November 10th, 2008


As it says in the linked article: Worst. Bug. Ever.

Those who enjoy stories of Unintended Tech Doom may want to take a glance at this article in Ed Burnette's blog. It's kind of horrifying, actually -- apparently, the Android G1 phone shipped with a configuration error that not only booted up a hidden shell when the phone started, and not only executed everything you typed (anywhere) in that shell, it executed it all with *root privileges*.

Needless to say, the patch to fix that one got shipped out right quick, but I sincerely hope nobody actually typed "rm -rf /*" before then...

College Publications and the Rise of the Cheap Publisher

A bit of signal propagation, since I know that there are some teacherly types in the crowd. Lamba the Ultimate (a high-end programming site I follow) has a pointer to an intriguing-looking new publisher named College Publications. Their remit is apparently to publish textbooks for (gasp) a reasonable price, with halfway-decent royalties to the authors. Their focus seems to be in computer science and related fields (certain forms of math, logic and philosophy), so it doesn't help everybody, but it seems to be worth a look if you're teaching in those fields and want textbooks that won't break the students' banks.

More generally, I suspect this is the thin end of the wedge. There is little good reason for the outrageous prices of most college textbooks, and with the Internet and related technologies making publishing much easier, I suspect we're going to see a collapse in the business models of traditional textbook publishers. I'd bet that College Publications is essentially a clearinghouse with a skeleton staff that mainly focuses on vetting and editing, while outsourcing the actual printing and distribution. As such, they can probably do a reasonably good job pretty cheaply, and thoroughly undercut the traditional publishers. If more companies follow their lead, it *should* lead to prices falling to a more reasonable level. (Probably still not cheap, given the smallish distribution of the average textbook, but lower than current norms.) Clicking through their catalog, it looks like they're asking about half the price of the typical textbook -- that is, much closer to the cost of an ordinary book.

And yes -- some folks will point out that the Web may replace paper textbooks entirely. I suspect that's half-true: the rise of the Web will lead some people away from paper. But I expect a lot to hang on to paper textbooks for a good while yet, and this is a good middle ground. College Publications, to their credit, addresses this head-on: they don't assert copyright, and explicitly say that it's okay with them for a textbook to go onto the web once it has achieved profitability. Assuming they're honest and fair about the definition of "profitability", this is a very reasonable and realistic approach, likely to get the attention of authors in the field...