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Rarus principia

“It is doubtful,” wrote the historian Charles C. Gillispie, “whether any work of comparable influence can ever have been read by so few persons.”

Edward Dolnick, The Clockwork Universe.
Regarding Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

According to Dolnick, the first print run of Principia numbered between three hundred and four hundred copies!

Seemingly Random (House) pricing

I sent off a letter today. Yes, in the post!

[my address]
May 3, 2014
Random House of Canada Limited
75 Sherbourne Street, 5th Floor
Toronto, Ontario,
M5A 2P9

Dear Random House,

I’ve had a very curious experience that I’d like your help in understanding.

I’ve been slowly replacing my favourite paperback books with e‑books. Today, I noticed the poor condition of my copy of Dragon’s Egg by the late Robert L. Forward and was pleased to see that has the Kindle edition of the book for $9.99. Starting the purchase process, I logged in, and I quickly noted that the price changed because I live in Canada, and I have to pay the Canadian price. It’s also explicitly noted that the publisher, Random House Canada, sets the price. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the Canadian price is $20.99!

You can’t fall back on the import and transportation costs, since this is an electronic product. This is doubly true since I wasn’t even buying it from the Canadian subsidiary of Amazon. You can’t claim the dollar difference would double the price as today’s rate is a hair under 10% so the price should be 11 Canadian dollars … though takes payment in US dollars so my credit card company would have made the exchange automatically.

So help me understand what’s going on here. Why are your Canadian customers being charged twice as much? It seems like a blatant ripoff, but I’d like to believe that’s not the case. Unfortunately, the facts in my possession show we’re being taken advantage of. I’m hoping you can shed some light on the situation.


Rick Pali


Note that I didn’t sent this letter via the post to make any sort of point. The Random House Canada contact information page simply doesn’t list any electronic means of contact. I do find this somewhat curious because that very same page states,

We receive hundreds of inquiries a day by email, phone and fax, and cannot answer everyone immediately.

I’m guessing you have to be extra-special to get their e‑mail address and we Canadian peons are not. But even more curious, is the directive to visit the frequently asked questions page before you call or write, as your question may be answered there, so they won’t have to be bothered with you. As you might expect, when you go to the frequently asked questions page, everything you need to know is covered in this all encompassing note:

Coming soon

Thanks for that.

I am curious what they will say, and even though I can’t imagine anything satisfactory, it’s only fair to hear them out.

Still, I expect nothing but marketing double-talk on their part and even more determined use of the library on mine.

The two-part trilogy, with no end.

According to Slashdot,

Charles Stross has announced that there won’t be a third book in the Halting State trilogy because reality (in a manner of speaking) has caught up to him too fast. The last straw was apparently the news that the NSA planted spies in networked games like WoW. Stross comments: ‘At this point, I’m clutching my head. Halting State wasn’t intended to be predictive when I started writing it in 2006. Trouble is, about the only parts that haven’t happened yet are Scottish Independence and the use of actual quantum computers for cracking public key encryption (and there’s a big fat question mark over the latter — what else are the NSA up to?).

When I hear about an interesting trilogy, I do my best to wait until all the books are out before I start reading. There are a number of reasons I do this, but having the last book cancelled wasn’t something I considered!

The more I think about Stross’s reason, the more I think it’s lacking. He states,

the Snowden revelations have systematically trashed all my ideas for the third book.

I can’t help but think, dude, get some new ideas. You’re a fiction writer, right? Ideas are your speciality. Besides, if I read two books of a trilogy and learn that the author has abandoned the story because the real world interfered with his fiction, it would be a long time before I even look at the author’s work, much less buy any. I don’t think it’s terribly outlandish to say that releasing two books and calling them part one and two of a trilogy is an implied obligation to deliver a third book. If I had the first two books, that’s exactly how I’d feel. I wonder how the publisher feels about it.

SciAm does it right

I’ve largely stayed away from e‑books. Those that I have purchased were with the understanding that they are largely disposable. That is, I don’t expect them to be useable in ten years.

My feelings about e‑books have been an affectionate embrace compared to my feelings about electronic magazine subscriptions. Those are a disaster. Some involve each issue being a downloadable application for your mobile device, having each issue loaded into a custom mobile application. Either way, you’re not free to move them around and use them as you please.

That’s what I expected when I investigated the electronic subscription offered by Scientific American. I’m happy to report that my expectations were dashed.

20110815_sciamFirst, the magazine issues are PDF files. Read them on your computer or on any mobile device that will display the file format. The choice is yours. The files themselves are not crippled to restrict how you use them. PDF files do have a built-in document restriction feature that allows the author to disable certain functions. In this case, you can not reassemble the document, change the document, or extract pages. You can add comments, copy content, and print the document. That’s all fine by me. I can still view them in any PDF reader and copy them as I please.

Additionally, the publisher seems to have given careful thought about how to convert the paper magazine to the PDF format. You can copy or search the contents of the articles, but they’ve left the ads as graphics. Even the text in the ads are graphics. This could be an inconvenience if you’d like to copy ad text, but it’s an excellent trade-off for preventing ads from polluting text searches. Brilliant!

Second, a yearly subscription is not merely for 12 issues of the magazine. What they’ve done instead is allow subscribers access to the electronic archive for a year. Of course, they’ll add 12 issues to the archive over the course of the subscription, but the archive also contains all the Scientific American issues published since 1993. You may download complete issues or individual articles.

The electronic subscription is $3 more than the Canadian price for the paper magazine, $39.95 versus $37, but as much as I rail against spending more for what I think should be cheaper, the electronic version does have advantages that I feel are worth the premium.

I signed up as soon as I understood what I’d be getting.

Magazine cover © 2011 Scientific American

Good show, Amazon

I wrote Amazon with a comment about their iPad Kindle application:

Subject: Kindle for iPad 2.2

Between iBooks and your Kindle ecosystem, you’re clearly the best, with the largest selection of both books and supported platforms. You’re primarily focused on books as your bread and butter so I have little fear that you’ll get bored of it and wander away.

So I want to choose you as my sole paid e‑book vendor.

But I can’t.

I hate full justification. Not only does it offend my aesthetic sensibilities, it’s simply more difficult to read.

It would seem that offering the option of simple left justification shouldn’t be a complex matter. I hope it’s not because that’s all you have to do to get me as an e‑book customer. Until then, you’ll find that I will not pay for any Kindle e‑books.


I received a reply later the same day:

Subject: Your Kindle Inquiry

Hello Rick,

Thanks for writing about adding the option of left justification as a feature for a our Kindle for iPad app.

Strong customer feedback like yours helps us continue to improve the service we provide, and we’re glad you took time to write to us. I’ve sent your comments to the Kindle team.

Thanks for your interest in Amazon Kindle.

Best regards,
David M

Your feedback is helping us build Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company.

Now that’s a good reply. Obviously, David can’t change the iPad Kindle app and send me a copy so I can enjoy left-justified reading. He can’t even issue a directive to make it a priority for the development team. All he can do is reply and confirm receipt of my message. The way he said it however, makes me feel that my expressing my preference does make a difference, which is unusual. Most other organizations would have replied with an automated message. Even a reply from a human is usually worded in such a way that despite what it actually says, you understand it to mean, “Yea, got your message. We’ll add it to all the other messages we receive and ignore.”

Amazon is not perfect, but it’s clear to me that they do really try, and these days, that means a lot.

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