One of the most charming and exasperating traits of small-city Austria is the locals’ casualness about copyright law. From a local plumber whose logo alludes to a popular TV series, to the cafe with a Disney Corp artist’s version of a Kipling character on their sign, to the academics who publish wherever and then stick the PDF on academia.edu as soon as it arrives in their inbox, they just do what they want as long as large sums of money are not involved. Ironically, Austrian Urheberrecht guarantees creators some privileges which in other countries they can sign away, such as the right to be acknowledged as the origin of a work. But on some other areas, they don’t fuss the details. Also, the Austrian academics I know have mostly moved away from assigning textbooks which are sold for money; they don’t write long tracts about the affordability of education (university in Austria costs about EUR 1600 a year in fees) or wicked commercial publishers charging hundreds of dollars for a calculus book, just put handouts together and share them.
Although I can’t put my finger on how, somehow this feels different than my gamer buddies explaining why they are not willing to pay $40 for a beautiful illustrated hardcover book by a game designer, or Jessamyn West agonizingly debating whether to tell library patrons that DRM can be broken or sci-hub exists. To me it feels more like the way Austrians smoke like chimneys, manage the sex trade, and accept polite corruption and horse-trading. Austria had to put up with the counter-reformation and watch National Socialists rebranded themselves as libertarian (freiheitlich), and quite a few Austrians don’t want to fight for fundamental reform, just quietly get what they want done in the grey areas. Read more
This year I became Dr. Manning, saw my first journal article printed, went hiking with friends, and discovered that Assyriologists are surprisingly interested in talks about swords. Visits to this site increased about 10% despite my slower posting. The most visited pages were Learning Sumerian is Hard, How Heavy Were Doublets and Pourpoints?, my description of how the historical fencers drifted away from me, Fashion in the Age of Datini, and From Aleph Bet to Alphabet.
This fall produced the usual crop of people wondering if keeping a personal website is anachronistic. I don’t see anything wrong with being anachronistic, and as I look at the political economy of the Internet this decade, I see some things which maybe they have not considered. Read more
The plaque in memory of the Canadian Corps outside the Malatesta wall and the Roman gate of Rimini, October 2018 A few weeks ago I came to Rimini from the north fresh from the silversmith’s church in Ravenna. Caesar came that way a long time ago as the first strike in... Continue reading: The 9th and the 11th
One of my jobs is as a freelance writer, and it is a hard time for us. Advances and royalties are falling, and professional writers in a rich country earn an average of 10k a year from their writing (CAD, USD, GBP, EUR … the currencies vary but the numbers are similar). Elaine Dewar has seen a study that only 7% of the revenues of the Canadian publishing industry are paid to authors; I hope she names it in the print version of ‘The Handover’ and puts it next to how much goes to the publisher and how much to retailers, printers, server farms, and other middlemen and service providers, because another source estimates 10% to the writer, 10% to the publisher, 10% to production, and 70% to various middlemen. Chart writers’ incomes from their writing and you find a hockey stick: the top 5% of authors in the UK earned 42% of the income. If you follow novelists you will hear about the death of short fiction as a paying proposition in the 1970s, the midlist death spiral in the 2000s, or changes in search rules on Amazon or Facebook which devastate creative people’s sales. The central problems are, probably, that they keep inventing other forms of entertainment, and that so many people want to be writers even if the pay is bad. These days if you are interested in history you can watch YouTube or read blogs about books and swords instead of opening a book that someone paid for. (That said, I would really like to see some data on book sales over the last 10 or 20 years … right now all I have is anecdotes).
Now, people like Kris Rusch or Dean Wesley Smith will remind you that many writers change pen names as casually as some people change their clothes, and that surveys of writers are often answered by wannabes who do not write, do not finish what they write, do not put it on the market, and do not keep it on the market until someone buys it. If a favourite writer vanishes or only publishes a book now and then, they may well have switched to a new pen name or be spending time writing a different genre. However, I don’t see any reason to think that there were more wannabe writers in 2014 than 2005 to drive down the average income, and pay rates for short fiction have not increased much since the middle of the last century, while the value of a dollar or a pound has collapsed (the Science Fiction Writers of America, for example, count works paid at least 6 cents a word as professionally published … back in 1940 a penny a word was typical, but the penny was worth 17 times more). If rates are falling, clearly writers have to publish more to earn the same.
Talking about the publishing recalls the fable of the blind man and the elephant: everyone assumes that their little corner of the industry is the model for the whole. So in this post, I would like to talk about the situation in some kinds of publishing which are not as famous as novels.
One would think that someone coming this way on a cycle with headlights and reflectors would need to watch out to the right and bear a little bit left, since cyclists coming from the left can see you coming and slow down if they want to make the turn onto the... Continue reading: A Tag from the Bard
Another year ends in the manner of the one which ended Xenophon’s Hellenica: after terrible battles and startling results, there is not peace but confusion and disorder. Xenophon’s perplexity lead to a Sacred War, 300 dead lions on the plain of Chaeronea, and the King dead in an abandoned carriage as his conqueror bent down and took his seal with clean white hands. As for me, I am getting to know the local deer and my old library.
I have now been blogging for three years, three months, and a day. Traffic has roughly doubled every year since 2014 to the dizzying heights of 20 unique visitors and 40 page views per day and ten comments a month. My post on learning Sumerian is still popular, as is my outline of “Armour of the English Knight,” my confession of error about the historical fencers, and my posts on whether we have any evidence that the Greeks used glued linen armour and on the scale armour from Golyamata Mogila. No other posts received more than 300 visits in the year.
Amongst people who like to write on the internet in English, there is a meme that 2016 has been an especially bad year. For many people, that is political news and the death of favourite celebrities. For me, it is sickness, a serious illness in my family, and watching people react to that political news in ways which are very human but make the problem worse. From ever-fiercer posturing against evil outsiders, to shouting louder and louder about the meaning of events, to sitting down and writing another column which attempts to predict the future using the same methods which just failed to predict the present, a lot of people are doubling down on strategies which they know do not work. But as I look back, I notice a big contrast between the real world that I live in and the artificial world of the media (from blogs to newspapers).
As always, citation implies neither approval nor disapproval.
A specialist in early medieval archaeology spells out one big problem with the modern fixation on fitting ancient people into boxes and assigning them distinctive labels:
Before I start, though, I want to address the obvious criticism of the topic, which is that modern scholars work a lot on identities, but did past people care as much? Certainly it can be argued that early medieval people did not say very much about identities, and nor do modern people, outside academia. But they did not say very much about a lot of things that modern scholars obsess over, such as gender, ethnicity, social age, or sometimes even aristocracy or nobility. The only social categories that they wrote much about were ones with precise legal importance, status that had implications for property and legal rights. … It is almost certainly the case that the inhabitants of sixth-century northern Gaul did not think of themselves in terms of many – perhaps most – of the categories that I have discussed here, although some of those aspects of their identity were remarked upon and thought of as important. Nevertheless, even if entirely modern in its framing, I think that, if theorised in sophisticated fashion, the concept of identities and their interplay provides a valuable means of analysing past societies and, on that basis, thinking about the present.
I’m writing about this now because these vulnerabilities illustrate two very important truisms about encryption and the current debate about adding back doors to security products:
1) Cryptography is harder than it looks. 2) Complexity is the worst enemy of security.
These aren’t new truisms. I wrote about the first in 1997 and the second in 1999. I’ve talked about them both in Secrets and Lies (2000) and Practical Cryptography (2003). They’ve been proven true again and again, as security vulnerabilities are discovered in cryptographic system after cryptographic system. They’re both still true today.
It has come to my attention that there is a shortage of pictures of cats on the Internet. Although I am not equipped to deal with most global problems, my trip to Iran has armed me to fight against this one. There are also some dogs and lizards, but my photos of birds on the wing did not turn out very well, and other bloggers seem to have squid covered.