Libraries vs Bookstores? No, False dichotomy. They are different Animals

Internet Archive in San Francisco
Barnes and Noble Booksellers

There is a recent written attack on libraries that I find odd and somewhat dangerous– libraries overlap too much with new-book bookstores. At first I thought it was trolling, but I now believe it is sincere. More worrisome is that anti-library lobbying is generally growing in strength but their attacks on the concept of libraries have been more implied and disguised, until recently. Maybe it is time to think a bit about what a library is and what they are for.

First of all, there are lots of types of bookstores and lots of types of libraries, so a short post will not be comprehensive, but hopefully illustrative.

I love bookstores, and I am fond of online and offline bookstores, used bookstores, quirky bookstores, bookstores of bestsellers. Basically, I love books, I buy lots of them. Lots.

I love the book arts, where the form of the book is the art. My wife, Mary Austin, helped start the San Francisco Center for the Book. If you are unfamiliar with book arts, it is a treat– I suggest you dive in and create your book.

And I love libraries– academic and public, subscription libraries (yes, there are 21 of them in the United States– you should join one or many), digital libraries and special libraries. Ever been in a “special library”? Yes it is a thing. They are really fun, for instance the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Missouri.

A bookseller of new books wants their customer to find the right new book to buy, bring home, and read.

A library is all about context, a library helps their patrons come up with new ideas and connections whether by reading a whole book or a few pages of lots of books– new and old. Libraries offer historical newspapers and new newspapers, and from distant lands and opposing points of view. And libraries have experts on tap: reference librarians.

To do all this, librarians work hard at “information about information”, or metadata, to provide context. Libraries strive for comprehensive collections in their areas of expertise not just the popular– they keep old editions because they can be important context. Libraries typically offer many types of media: books, recordings, moving images, archives. 

In this way, a library helps people come up with ideas and connections, and if the ideas and connections are novel, and then get recorded, then they can be added to the library. Libraries help readers, many of whom become writers, whose works can then be made accessible, forever, in libraries.  The great circle of knowledge creation and preservation.

As Jim Gray said “Libraries are engines of research.” They are not the research, they power the research. To research something, a person does not need to buy all the books on the subject, new and old– rather, there is a more efficient way– they can go to the library.

Booksellers offer books for sale, and thank goodness books are still for sale (don’t get me started on restrictive licenses on ebooks).

Librarians offer access and preservation.

Both are valuable, both are necessary, and they are different.

Digital Librarian
Internet Archive

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10 years trying 7 approaches to providing affordable housing for non-profit workers, here are the results so far

San Francisco Scanning Center with stimulus support

The Great Recession started in 2008 and everyone suffered– the Internet Archive hired 146 out-of-work parents, leveraging an Obama stimulus welfare-to-work program to scan books  for the visually impaired.   I had employees polled as to how they were doing financially, and the answer was… Bad.

This was the kicker:  30-60% of their income went to rent.  Yikes, and turns out to be typical across the country.  So I set out to find a way to fix this, at least for non-profit workers. I read Graeber’s book Debt (fabulous, must read book), and started on experiments.

Over the last 10 years, I have personally tried 6 approaches, and seen another, here are the short versions:

Foundation House for non-profit workers in San Francisco

1. Foundation Housing:  this is permanently affordable employee apartments– about $900-$1000 a month which is about 1/2-1/3 of market based rent in San Francisco. The way we did this is to have it be permanently debt-free (no mortgage), and have the fee to live in an apartment covering all other costs. Since this is like faculty housing or a monastery, people leave the housing as they leave the non-profit sector. We bought an apartment building (as a form of endowment) in San Francisco with 11 units, trying it out.  Three out of 11 apartments now have non-profit workers.  It is working pretty well, but not saving the Archive much money but giving security to people.  On the other hand, one employee said they felt a bit trapped because they can not afford to move out and stay in San Francisco.  Most employees don’t want to move in because they already have apartments they are happy with, so it is not serving a huge need.  But still, I think we should do more of these. It can be done with a careful investment strategy so it does not cost much to buy the buildings. News report.

2. Silent loan: lent someone enough money so they could make a down payment, and I changed no interest.  There was no paperwork, and was in their bank account for years before they found their house.  So it helped them out, and they are thankful but it is not scalable.

3. 20% mortgage helper: I am on the board of a non-profit that has done this program where $1m was set aside to help people with getting a mortgage on a house within biking range of the office– the 20% help is 0 interest while they work there, but then it goes up to market rate when they leave the non-profit. When they leave, they are expected to pay it back by refinancing.  It has worked out well as housing prices have gone up.  Unknown when things go down. When it started there was great enthusiasm as it allowed many to buy in San Francisco and feel supported.  Recently there has been grumbles about it, not sure why.

Internet Credit Union before it was closed by NCUA

4. Made a credit union to make a bank “that doesn’t suck.”  (that was our original unofficial motto) and to help finance sustainable housing. Well, we worked at it for 5 years, one and a half years to get the initial charter through the system, and then the regulators spent three and half years crushing us out of existenceThey really really do not want new credit unions or new ideas in the banking area.  The National Credit Union Association should be shut down– the US credit union industry blossomed and grew before the NCUA was started in 1972. NYtimes report.

5. Build a building next to the Internet Archive.  We have the empty lot to do it in and we hired an architect but it came out to cost so much we postponed.

6. Co-owning a house– this is different from a loan, it is more like a share of ownership and sharing the risk and reward. Up to half of the appraised value, in cash, is given to the owner so they continue to afford to be in the area. When they eventually sell, then that proportion of the proceeds is returned. This has been tried with a couple of close friends and they used it to pay off their mortgage, so they own their half outright. This is working well so far, but have not had any sell their house yet. This is more secure for the resident owner than a mortgage in the case of the value of the house declining, or if they lose the ability to pay the loan, in this co-owning case they do not have a mortgage so they do not get foreclosed on and have to leave their house. But there is financial risk to me in doing this approach.

7. Remote work.  The Internet Archive actively recruits outside of the bay area and encourages people to not relocate. Many San Francisco employees have now moved away but kept their jobs.  This has worked more often than not.  We have been hiring remote workers for the last 3 years and now a majority of people are not in the Bay Area.  And with the covid pandemic, we are going “remote first” so we are all remote, and the exception is the ones that are in San Francisco.  We have been adapting to remote management, which is not easy.

Of all the approaches, the one working the best is #7: Remote Work.  Get good at it, and we won’t have the housing stresses of San Francisco.

I expect others are trying different approaches– please share them– we need to find ways to keep non-profit workers happy, productive and financially secure.

Posted in Housing, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Zone trip #5? Inventing a Desirable Physical World in Pandemic — August, 2020

Wedding photo, 1992 Black Rock

San Francisco is best when it is inventing utopias (executing on it sometimes goes astray, but stay with me).

In our Covid/Pandemic world we are all pushed into virtual classes, virtual work, virtual relations.  Lets face it, we can only stretch virtual so far.

Let’s invent a physical world, and a desirable fabulous sharing wonderful world, in the age of Pandemic.   Together.

Burning Man is cancelled this year.  But it was an inspiration– I went in 1990, the first year in the desert– 80 people. It was called Zone Trip #4 in the paragraph in the Rough Draft physical newsletter– show up, be it, no spectators.  No tickets, no city planning, no directions, no rangers, no sherpas.   Make it happen, we were it.   It was so great that Mary and I invited our friends there to be our wedding in 1992 when there were 400 people and getting married at Burning Man was not a thing, nor would it be for years.

Ephemerisle has same “lets invent the world we want to live in” feel– 400 people on the delta trying to stay afloat, literally.  Inventive, dangerous, and wonderful.

Both early Burning Man, and Ephemerisle are all about adapting to a difficult environment, and with panache.

So…   how about Zone Trip #5: Pandemic?   In this case we start with a large chunk of desert, and then we invent a temporary utopia that works in the age of Pandemic– staying safe and loving it.  

With lots of inventors.   Everyone an inventor.

  • Maybe someone brings a traincar of rice, a truckload of beans.   
  • Maybe someone figures out what a school is, what a school means, what a school teaches.   
  • Maybe there is a glass-cube restaurant.
  • Maybe pandemic fashion takes a positive turn– a full-length clear isolation tube-dress 3ft in diameter.
  • Romancing while social distancing?
  • Virus free camp.
  • Recovered camp.

What could you add to the world?

Cacophony newletter entry for Zone Trip 4, first Burning Man in the desert.

Wedding album– inventing a world

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Helping Make Housing Affordable with “Non-Intrusive Joint Ownership”

We have been trying Foundation Housing with an apartment building in San Francisco, and while we like that structure for many reasons, we are now trying something else, this time more personal that others might want to try: joint ownership of a house. The couple times we have tried it with friends and family, they have credited this with allowing them to stay in the expensive Bay Area, so deemed a success. It has also not changed our relationship with these friends and family (as would being their landlord or bank) which has been what we wanted.

We are trying “non-intrusive joint ownership” of houses by owning a stake in a house that others live in. It is non-intrusive since it is a “silent” ownership share. This is distinct from co-signing on a mortgage and reverse mortgages in ways I will touch on later.

Let me explain our current approach, and please, if you have further ideas please comment below.

It could be any % of the house, but we have tried 50%, so I will describe it that way. A lawyer has written the documents to make this work.

It is structured as a “tenancy in common,” where each owns half the house, let’s call one the “Resident Owners,” and the other the “Equity Owner.” The Equity Owner pays the owner (could be the Resident Owner or the seller) one half of the value of the house based on current appraisal, purchase price, or something agreed upon. Then each owns half of the house and this is registered with the deed with the county. We have not tried this, but the Resident Owners could mortgage their half if they wanted to, but the bank would not have a claim on the Equity Owner’s share. We have discouraged mortgages because of how they have gone wrong, but we believe it is possible in this structure.

The Resident Owners uses the whole house and pays all the taxes and upkeep (and is required to keep it up). If there are any additions or improvements, it does not change the half-half share. 

This whole arrangement is unwound when the house is sold and the proceeds are split half-half, or the house can be appraised and the Resident Owner can buy out the Equity Owner’s share. The sale happens when the Resident Owners decide to sell the property, the Resident Owner dies, or, if owned by a couple, when the later of the original Resident Owners dies. Therefore the Equity Owner can not force the Resident Owners to sell, unless, I guess, if the Resident Owners default on their obligations.

To grant it stability to both parties, the Residential Ownership share is not inheritable and is non-transferable and has to be their primary residence. This makes sense to us, as the Equity Owner, since we wanted to help these particular people stay in the Bay Area. In another step towards stability, the Equity Owner’s interest is not transferable either, when the later of my spouse and I die, then the share goes to our family foundation. This non-transferability of the Equity Owner stake is based on my bad experience, decades ago, of my student loan being sold by my town’s savings and loan bank to an aggressive lender.

This has turned out to be non-intrusive, and in fact, pretty invisible: after it is set it up there have not been discussions about it. This is how we have wanted it: to help our friends and family but not change the nature of our relationship.

This differs from co-signing someone’s mortgage as that approach does not decrease payments for the Residential Owner except, perhaps, to make it so they could get an favorable mortgage in the first place. It also differs in that the co-signer takes on the risk of default bringing in an entanglement we wished to avoid.

This differs from reverse mortgages in that it is a share of the house, where a reverse mortgage is a loan that is secured by the house. Loans have interest, and fees, and if you fail to pay, you lose your house. There are many stories of these going wrong. Where this joint ownership structure will surely have ways it goes wrong, we have not found them yet.

If you have experiences with this, or have any questions, please write in a comment below.

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The Game of Oligarchy

You should try this game.

I just invented and played a game today with my family, and it worked great– it was fun and we learned an important lesson. Similar to the game “Monopoly” which shows that one person ends up monopolizing even though you think the rules are “fair,” the game of Oligarchy shows that the “free market” leads inexorably to one person getting all the money and everyone else going broke. And fast.

The reason this is important is that it disproves one basic tenet of the free-market idea– that it is a game with many winners. Rather the free market, without redistribution, puts everyone (except one) in debt bondage, and quickly. We joked that those that were run out of money had to sell organs. Our game broke up into social classes– it was not worth it to the rich to play with the poor. It was all very real for a simple game.

All of this is based on a paper in Scientific American, Is Inequality Inevitable? Wealth naturally trickles up in free-market economies, model suggests, which has been a mind-blower for me: it is so simple and disproves the Libertarian premise.

We played 4 rounds with 6 people in about an hour:

  • each gets a pad of paper and pen and writes $100 at the top, that is their pot of money
  • each gets a coin to flip

Then each player picks another player agrees to gamble on a flip of a coin, they agree on which wins on heads, and tosses. The stake of the gamble is set at 50% of the lesser of the pots of that pair. So in the beginning, when everyone has $100, the gamble is $50.

Then the players pick another player (or the same player) to do another round. This proceeds.

What is amazing is that even through each toss is “fair” in that it is a 50-50 chance to win a straight amount of money, the results shows one player wins all the money, and really quickly.

Two nephews and their partners, Mary and I played 4 rounds in about an hour and we discovered social classes (we called the broke ones “organ sellers”), feeling of righteous empowerment based on being successful (even though it was completely random), but also that “free market” ended with all-but-one-of-us in a bad situation really quickly.

Try it, it is fun. And read the article, it is startling– free-market without redistribution goes to Oligarchy very very fast. This book on Sumerian and Babylonian economics shows it has always been this way, so people developed peaceful reset mechanisms with debt forgiveness and Julilee: …and Forgive Them Their Debts by Michael Hudson.

[And now you can see it played automatically! Go Neal!]

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Slingshotting around the Sun? Grasping the Oberth Effect

A Washington Post article talked about getting to interstellar rocketry by slingshotting around the Sun. I understood the idea of slingshotting required a planet or a moon– something that was orbiting something else because you are taking some of that acceleration of the planet for your rocket. Indeed this is called “Gravity Assist,” so what is this slingshotting around the Sun?  Well, this is where you get the Oberth Effect. The idea is you go really fast by getting close to the sun, burning your fuel, and you will go much faster even after you slow down again having left the proximity of the Sun.

But after reading and rereading the wikipedia article, talking with my mates, watching a youtube video I still did not get an intuitive grasp of it– in fact it seems to break the rule of conservation of energy. How could blasting your fuel while going faster make you go faster?  I think I have an approach to see how it makes sense, in general, but does not bring us to equations.

A rocket works by throwing exhaust out the back at high speed, thus pushing the rocket forward. For a given amount of fuel, you throw it out (relatative to the rocket) at a certain speed and certain weight to become the exhaust thus pushing the rocket forward with a certain amount of force.

Let’s say the fuel is thrown out the back at a certain speed, V. If you do this while standing still, the fuel goes one way at speed almost V and the rocket goes the other. If the rocket is moving at speed V, then throws the burnt fuel out the back (say it does it all at once for simplicity), then exhaust will be standing still and the rocket moving faster than it was.

The first case is like in a swimming pool you push against a floaty to go one way– the floaty goes the other way. The second case can be seen as you are in a swimming pool and you push just as hard, but you are pushing against the wall. The wall goes nowhere, and you go faster across the pool.

You would push against a wall if you could. And by speeding up the rocket you are effectively doing that. Same force, but the floaty goes the other way vs the wall which stays still. When you push against the wall you go faster in the direction you want to go.

In the rocket case, we have to get the rocket to go the speed of the exhaust V, and not take any energy to do that. The way the rocket is speed up is by “borrowing speed” by accelerating towards the sun. The sun accelerates both the rocket and the fuel it will burn equally– this is that tricky thing in high school physics where a feather and a bowling ball fall at the same rate (if there is no air resistance). So the sun pulls both in, the rocket and fuel are going really fast, say V, then the rocket blasts out the rocket fuel leaving it behind, and then decelerates as it leaves the sun. If the rocket got up to speed V, then the net effect is that instead of the rocket throwing its exhaust backwards, it would go nowhere, thus being the wall it pushed against.

The rocket decelerates as it leaves because of the gravity of the sun is pulling it back, but it is getting less force because it weighs less because it burned fuel. Again, this is that tricky bit about the feather and bowling ball. So the Sun applied more force to the rocket+fuel on the way in than on just the rocket on the way out. Another way of seeing how this effect works.

At least this makes sense to me. The effect is caused by the sun accelerating the rocket+fuel, then when the rocket blasts out its spent fuel, the exhaust is not going in the opposite direction as much, thereby offering more of a push to the rocket, even after it is decelerated.

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Lyft took 50% of the fare from the driver this morning

Going to the airport this morning, I took a Lyft for $46. It us usually less, but it was rush hour, and still less than a taxi (usually $65) and more reliable than a taxi. The driver was cheerful, been driving for Lyft/Uber for a year and a half, and it was in a Chevy Bolt, so we were driving an electric car. I got there before it predicted, and all was good.

But I looked at the driver’s phone after we got out and it showed she made $23. Yikes. This does not seem fair.

The driver said that after Uber and Lyft went public, the “take” they were taking from the drivers went up.

50% is too high a fee for Lyft. The only higher fees I know are what book publishers take from authors.

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FasTrack (wireless highway toll-takers) that are not creepy? Yes, possible.

In the old days, paying a highway toll meant I paid with cash often a tossing a quarter in a basket or smiling at a toll-taker and handing over a dollar. But now I get to speed through.

To do this, do I really need to have my license plate photographed? Do I need to hide my FasTrak in a conductive bag to keep from getting tracked other places on the highway without my permission? Do I need to have my every bridge crossing be logged into a database somewhere?

As a thought experiment: how do we high toll takers that are automated but not privacy invasive?   If we can figure this out, can we go on to make it happen?

Features I want, and maybe all of us want:

  1. Speed through toll booths and paying the right toll
  2. Able to deal with cars that have a device and ones don’t
  3. Easy to refill the device with money as needed
  4. Not be tracked any more than dropping a quarter in a basket (not creepy)

Goal 2 means that if the toll does not detect the car’s device, then we need to track it somehow and bill the owner. Currently this is done by photographing the license plate and sending a bill.  I do not have a way around this, do you

But if the car has a transponder then the car can put out a signal to pay the toll. I think with crypto-currencies, especially zcash, we have all the technology we need.

Basically the device would hold a key to the money I had transferred to it. Then the device would recieve and transmit a bunch of numbers to the toll as it was passing through, just as the current FasTrak does, but instead of saying the account number in the FasTrak, it would offer to pay the required toll by transferring the money into the government’s account. This could be done quickly, inexpensively, securely, and privately– all with technology that is currently here and open source.

Does this do the trick?

We need a low transaction cost billing system because tolls are low so the fee should be a small percentage of the toll. Currently it is 3% to 5% cost because of the visa card transaction to refill my FasTrack account. Bitcoin is often 7 cents per transaction, and zcash is much less than a penny. So current Bitcoin would work, but other systems are a better fit for this. But this works: check.

If the toll booth could detect if the payment was good and valid quickly enough then it would not need to take a picture in those cases. If the transaction is too slow for this (like current bitcoin), then the picture might have to be taken, but can be deleted when the transaction is complete, say in 30 minutes.

In terms of putting money into the account, this can be done from dollars, or credit cards, or crypto in any of a large number of proven wallets and websites. So that seems easy.

So cryptocurrency, bitcoin, etherium, or zcash can make a highway toll-takers more efficient than they are now.

Wouldn’t it be great if an early widespread use of crypto was to make our highways more efficient and less creepy?

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment Charging Me 43% More Than Another Customer

Same product, same vendor, to same address, same day, same shipping, same billing address, but different customer, different price $8.63 vs $12.37. 43% higher price for me than for the Internet Archive. In fact I checked the price for me an hour before and the day after the Internet Archive bought it, so I do not think it is the vendor changing the price by this much.

Below are the receipt for the Internet Archive, offer to me, and offer to my home business account (same price as the Internet Archive). Turns out I stumbled upon “Business Pricing.” It’s a “feature.” Business Prime costs $179/year, as opposed to consumer Prime for $99/year.

Yikes. Shakes my confidence, and seems like we could be on our way to “redlining.”

What price to do you see for ?

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Hiring teams in addition to hiring individuals?

I am wondering if the Internet Archive, and tech orgs more generally, could effectively hire teams in addition to hiring individuals.  I am thinking of 4 or 5 people that could work effectively with each other, be remote from HQ, but be really “hired” in the sense that they assimilate and integrate with the rest of the organization.  I have not tried this, so this is just random thoughts at this point.

Acquisitions usually fail, they say, and I have seen failure– culture mismatch, too much redundancy, so lots of loss.  The new term “acquihire” is interesting, so people are trying to hire functional groups, but so much is loss

What if a group defines themselves as a team and goes out to be hired.  They interview as if they were an individual– talking to managers in an organization to find out if there is skill, temperament, salary match etc.  If the team is hired, then it is trained by the org, and such, and then operates as a “super individual” for the first year or so. Built into the team can be different skills, maybe: communicator/manager, tech lead, prodmgr/testing, senior and junior dev.

What problem am I trying to solve?  Well there are several:

How to grow a tech company to meet a sudden opportunity: so you get funding, a grant, increased revenue– how do you grow?   Some big companies acquire other companies, but those teams often do not integrate well, take a long time to deal with and are expensive.  Most organizations hire individuals, maybe this would be effective step up from this system.

How to be effective remote workers:  San Francisco is a tough place to move to, but what if a team operating in another area or another country but then went to job hunt in San Francisco, and did some training there, but then mostly lived and worked in their home location. They could learn from each other to bring up younger workers and can recruit to replace people in their team. To integrate with other people and teams in the organization they should switch people’s projects otherwise silos could solidify.  This team would then really work for the organization, not just for the team.

How to teach younger workers in a remote workforce: I learned by watching and working closely with others– I think we all do. Doing that over a network can only go so far. Teams can have junior and senior people in it, people that know how to work together well and have the bonds to bring each other up.

The communications issues can ease management issues with remote workers: some people are better coders than communicators, but good communications is essential in remote work, and in modern tech work in general.  What if the team had a mix of different skill sets?

Robustness, resilience:  each team can handle their recruiting, training, and rejuvenation– each job function could be shared between people, so if any one leaves, there are those that can fill in. Key is that the team would not pick up and leave all together otherwise the organization is super stuck.  If longevity with the organization can be counted on, and the company resists the temptation to fire a full team at once, then this can be a big advantage.

Team formation can be a local phenomenon— maybe a team forms in hacker spaces, around schools, or in companies that are downsizing and then they market themselves as a unit. Maybe teams are created in outsourcing company somewhere.  It is possible that a team in a remote country could cost the same as an engineer in San Francisco.

The Internet Archive has successful teams working as scanning centers around the world, so it works for this task.  Can it work for tech groups? Don’t know but maybe we should try.

Have you tried anything like this?

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