that at some point demand will outstrip supply, that there is a tipping point beyond which we can no longer rely on oil as the central engine of our economy–has been around for years. In fact, no doubt through the efforts of various lobbies and think tanks, it’s developed somewhat of the same patina as global warming: you almost have to be a crackpot to believe in it. The weird thing is, it’s not a theory–no belief is required. The idea that a finite resource with unchecked demand will at some point become scarce and expensive is, in addition to being day one of Economics 101, just a logical fact. The only question is when. A significant portion of the movie is spent on this, and by all accounts it’s going to happen for sure within the next hundred years, most likely in the next 50, and quite possibly in the next 20. We’re already feeling the effects today, despite serious continuing efforts on the part of the oil industry (of which the U.S. government is currently a business unit) to shield us from this reality.

I’ve blogged about peak oil in the past, and what continues to fascinate me about the prospect is that it truly represents an inversion of what we in America have come to think of as the way of the world. We believe that (and I say this because we certainly act as if) we can grow and innovate our way out of anything. This is another tautology (like the fact that a limited resource eventually runs out): capitalism demands growth. As we define it, capitalism is growth. The way to solve any problem is to work harder, make more, “leverage” our resources, get bigger, achieve economies of scale, and so on. This is what we believe. And we also tend to believe that we’ve accomplished this for the last 100 years purely through ingenuity and the sweat off our brows. In fact what we’ve been doing is living like global trust-fund kids–cashing in an inheritance to buy lots of pretty toys, have some exciting adventures, and generally engage in a whole lot of showy, meaningless, masturbatory games (a.k.a. Western culture). That inheritance, the dead relative writing all the checks, is oil. That oil represents the captured and condensed energy of thousands of years of solar radiation and millions of years of tectonic activity. That oil is not replaceable, not literally in terms of the hydrocarbons themselves, nor theoretically in terms of the energy they provide.

I had the opportunity to bring this idea up to a real live futurist a couple of years ago. I managed to catch Bruce Sterling’s attention at the SXSW closing party, and I asked him if the “oil problem” wouldn’t begin to sort itself out after peak oil. I figured a guy who so often talks about radical change would be interested in what would happen in a world where oil prices started hitting the steep part of the hyperbola (in case the image doesn’t come quickly to mind, the hyperbola is the curve that never comes back down). He wouldn’t take the bait. So maybe even bright greens don’t want to talk about peak oil. Certainly $300/barrel crude is going to cut into the fun of building fabjects out of quick-curing polymers.

The movie throws around some interesting, if dodgy, statistics. By far the most optimistic one is the idea that we could cover half the state of California with solar panels to provide for the current energy demands of the United States. Sounds ridiculous at first, but if you think about it, this is within an order of magnitude of the total coverage of pavement in the U.S. So if the solar energy industry grew (hey, look, we can grow our way out of this one too!) to just the size of the paving industry, we might be okay. That’s an over-simplification, of course, but it’s at least a scale we can deal with. But how long have we been laying down pavement? And unfortunately solar panels, like pavement, require a lot of petroleum to make. Crap. As the movie points out, if we tried to replace oil with the only other high-density energy source we have at the moment–nuclear fission–all the known nuclear fuel deposits would be depleted in about 20 years at current rates of growth and consumption. Double crap.

On a technical level, I wish they had spent more time on two subjects: hydrogen and coal. As far as I’m concerned, hydrogen can never get too much debunking. We really, really need to get this straight. Hydrogen is not oil. Hydrogen is electricity. Hydrogen is not a source of energy, not a resource; it’s a medium for energy transport. You have to make (technically liberate) hydrogen, and that making represents a net consumption of energy from other sources. I don’t get how we’ve missed this, since it’s the most basic kind of thermodynamics problem. The movie does, however, explain why we’ve been sold this bill of goods called hydrogen (and also why we’ve been so willing to buy it): transportation. We’re a transportation society. Nothing happens in our society that isn’t transportation. Literally. It’s another tautology: if it doesn’t involve transportation, we don’t think of it as having happened. Unless you’re lucky enough to be sitting on the beach receiving free WiFi at the moment, if you stood up and looked all around you’d see roughly 1000 items in your field of vision. Each of those 1000 items traveled roughly 1000 miles to get to you. Each of the manufacturing and transportation system responsible for generating and delivering those items to you relies on roughly 1000 other processes of manufacturing and transportation to do their work. Somewhere between the second and third degree of separation, just the room you’re sitting in required approximately one billion miles of transportation to reify. According to the movie, greater than 95% of all transportation energy comes from oil. The reason for this is obvious: liquid fuels are the only energy sources dense enough to power modern transportation equipment. Try to imagine a wood-burning automobile or a coal-fire airplane… it’s impossible. From a political and economic perspective, this is why we need hydrogen, no matter how far-fetched and misguided the idea of a “hydrogen economy” really is. There is simply no way to maintain our economy without high-density liquid fuels. The unsuitability of hydrogen as an aircraft fuel is just one flaw in the hydrogen plan for maintaining “business as usual.” The big problem is, where do we get all the hydrogen?

The really glaring omission, from a how-bad-is-all-this-likely-to-get perspective, is coal. I’m not sure it’s mentioned at all in the movie. This is strange because coal is exactly how we’re most likely to pad the energy budget in the short- to mid-term. It’s not dense enough for transportation, but it works “great” for generating electricity, and in a post-peak world it might even start looking “good” again for heating purposes. The reason for all those quotes is that this is a horrible idea. Even Texas has to think twice about installing new coal-fired electric generating plants; that’s how bad they are–even red states don’t want them. But ultimately we may not think we have a choice. Given the demands China and India (everyone continues to assume Africa will never get its act together enough to join the party) will put on petroleum in the next 20 years (hey, it’s a free market), I think coal is going to come to be seen as the “stay the course” approach for America’s energy problems. Coal, after all, has a strong lobby, and we have plenty of it right here in the U.S.–all you have to do is blast off the top of a mountain in West Virginia. Hell, they won’t even complain. Much. This is shaping up to be a serious problem post-peak oil. If we really do try to cushion the free-fall with coal, the environmental and human costs could be worse than what we’ve seen from petroleum.

I have several other complaints about the movie. The tone wavers between overly-dramatic and overly-pedantic. Some of the speakers are ill-chosen. The presentation of the guy sitting in his Y2K peak-oil bunker, while perhaps cinematic, comes across as particularly undermining. Yet presumably his is the agenda most in line with the typical viewer–personal and family-level survival in the world of peak oil has to be the top priority for most of us. And yet there are two possible approaches that come out of this: sit in your bunker and let the rest of the world burn, venturing out occasionally for the bare necessities (American foreign policy in a nutshell), or, and I’m really going to think outside the box here for a second, fix the fucking problem. Unfortunately, the movie also makes the classic Casandra-style mistake: predicting doom and gloom without providing any hope for solution. This is exactly the rhetorical mode humans, perhaps Americans in particular, find least appealing–we simply can’t cope with bad news that lacks a massive dose of cognitive Splenda to cover the bitterness of reality. We shut down; we go into denial. In fact, the news has been so bad for so long that we no longer enter and leave denial: we inhabit it. Denial is the name on the door of our bunker, posted right above the sign “protected by Smith & Wesson” (I am, in fact, describing my own bunker here as well).

I strongly recommend this movie. If peak oil isn’t on your radar, this is a good introduction. Even if you’re relatively up to speed on the idea, this movie illustrates some concrete examples of localized peak oil experiences (Texas and California for two domestic ones, but also Venezuela and Azerbaijan, which didn’t “grow past” peak oil quite as effectively–even Saudi Arabia seems to be on the down slope). I’d suggest fixing yourself a stiff drink during the opening (the whole “blood of the Earth” thing is a bit much). If it helps to get through the rest, imagine this is all happening to someone else–the average Saudi, for example, who already lives about 40% below what we consider to be the poverty line.

Why I Continue to Hate Surveys

Following up on my earlier post regarding the evils of polling… MSN has an article that purports to uncover the “bottom 10” worst customer service companies. If you take the list at face value, the only conclusion you can draw is that large banks and large phone and Internet companies have poor customer service. No initial surprises there. But the fact that I’m at least a part-time customer of up to seven of these companies–and that only one has stood out in my mind as having truly bad service (Time Warner)–set off some warning bells. Do they seem particularly bad at customer service simply because they have so many customers to complain about bad customer service?

If you dig into the methodology of the survey, you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than a straight ranking, and that in fact there’s no “top 10” to go with the bottom 10. Here’s why:

Right off the bat you have a self-selection bias inherent in asking the initial group only for bad customer service experiences and then picking the top 20. If you asked the same group for their best customer service experiences you’d likely get a substantially similar group, simply because so many people are customers of these same 20 companies.

Zogby tried to clean it up a bit by offering a full scale of response (“excellent,” “good,” “fair,” “poor,” “not familiar,” “not sure”), but the damage is already done. In fact, by discarding the “not sure”s and “not familiar”s they actually increased the bias against large companies. This sort of downward divination can only serve to exaggerate the response biases in both groups. So this survey ends up telling you very little about what to expect when dealing with these companies, and it gives you no positive information at all, since no data was collected about good customer service experiences.

Bottom line: Even a company with years of experience applying science to customer satisfaction research can find it challenging to come up with a robust methodology. And that’s presumably without the influence of the tabloid-style inflammatory agenda that MSN has.