# How an algorithm came up with Amazon's KEEP CALM AND RAPE A LOT t-shirt

You may have heard that Amazon is selling a "KEEP CALM AND RAPE A LOT" t-shirt. How did such a thing come to pass? Well, as Pete Ashton explains, this is a weird outcome of an automated algorithm that just tries random variations on "KEEP CALM AND," offering them for sale in Amazon's third-party marketplace and printing them on demand if any of them manage to find a buyer.

The t-shirts are created by an algorithm. The word “algorithm” is a little scary to some people because they don’t know what it means. It’s basically a process automated by a computer programme, sometimes simple, sometimes complex as hell. Amazon’s recommendations are powered by an algorithm. They look at what you’ve been browsing and buying, find patterns in that behaviour and show you things the algorithm things you might like to buy. Amazons algorithms are very complex and powerful, which is why they work. The algorithm that creates these t-shirts is not complex or powerful. This is how I expect it works.

1) Start a sentence with the words KEEP CALM AND.

2) Pick a word from this long list of verbs. Any word will do. Don’t worry, I’m sure they’re all fine.

3) Finish the sentence with one of the following: OFF, THEM, IF, THEM or US.

4) Lay these words out in the classic Keep Calm style.

5) Create a mockup jpeg of a t-shirt.

6) Submit the design to Amazon using our boilerplate t-shirt description.

7) Go back to 1 and start again.

There are currently 529,493 Solid Gold Bomb clothing items on Amazon. Assuming they survive this and don’t get shitcanned by Amazon I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they top a million in a few months.

It costs nothing to create the design, nothing to submit it to Amazon and nothing for Amazon to host the product. If no-one buys it then the total cost of the experiment is effectively zero. But if the algorithm stumbles upon something special, something that is both unique and funny and actually sells, then everyone makes money.

# Indie booksellers sue Amazon and big publishers over DRM (but have no idea what "DRM" and "open source" mean)

A group of independent booksellers have filed a suit against Amazon and the major publishers for their use of DRM, which, the booksellers say, freezes them out of the ebook market:

Alyson Decker of Blecher & Collins PC, lead counsel acting for the bookstores, described DRM as "a problem that affects many independent bookstores." She said the complaint is still in the process of being served to Amazon and the publishers and declined to state how it came about or whether other bookstores had been approached to be party to the suit.

"We are seeking relief for independent brick-and-mortar bookstores so that they would be able to sell open-source and DRM-free books that could be used on the Kindle or other electronic ereaders," Decker explained to The Huffington Post by telephone.

Such a move would lead to a reduction in Amazon's dominant market position, and completely reshape the ebook marketplace.

A spokesman for Fiction Addiction declined to comment as legal proceedings are ongoing. The other plaintiffs and Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

That sounds great, but when you read the complaint, you find that what they mean by "open source" has nothing to do with open source. For some reason, they're using "open source" as a synonym for "standardized" or "interoperable." Which is to say, these booksellers don't really care if the books are DRM-free, they just want them locked up using a DRM that the booksellers can also use.

There is no such thing as "open source" DRM -- in the sense of a DRM designed to run on platforms that can be freely modified by their users. If a DRM was implemented in modifiable form, then the owners of DRM devices will change the DRM in order to disable it. DRM systems, including so-called "open" DRM systems, are always designed with some licensable element -- a patent, a trademark, something (this is called "Hook IP") -- and in order to get the license you have to sign an agreement promising that your implementation will be "robust" (implemented so that its owners can't change it). This is pretty much the exact opposite of "open source."

It's a pity. I empathize with these booksellers. I hate DRM. But I wish they'd actually bothered to spend 15 minutes trying to understand how DRM works and what it is, and how open source works, and what it is, before they filed their lawsuit. Grossly misusing technical terms (and demanding a remedy that no customer wants -- there's no market for DRM among book-buyers) makes you look like fools and bodes poorly for the suit.

DRM Lawsuit Filed By Independent Bookstores Against Amazon, 'Big Six' Publishers [Andrew Losowsky/Huffington Post]

# Reviews for a Predator Drone toy

The reviews on the Amazon page for a toy Predator drone are pretty trenchant:

You've had a busy play day - You've wiretapped Mom's cell phone and e-mail without a warrant, you've indefinitely detained your little brother Timmy in the linen closet without trial, and you've confiscated all the Super-Soakers from the neighborhood children (after all, why does any kid - besides you, of course - even NEED a Super-Soaker for self-defense? A regular water pistol should be enough). What do you do for an encore?

That's where the US Air Force Medium Altitude, Long Endurance, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) RQ-1 Predator from Maisto comes in. Let's say that Dad has been labeled a terrorist in secret through your disposition matrix. Rather than just arrest him and go through the hassle of trying and convicting him in a court of law, and having to fool with all those terrorist-loving Constitutional protections, you can just use one of these flying death robots to assassinate him! Remember, due process and oversight are for sissies. Plus, you get the added bonus of taking out potential terrorists before they've even done anything - estimates have determined that you can kill up to 49 potential future terrorists of any age for every confirmed terrorist you kill, and with the innovative 'double-tap' option, you can even kill a few terrorist first responders, preventing them from committing terrorist acts like helping the wounded and rescuing survivors trapped in the rubble. Don't let Dad get away with anti-American activities! Show him who's boss, whether he's at a wedding, a funeral, or just having his morning coffee. Sow fear and carnage in your wake! Win a Nobel Peace Prize and be declared Time Magazine's Person of the Year - Twice!

This goes well with the Maisto Extraordinary Rendition playset, by the way - which gives you all the tools you need to kidnap the family pet and take him for interrogation at a neighbor's house, where the rules of the Geneva Convention may not apply. Loads of fun! [Maurice Cobbs]

This is the best toy ever. Finally, I can pretend that I'm a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize! It's like I'm sitting right there in the White House with my very own kill list! [Raini Pachak]

# Star Wars memoir "A Long Time Ago" is back in the Kindle store

A followup to yesterday's post about how Amazon had nuked the Kindle edition of A Long Time Ago, Gib Van Ert's memoir about growing up with Star Wars, citing nebulous and incoherent trademark issues.

The Kindle edition is back. Amazon PR person Brittany Turner wrote, "Wanted to let you know that this book is now available in the Kindle Store." Ms Turner didn't offer any further explanation.

Presumably, it was a dumb mistake to begin with, but one that couldn't be corrected until there was enough publicity to get senior people to look in on the issue.

# Meet the random shopper: Amazon gifts bought at a machine's whim

Workers fulfull orders at an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley, England. REUTERS/Phil Noble

What would a bot buy from Amazon, if given life—and a gift card loaded with credit? Noam Chomsky's Cartesian Linguistics, apparently.

It's hard to believe that'd be a random choice, but it is, coming from a creature engineered for randomness by a man fascinated with randomness -- and consumerism. My friend Darius Kazemi, Boston-based developer extraordinaire, has a long-held interest in randomness. He's made the Twitter account @metaphorminute, designed to tweet a random metaphor every couple minutes, and OutSlide, which generates a random set of slides based on phrase-oriented Google image results.

With a background primarily in games, he's always been drawn to roguelikes and other games where random generation is a factor in the experience; he's attracted to the idea of "abdicating design decisions to a computer."

# Amazon kicks self-published Star Wars memoir out of the Kindle store on nebulous and nonsensical trademark grounds

Update: The Kindle edition is back. Amazon PR person Brittany Turner wrote, "Wanted to let you know that this book is now available in the Kindle Store." Ms Turner didn't offer any further explanation.

Gib Van Ert sez,

Amazon has decided to remove the book I self-published on Kindle, "A Long Time Ago: Growing up with and out of Star Wars", from their store for an unspecified trademark issue. Their emails are vague, but they seems to being saying that I have to have Lucasfilm's permission before selling on their store a book that talks about Star Wars. It's a crazy position--Star Wars is a massive pop cultural and generational phenomenon, as my book tries to explain through a personal narrative.

No one has a right to have their book sold on Amazon, of course. It's their store and they can decline to sell things if they like. But given how they dominate the book marketplace, being banned from Amazon is a major problem for an independent author. And when it is done on a spurious ground--Amazon has never said that Lucasfilm themselves have complained, and why would they?--it verges on a free speech issue.

"A Long Time Ago" is in my review pile, and has survived several purges of books of similar vintage (I've had it there for a long time!), because it looks awfully good, and got a great review from Wired's GeekDad. I hope that this is just some junior functionary at Amazon having a freakout and that someone higher up will see sense and realize that there's no reason in the world not to carry Van Ert's book.

Weirdly, Amazon is still carrying the print edition of the book, which makes things even more inexplicable. If Amazon faces some risk from selling an ebook, it faces the same risk from selling the print edition.

# Amazon Replacement Order Scam: anatomy of a social engineering con in action

Social engineering scams involve a mix of technical skills and psychological manipulation. Chris Cardinal discovered someone running such a scam on Amazon using his account: the scammer contacted Amazon pretending to be Chris, supplying his billing address (this is often easy to guess by digging into things like public phone books, credit reports, or domain registration records). Then the scammer secured the order numbers of items Chris recently bought on Amazon. In a separate transaction, the scammer reported that the items were never delivered and requested replacement items to be sent to a remailer/freight forwarder in Portland.

The scam hinged on the fact that Gmail addresses are "dot-blind" (foo@gmail.com is the same as f.oo@gmail.com), but Amazon treats them as separate addresses. This let the scammer run support chats and other Amazon transactions that weren't immediately apparent to Chris.

Others have reported on this scam, but word hasn't gotten around at Amazon yet, and when Chris talked to Amazon reps to alert them to the con, they kept insisting that his computer or email had been hacked, not understanding that the con artist was attacking a vulnerability in Amazon's own systems.

A little bit of sniffing finds this thread where users at a social engineering forum are offering to buy order numbers. Why? Because as it turns out, once you have the order number, everything else is apparently simple.

If you’ve used Amazon.com at all, you’ll notice something very quickly: they require your password. For pretty much anything. Want to change an address? Password. Add a billing method? Password. Check your order history? Password. Amazon is essentially very secure as a web property. But as you can see from my chat transcript above, the CSR team falls like dominoes with just a few simple data points and a little bit of authoritative prying.

# Amazon reviews for "binders" (full of women) are funnier than Romney's original gaffe

You knew it was coming. Binders full of women, the funny Amazon reviews. (HT: Tara McGinley)

Best Buy made just \$12m in profit on revenues of \$10.6bn in the last quarter, falling from \$150m over the same period last year. With stock and sales alike slumping, the firm suspended its profit forecast and share buybacks. Best Buy knows exactly what the problem is—it freely admits that everyone uses it to check out gadgets they then buy cheaper online—but hasn't found a way to turn the tide. [BBC and Dealnews]

# More about how the Sahara creates the Amazon

On Monday, I posted about an incredibly fascinating study linking the minerals that fertilize the Amazon rainforest to a specific corner of the Sahara desert in the country of Chad. That lake of sand—once an actual lake the size of California—is what keeps the Amazon green and verdant.

The interesting thing is that the study is actually not anything new. It came out in 2006. I heard about it from science writer Colin Schultz. Earlier this week, Colin went on News Talk 610 CKTB out of Niagara Falls, Ontario, to talk about how he stumbled across the study and why it's important far beyond simply connecting the desert and the jungle.

The interview delves into the subject in a lot more depth. In fact, it's a great demonstration of how reading a single research paper can be interesting, but doesn't necessarily give you the full picture of what's actually going on in science. Turns out, what we know about how dust travels to the Amazon has important implications for how we think about climate change and geoengineering. Also great: Colin comparing the volume of dust traveling from the Sahara to the volume of several Honda Civics. It's short, and very much worth listening to.

You can follow Colin Schultz on Twitter. BTW: He'd like you to know that when he says "bioengineers" in the interview, he means "geoengineers".

A 2010 Nature News article on the connection between the Sahara and the Amazon.
• Geophysical Research Letters on changes in dust transport over time.
• NASA on the way that dust affects climate.
A 2010 follow-up to the 2006 paper by the same group of researchers. Colin says that this gets more into the details of how the dust becomes an important fertilizer in the Amazon.

Image: rainforest, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from tauntingpanda's photostream

# The desert that creates the rainforest

This is probably the most amazing thing I learned all weekend. The Amazon rainforest—with all its plant and animal life, and all its astounding biodiversity—could not exist as we know it without the patch of African desert pictured above.

The rainforest is amazing, but the soil it produces isn't very nutrient rich. All the minerals and nutrients that fertilize the rainforest have to come from someplace else. Specifically: Africa. Scientists have known for a while that this natural fertilizer is crossing the Atlantic in the form of dust storms, but science writer Colin Schultz ran across a 2006 paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters that not only produces evidence for a much larger trans-oceanic transfer of dust than was previously assumed ... it also pinpoints the exact (and astoundingly small) location where all the fertilizer in the Amazon is coming from.

The research paper, itself, is pleasantly readable, as far as these things go, so I'm going to quote directly from it. One quick note before I launch into this quote. The authors are measuring the mass of the dust in teragrams (or Tg). As you're trying to wrap your head around this, it might be helpful to know that 1 Tg = 1 million tons.

A total of 140 (± 40) Tg is deposited in the Atlantic ocean and 50 (± 15) Tg reach and fertilize the Amazon basin. This is four times an older estimate, explaining a paradox regarding the source of nutrients to the Amazon forest. Swap et al suggested that while the source for minerals and nutrients in the Amazon is the dust from Africa, it was estimated that only 13 Tg of dust per year actually arrive in the Amazon. However, they pointed out that 50 Tg are needed to balance the Amazon nutrient budget.

Here we show a remarkable arrangement in nature in which the mineral dust arriving at the Amazon basin from the Sahara actually originates from a single source of only ~ 0.5% of the size of the Amazon: the Bodélé depression. Located northeast of Lake Chad (17°N, 18°E) near the northern border of the Sahel, it is known to be the most vigorous source for dust over the entire globe.

Basically, these 2006 calculations account for all the fertilization needs of the Amazon, while previous calculations left a weird gap in between the amount of dust the rainforest needed and the amount the scientists thought was getting there.

Also: The place the dust is coming from is a single, highly specific region. As Alexis Madrigal pointed out at The Atlantic, we're talking about a patch of desert only 1/3 the size of Florida supplying the nutrient needs of a jungle that is roughly the same size as all 48 contiguous United States. Mind, blown.

Read the full research paper at Environmental Research Letters

Check out The Atlantic's write up on this, including a satellite photo of the dust storms in question.

Follow the guy who started it all—the very smart, very entertaining, and very tall Colin Schultz

Via Bart King

# Indie author gets sticker shock from Amazon "delivery fees"

Andrew Hyde wrote and self-published a great-looking travel book and put it up for sale on Amazon, iBooks, B&N, and an indie marketplace called Gumroad that retails the PDF. The book had an exciting launch and the sales on Amazon were really high, but he got some sticker-shock when he found out that Amazon was charging very high "delivery fees" for his books, even when the buyers were buying from WiFi. He calculated the book-delivery markup over the rate Amazon charges for website hosting and concluded that Amazon charges authors a 129,000% markup for moving a file from A to B. Apple did better, but are total jerks about it. B&N didn't sell enough to move the needle for him. The whole post is a bracing reality-check.

The file itself is under their suggested 50MB cap Amazon says to keep it under at 18.1MB. The book contains upwards of 50 pictures and the one file for Kindle needs to be able to be read on their smallest displays in black and white and their full color large screen Mac app). I’m confused. Amazon stores a ton of the Internet on S3/EC2, they should have the storage and delivery down. If I stored that file on S3/EC2 it would cost me \$.01 PER FIVE DOWNLOADS. Hat tip to Robby for that one. Use Amazon to run your website: .01 to download a file. Use amazon to sell your book: \$2.58 per download + 30% of whatever you sell.

Amazon’s markup of digital delivery to indie authors is ~129,000%

...Apple is actually quite good at a flat looking \$7 per \$9.99 purchase. They host the file and their iBooks Author is fantastic for book creation. Their app store customer service is about as bad as I can immagine (no phone, email or ticket support). You have to play by their rules and their rules happen to include error messages that block your book from being published with the descriptive “Unknown Error.” As a testament to their not giving single fuck, their “Contact Us” is a FAQ with no way to send a message. The book looks amazing on iPads through iBooks though!

# "Start reading Why the Kindle Will Fail on your Kindle"

Rick Munarriz's 2007 Why the Kindle will Fail is now free of charge to Prime members. [Amazon via John Moltz]

# Antitrust and ebooks: regulators miss the big DRM lock-in picture

US antitrust regulators have never really been able to find the right place to stick their lever and pry when it comes to the Internet (witness their failure to understand Microsoft's platform dominance in the 90s). Now they're going after various publishers and Apple over price fixing (my publisher is included, and for the record, I don't agree with their stance on "agency pricing"), but they're missing all the big elephants in the room: platform lock-in by way of DRM, prohibitions created by both Apple and Amazon on using third-party payment systems on their apps, and all the associated ticking bombs that represent the real, enduring danger to the ebook marketplace. Every dollar that is spent on a locked, proprietary platform is a dollar of opportunity cost that society will have to spend to get out from under the would-be monopolists of ebooks when (not if) they abuse their power (see my latest PW column on this).

Wired's Tim Carmody does a really good job of pointing out the fail here, as antitrust regulators miss the forest of lock-in for the trees of abusive pricing.

What’s left out of the Justice department’s lawsuit might be even better news for Amazon than what’s included. There is no broader look at any of the anticompetitive vagaries of the e-book market beyond publishers’ negotiations with retailers in the period before and after the launch of iBooks.

The suit blasts most favored nation agreements without noting that Amazon has aggressively pursued MFN agreements with publishing partners, including partners whose books it sells wholesale. It’s completely silent on retailers’ and device manufacturers’ use of DRM to lock customers into a single bookstore. Amazon is purely a market innovator, not a budding monopolist, even as the DOJ notes that Amazon’s pricing power helped determine pricing power across the industry.

Blogger Mike Cane wrote a powerful email to attorneys at the Department of Justice listed in the lawsuit titled, “Dear DoJ: You Need To Sue Apple Again.” It cites Apple’s in-app purchasing rules that prohibit Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and other retailers from offering books for iOS devices on the same terms that Apple can offer in iBooks, without browser workarounds.

This, Cane says, “is every bit as much restraint of trade as the collusive price-fixing that made the Department bring Apple and its co-conspirators before the court for remedy.”

But it’s actually great news for Amazon that the DOJ isn’t opening up restrictions on in-device purchases. Once thrown, that stone bounces back to hit Amazon in the face right away.

## Seth Godin: Apple won't sell ebooks that link to Amazon —

David Weinberger sez, "Seth Godin reports that the Apple store is refusing to carry his new ebook, Stop Stealing Dreams, because it links the books it references to Amazon. Seth argues that the market dominance of a mere three ebook vendors, and the fact that the vendors of ebooks are also the vendors of ebook readers, imposes a special cultural obligation on them to be 'net neutral' (so to speak) about the content they sell." Cory