02 March 2013

Diseconomies of Scale

Doonesbury, 27 Mar 2013

If there's a theme today, it's how limited-purpose "efficiencies" usually aren't.

  • Gee, biodiversity results in greater and less-expensive agricultural productivity. Who would have guessed that millions of years of evolution could produce a more-efficient outcome than three decades or so of human technology imposed on an environment we didn't understand in the first place? That's not to say that all aspects of modern agriculture are bad; it's only to say that — just like all other attempts to impose monocultures on nature have proven — turning entire counties into soybean/corn/wheatfields or lettuce plantations is in the long run a less-efficient (and more costly) means of maintaining agricultural productivity. Not to mention that it creates the "all of the eggies in one basket" problem that is lurking under this article, but never reached.

    Sadly, overconcentration has almost nothing to do with agricultural productivity, or even efficient processing at plants (grain elevators aren't more efficient when there are sixteen of them with the same grain than two). It's much more about the nonagricultural factors of "efficient" distribution based upon petroleum-product-powered product (and, for that matter, customer) movement. But that's for another time.

  • This is a problem disturbingly similar to the relationship among authors, publishers, especially distributors, and readers (auf deutsch)... especially when reaching outside of core competencies to apply "efficiency" elsewhere. And that's efficiency from the end-user's viewpoint, too!
  • One of the lessons that it took the nascent TV industry about a decade to learn — and then had to relearn for cable — is that the visuals on a full-sized movie screen don't work so well when reduced to the small screen (and that's aside from color-to-black-and-white issues, and resolution, and...). This is at least equally true when going from print to e-book packaging. Leaving aside for the moment the artistry and effort of high-end binding, just consider size for a moment. The standard thumbnail cover size at the Big Brazilian River is 160x160 pixels. To put that in perspective, that's less than 2cm x 2cm at standard commercial resolution, on a pixel-for-pixel basis. Even the very largest covers on Kindle books are smaller than a mass-market paperback on a pixel-for-pixel basis. E-book covers require different design concepts than print covers... although you'd never know it from developing e-cover design "standards."
  • It would be really nice if the people shrieking over various e-book issues would get their facts straight before shrieking. It's as if election season never ended. Salon — as is distressingly common — manages to get almost all of its facts wrong when describing a recent lawsuit by independent booksellers to eliminate DRM from e-books. In no particular order, these include up-front claims that all "big six" e-books have DRM (which, as the author later acknowledges, is untrue concerning the Tor unit of Macmillan); that this was adopted solely through collusive agreements with Amazon initiated by the publishers; that it takes a "determined" reader to remove DRM, or even a "marginally competent" one; that DRM is about piracy; and so on.
  • DRM isn't about piracy. DRM is about the same thing as the crappy packages full of unwanted channels that cable (and satellite) providers force down consumers' throats: Vendor lock-in. Cablevision — ironically, one of the pioneers of this misbegotten practice — is suing Viacom for allegedly "forcing" it to buy big packages of channels and give them directly back to consumers. Gee, this sounds like straightlining to me (and I'll gladly describe specific instances of that — and make specific accusations of fraud with names attached — over a tasty beverage some time; I've got the paper to prove it all, although the statute of limitations is long gone so nothing can be done about it).