Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Word on Piracy

      I'm going to take a step back from my normal routine of blogging about science, to mention another topic dear to my heart.  It concerns Science Fiction literature, and the effects digital piracy is having on our favorite entertainment.  For those who think that science and sci-fi have nothing in common, let me just say that many of today's technologies would not exist if someone hadn't inspired a scientist or engineer to figure out how that fictional tech could really work.  Unfortunately, the creativity is at risk due to the nature of digital piracy. 

      There is a lot of talk about piracy lately.  It is pervasive, and affects every product and service known.  Pretty much any form of intellectual property is subject to piracy: books, software, movies, and music. 
      Sometimes the piracy is directly related to scarcity; such as the television show “Game of Thrones”, where HBO only allows subscribers to view it, or you have to purchase a copy.  Many people, like myself, want to watch it, but are not willing to plunk down $50 for each season without REALLY wanting to watch it repeatedly.  Others pirate because they don’t like the idea of someone getting rich off their hard-earned cash.  They envision authors, actors, musicians, and the nameless leech-like executives (that suckle off the teat of the consumer) rolling around vaults of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck.  The vast majority of people pirate because they feel that they shouldn’t have to pay for something that they can get free.  Unfortunately, every action has its consequence, and piracy is no exception.
      To protect their investment, content producers (i.e. movie studios, record companies, publishers, authors, musicians, actors, and video game makers) have resorted to draconian methods and tactics.  DRM, SOPA, PIPA, DMCA, and ACTA are just a few of the acronyms that we have been forced to deal with in an effort to combat piracy.  Every single one of these efforts has broad unintended consequences that do nothing more than hinder the free exchange of ideas, and stifle creativity.
      What kind of piracy are we talking about?  Is it Oliver Wendell Jones shouting at his computer “Avast! ye scurvy corporate swabs! Prepare to be boarded!”?  No.  It is taking material that doesn’t belong to you, and either giving it away, or selling it for a profit without compensating the original creator.
      I once saw a description on YouTube that stated that the poster wanted more content so they could make money from Google ads.  This person was quite honest that they didn’t create the video in question, but felt that somehow the creators OWED they for making something they enjoyed.  This made me angry.  Not because I had anything to do with making the video in question, but that someone who had put NO effort into producing the finished product felt that, they should enjoy the profits of other people’s labor.  Even the hacking group Anonymous took issue when someone ripped videos off their YouTube channel, and made money selling ads to view it on a similar sounding channel.
      What bothers me is not someone enjoying my work without giving me a dime, but there are other people trying to make money on something they had absolutely NO help in creating.  Although I work very hard, and put in thousands of hours to complete a single novel, I am not the only one involved.  My wife put in just as much time as I do, as well as my daughters.  Everyone worked to make this the best it could possibly be.  We looked for continuity problems, grammatical errors, plot holes, character consistency, and scrutinized every word to come up with something that would be pleasurable to read. 
      Many self-published authors are satisfied with their first draft, and put it out to the public without any regard for spelling, punctuation, grammar, plot, story, or consistency.  Many books (movies and TV shows) that DO have traditional publishers lack imagination, or discernible plot, and are replete with continuity errors.  I read some books, and wonder how in the world these monstrosities ever got to a printing press.  I have done my very best to make my books, and stories the best they can be.  Are they perfect?  No, but they are as good as I can make them.
      If you enjoy my writing, and want to continue to progress along the story line; I have to be able to produce them.  Long story short: I have bills (just like you).  I can’t barter for my phone, mortgage, taxes, gas, car, or children needing medical care.  I have to pay cash.  The only way to do that is to work, very hard.  Even with a steady job, something always demands more of my hard-earned money.  I am not the only author in this position.  Only a select few (authors, actors, artists, etc.) make enough money that they can quit their 9 to 5 jobs and create full-time.  Ask any author who belongs to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and they will tell you that they don’t make much money from writing.  They do it because they enjoy it.  Most are happy to find a modest paycheck in the mail for their efforts, but some don’t even make back their advance.
      For those who chose the self-publish route, the idea is quantity over quality.  The more books you have, the more money you make.  It doesn’t matter if the books make little sense, and have horrible writing.  Sell them for 99¢ and people will not mind paying for something that took almost no effort to create.  I will not, cannot abide that mentality. 
      I feel that you get what you pay for, and most publishers ask for more than they deserve.  When you purchase a J.K. Rowling book, you pay for the publisher’s cost (including paper, ink, illustrators, editors, typesetters, printers, and profit) as well as the author’s agent (usually 15-20%) and finally the writer (who might get as little as 10-20% of the book price.  My books aren’t cheap, but they aren’t expensive (like those sold by major publishers).  I have taken on all the expenses of the publishers, and still have people who (for some silly reason) expect to be paid for their hard work.  They deserve to be paid.  That is only possible if people pay for the book.
      I don’t charge an exorbitant price to read my book (either in physical, or ebook form), but I don’t want people to think it’s some cheap pulp fiction novel plopped together in an afternoon, and spammed its way to profit.  I only ask that a fair price be paid, so I can continue to make these stories available.  It is a LOT of work to get a decent book published.  There are many expenses, (usually assumed by publishers) which I have had to accept in order to get the book into your hands.  It has to be worth it to me to continue to publish the stories I have, or I think my efforts (and money) would be better spent on other things. 
      Piracy takes the financial incentive away, and makes it a liability.  It is stealing.  It is taking my precious time, energy, effort, creativity, and money.  Whatever justification is used to reconcile the need to get something free or even profit from my work is only an illusion.  If you were to reverse the situation, things would be different.  If you spent years working on something, spending thousands of hours on it, investing your passion and soul into crafting it; only to have someone else take it (or worse: take credit for it).  You would be outraged (to put it mildly).
      What I’m asking for isn’t much.  The cost of the novels isn’t outlandish, and barely covers my expenses.  I’m not being a giant douche and sticking DRM all over it.  I’m asking you to be a decent person, because I’m being decent to you.  I probably don’t even know you.  I am asking you (politely) to allow me to continue to share my hobby with you.  That isn’t too much to ask.  It isn’t unreasonable.  It is only asking a fair price for quality. 
      You might not like my writing, or enjoy Science Fiction or Fantasy (not everyone does).  If that is the case, don’t buy my books, but please don’t think that piracy isn’t a victimless crime without consequences.  SOPA might not have passed, but that doesn’t mean that laws like it are going away.  As long as people pirate, there will be companies trying to punish that activity, regardless of the unintended consequences.  Don’t give them the ammunition they need to make something as simple as reading a book a living nightmare.  If you don’t believe me, ask the Swedish woman who had her Kindle turned into a brick, and all her lawful purchases annulled because she was suspected of piracy, or the Hugo awards presentation that was effectively shut down by DRMbots that determined copyrighted material was being used without explicit permission (which they had).
      One of the main themes of DARK ESCAPE is that actions have consequences.  Think to yourself; is this inexpensive book really worth ruining everyone’s enjoyment over the long run?  The answer you’re looking for is - no, it isn’t

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Interplanetary Landfill

It’s time I explained something about garbage.  Not just any garbage, mind you, space garbage.  Every satellite, manned spacecraft, and missile ever launched since 1956 has left, in some way, some debris in orbit.  From tools, and bags dropped by astronauts, to shattered remnants of weapons tests and collisions.  The problem has been recognized as a real threat to space travel for quite some time, but little has been done to address the problem (other than monitoring). 

Space junk is such an issue it has its own webpage, Wikipedia article, and an entire division of NORAD devoted to the problem.   Unlike the scene in Wall—e where the spaceship busts through the crowd of satellites surrounding the earth, the situation is far more serious.  Satellites don’t just sit still in orbit.   They travel tens of thousands of miles per hour.  In an earlier post, I showed a video of a car hitting a wall at over a hundred miles an hour.  A collision in orbit is 10,000% worse.  Even a small object can cripple a satellite, or destroy a space station.  The ISS (International Space Station) has to routinely alter course to avoid floating debris.

Image credit NASA
The problem isn’t getting any better.  Every month there are new satellites launched into various orbits, on various missions, by an increasing number of countries.  Not every launch is successful, and not every country cares about the debris left over (I’m looking at you DPRK and China). 

This isn’t ordinary junk.  It isn’t plastics, spare tires, Bart Simpson dolls, or unused AOL floppy disks.  Satellites are generally made of expensive materials in order to resist the harsh conditions of space.  This means a lot of gold, copper, aluminum, silicon, and rare earth metals that comprise electrical circuits, and the shielding necessary to keep them from shorting out during solar storms.  There are power systems, which can include solar and nuclear sources, and fuel for guidance systems to keep the satellite in the desired orbit.  Satellites are NOT cheap.

The greatest problem confronting scientists right now is how to deal with the problem.  DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration) has been looking at solutions that involve robots, lasers, nets, and automated spacecraft to collect the ever increasing trash, and get rid of it (either by recycling, moving, vaporizing, or returning).   Described in this Mental_Floss article.

The solution isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Remember the debris is moving rather quickly (17,000 mph +) and that contacting said debris in the wrong manner could, as I said earlier, cause significant damage to the spacecraft, if not the debris.   A simple case of this was a weapons test by China in 2007, where they destroyed a satellite using a “kinetic kill vehicle”.   The resulting impact shattered both vehicles into over 150,000 pieces with over 2,300 of those pieces larger than the size of a golf ball.   

Lasers would move the debris out of the way instead of vaporizing it, because blowing the junk up only adds to the problem.  I’m not a fan of this because: 1) it’s wasteful (throwing away gold makes no sense), 2) pushing our junk further into space, is just polluting the entire solar system instead of just our earth moon system.  

I’m also not a fan of capturing the debris and then vaporizing it on re—entry, because we’re just back to throwing away gold.  On top of that, we go through the expense of launching the retrieval vehicle into space.  

Using a single use capture vehicle to go after one bit of space debris at a time would take a very long time somewhat address the issue.  Remember there are hundreds of thousands of individual bits of junk up there.  This method would return the debris, but be a very expensive remedy in the end. 

Obviously, the problem is a complex one, and that no one solution will work in all cases.  It’s also not a problem limited to the United States.  This is a global issue that needs to be addressed sooner, rather than later.