Anything but the obscurity!

I’ve already mentioned this interesting set of ideas Cory Doctorow brought up. In particular, this part of the introduction made me think:

Cory is an author of science fiction (SF) and is published in the US by Tor books (which happens to share a parent company with Nature). He also gives away books on the web. As Tim O’Reilly says, the main danger for most authors is not piracy but obscurity. The number of people who don’t buy a book because they can copy the electronic version is trivial compared to the number who buy it as a result of finding it online. Now the biggest factor determining success for an author is having a relationship with their audience.

Then read this essay on The life expectancies of books (by TNH, so of course it’s worth reading). It’s about the ephemeral nature of literary popularity and copyright, inevitable obscurity, and the self-defeating nature of legalistic attempts to define ownership of ideas.

Consider, then, the duration of copyrights. They’ve gone from 28 years renewable to 56, then 28 renewable to 95, to life of the author plus 70. Given the range of human lifespans and the extreme rarity of prepubescent authors, you can pretty much figure that by the time a 95-year copyright runs out, the author will be dead and gone, and any offspring will have reached their majority. You can’t exactly draw a line, but somewhere in there, copyright stops being about directly rewarding an author for his work. What’s left is an intangible time-travelling value: the hope of being read.

This is why it pains me to hear respectable minor authors going on about how the extension of copyright to life of the author plus 70 years is a victory for the little guy. It isn’t, unless by “little guy” you mean the heirs of the author’s ex-spouse’s step-grandchildren by her third marriage. The real push behind the last round of copyright extensions came from the big entertainment combines. They’re bitterly opposed to the idea that cash-cow properties like Winnie the Pooh might ever go out of copyright.

There are also some insights in the addendum to the whole mostly unappreciated machinery of advertising and presentation and availability that are important for bringing books to our attention. Piracy is a real problem, but it seems that it’s being fought with misplaced strategies that promote long-term uniformity and corporate interests and the same ol’ thing over and over again, rather than diversity and imagination.

Life is chemistry

Sometimes creationists say things like, “Evolution doesn’t explain the origins of life!” The common reply is that that’s the domain of abiogenesis, not evolution, with the implied suggestion that the creationist should go away and quit bugging us.

That’s a cop-out.

I’m going to be somewhat heretical, and suggest that abiogenesis as the study of chemical evolution is a natural subset of evolutionary theory, and that we should own up to it. It’s natural processes all the way back, baby, no miracles required. Life is chemistry, vitalism has evaporated and is one with phlogiston, and scientists legitimately and respectably study physical processes that were the potential instigators of life. Someday we’re going to be able to create living cells from scratch, and those mechanisms will be taken for granted afterwards, just as Wöhler’s synthesis of urea is nowadays.

What prompts this assertion of uncompromising naturalism is a reminder from two publications. Natural History has published a nice review of The Origins of Life, and The Scientist has an article on the work to create a synthetic cell, Is This Life?. They’re both good, light summaries that don’t stint on pointing out the problems in these fields—but the main point is that there has been great progress as well, and that these are productive lines of inquiry.

Spell already broken, and I haven’t even read the book

Daniel Dennett has this new book out, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and I don’t know that I want to read it. It was just reviewed by Michael Shermer in Science, and my general feeling was an uncomfortable vibration, liking some of what they said, but feeling at the same time that it was a tossup whether Shermer or Dennett is more annoying. Shermer has a tendency to be conciliatory towards religious babble, while Dennett has this overwhelming adaptationist bias that makes me cranky.

I’ve put a chunk of the review below the fold, let me know what you think.

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More calls for submissions

I got a couple more requests to drum up interest in up-and-coming carnivals.

The Dharma Bums are hosting the next I and the Bird carnival, so if invertebrates aren’t your bag, but highly derived tetrapods with elaborate keratinaceous external insulating coats are, send them a link.

If even that isn’t sufficiently narrow in scope for you, how about bipedal primates? How about bipedal primates with very specific, advanced cultural views? The Carnival of the Liberals is looking for submissions now, too.

Hey…and if you written something about those spineless Democrats, send the link to both Neural Gourmet and the Circus of the Spineless! (This really is the week for getting double-duty out of your links.)