Random House launches ebook imprint that's run like a predatory vanity press

Writer beware. According to an email from the Science Fiction Writers of America, Random House has launched an imprint called "Hydra" with all the hallmarks of a sleazy, scammy vanity-press: no advance on royalties, perpetual, all-rights assignments of copyrights, and all production expenses charged to the writer before any royalties are paid.

SFWA has determined that works published by Random House’s electronic imprint Hydra can not be use as credentials for SFWA membership, and that Hydra is not an approved market. Hydra fails to pay authors an advance against royalties, as SFWA requires, and has contract terms that are onerous and unconscionable. Hydra contracts also require authors to pay – through deductions from royalties due the authors – for the normal costs of doing business that should be borne by the publisher. Hydra contracts are also for the life-of-copyright and include both primary and subsidiary rights. Such provisions are unacceptable. At this time, Random House's other imprints continue to be qualified markets.

This kind of rip-off is semi-standard with record deals, but it's unheard of in legit publishing, where the author typically receives an advance on royalties that is not refundable if it doesn't earn out; where authors traditionally assign a few, time-limited rights (English print/audio/ebook for a given territory, say); and where the production costs are wholly borne by the press in exchange for keeping the lion's share of any book revenue.

Hydra's deal is much, much worse than the one you'll get from a real DIY option like BookBaby or CreateSpace or Lulu, where you only pay for services you want, keep 100% of your profits, and assign no rights at all to the "publisher." It's got all the downsides of a DIY press, and all the downsides of a traditional press, and the upsides of neither.

Soccer match-rigging, straight out of a Gibson novel


Here's a brutal, must-read article from Brian Phillips detailing the bizarre, globalized game of soccer-match-rigging, which launders its influence, money and bets through countries all over the world, in what sounds like an intense, sport-themed LARP of a William Gibson Sprawl novel:

Right now, Dan Tan's programmers are busy reverse-engineering the safeguards of online betting houses. About $3 billion is wagered on sports every day, most of it on soccer, most of it in Asia. That's a lot of noise on the big exchanges. We can exploit the fluctuations, rig the bets in a way that won't trip the houses' alarms. And there are so many moments in a soccer game that could swing either way. All you have to do is see an Ilves tackle in the box where maybe the Viikingit forward took a dive. It happens all the time. It would happen anyway. So while you're running around the pitch in Finland, the syndicate will have computers placing high-volume max bets on whatever outcome the bosses decided on, using markets in Manila that take bets during games, timing the surges so the security bots don't spot anything suspicious. The exchanges don't care, not really. They get a cut of all the action anyway. The system is stacked so it's gamblers further down the chain who bear all the risks.

What's that — you're worried about getting caught? It won't happen. Think about the complexity of our operation. We are organized in Singapore, I flew from Budapest, the match is in Finland, we're wagering in the Philippines using masked computer clusters from Bangkok to Jakarta. Our communications are refracted across so many cell networks and satellites that they're almost impossible to unravel. The money will move electronically, incomprehensibly, through a hundred different nowheres. No legal system was set up to handle this kind of global intricacy. The number of intersecting jurisdictions alone is dizzying. Who's going to spot the crime? Small-town police in Finland? A regulator in Beijing? Each of them will only see one tiny part of it. How would they ever know to talk to each other? Dan Tan has friends in high places; extradition requests can find themselves bogged down in paperwork. Witnesses can disappear. I promise; you'll be safe. Who can prove you didn't see a penalty? We're fine.

Best part? Pro soccer is so corrupt that they don't give a damn, despite the fact that there is no game there, just a network of frauds that may exceed $1B:

Let me answer that question by referring you to the phrase that I hope will be your primary takeaway from this piece. Soccer. Is. Fucked. Europol announced the investigation Monday, leaving everyone with the impression that this was an ongoing operation designed to, you know, stop a criminal, maybe catch a bad guy or something. On Tuesday, multiple journalists reported that Europol is no longer pursuing the investigation. They've turned the information over to the dozens of prosecution services in the dozens of countries involved, which should keep things nice and streamlined. The man at the center of the whole story, the Singaporean mobster Tan Seet Eng, known as Dan Tan, has a warrant out for his arrest, but the Singaporeans won't extradite him and Interpol won't pressure them to do so.3 UEFA and FIFA talk about stamping out corruption, but, and I'll try to be precise here, FIFA rhetoric is to action what a remaindered paperback copy of Pippi in the South Seas is to the Horsehead Nebula. FIFA is eyeballs-deep in its own corruption problems, being run, as it is, by a cabal of 150-year-olds, most of them literally made out of dust, who have every incentive to worry about short-term profit over long-term change. They all have streets named after them, so how could they have a bad conscience? FIFA sees the game as a kind of Rube Goldberg device, or, better, as a crazed Jenga tower, and their job is to keep it standing as long as the money's coming in. Doesn't matter how wobbly it gets. Nobody look at the foundations.

Match-Fixing in Soccer [Brian Phillips/Grantland]

(via Schneier)

(Image: FIFA visita as obras da Arena Fonte Nova, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from agecombahia's photostream)

Looking for podcasters who've been shaken down by patent trolls

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is looking for podcasters who've received legal threats from Personal Audio, a patent troll that claims a bullshit patent on "disseminating a series of episodes represented by media files via the Internet." Cory

American insurers charge reckless rich drivers less than safe poor drivers

The Consumer Federation of America did a mystery shopper review of several auto insurers and found that drivers with at-fault accidents paid lower premiums than drivers with spotless records -- provided that the careless driver was rich and well-educated and the careful driver was a single renter without an advanced degree.

Using two hypothetical characters the group compared premiums offered to two 30-year-old women. Both had driven for 10 years, lived on the same street in a middle-income Zip code and both wanted the minimum insurance required by whichever state the group was researching.

The imaginary woman who wasn’t married, rented a home, didn’t have coverage for 45 days but has never been in an accident or ticketed with a moving violation was compared to a married executive with a master’s degree who owns her home and has always had continuous insurance coverage. But she’d been in an accident (again, hypothetically) that was her fault and caused $800 in damage within the last three years.

The results were somewhat surprising, although there were differences across the five insurers. Farmers, GEICO and Progressive always gave a higher quote to the safer driver than the woman who’d caused an accident. Across all 12 cities in the study, State Farm offered the lowest or second lowest premiums.

“State insurance regulators should require auto insurers to explain why they believe factors such as education and income are better predictors of losses than are at-fault accidents,” said J. Robert Hunter, CFA’s director of insurance and former Texas insurance

Consumer Group: The Rich May Pay Less For Car Insurance Even If They’re Not Safe Drivers [Consumerist/Mary Beth Quirk]

LARGEST AUTO INSURERS FREQUENTLY CHARGE HIGHER PREMIUMS TO SAFE DRIVERS THAN TO THOSE RESPONSIBLE FOR ACCIDENTS (PDF) [Consumer Federation of America]

The crazy world of engagement ring financing

Gerri Detweiler of credit.com has an article about sleazy engagement ring financing.

[H]ere is what some of the major jewelry stores are currently advertising. With all of these plans, if you make one late payment or fail to pay the balance in full during the promotional period, interest will be charged from the date of purchase — not from the date the promotional period ends.

Jared: 0% interest if paid in full within 12 months; up to 24.99%.

Kay Jewelers: 0% interest if paid in full within 12 months; up to 24.99%.

Shane and Company: 0% interest if paid in full in 6 months; 27.99%

Zales: 0% interest if paid in full in 6 months; 23.73% to 28.99%

While interest-free financing may work out fine if you are able to pay off the balance, it is risky if you aren’t able to come up with the cash to pay it off.

One more potential trap: Applying for one of the accounts will create an inquiry on your credit reports. Plus, if you accept the financing, you’ll have a new account with a balance listed on your credit reports, and that could potentially have a negative effect on your credit scores.

The crazy world of engagement ring financing

(Image: Life in the old dog yet, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from aldenchadwick's photostream)

Lionsgate commits copyfraud, has classic "Buffy vs Edward" video censored



Update: It's back up. McIntosh's YouTube comments says, "Three weeks after a bogus DMCA takedown by Lionsgate, I received a one line email from the YouTube team saying that my remix has been reinstated."
Jonathan McIntosh's "Buffy vs Edward" video is a classic: a mashup that's been viewed millions of times on YouTube, discussed in the halls of the US Copyright Office, and cited in a Library of Congress/Copyright Office report as an example of legal, fair use mashup.

But when Lionsgate bought out Summit Entertainment, the company that made the Twilight franchise, they started to aggressively "monetize" the remixes of the series online. That meant that they claimed ownership of them using YouTube's ContentID system, which would automatically place ads alongside all the video clips from the series -- including "Buffy vs Edward."

McIntosh objected to this. His video was fair use -- the Copyright Office itself said so -- and had never had ads placed in it. Lionsgate had no claim over it. He appealed to YouTube. YouTube punted to Lionsgate, who insisted that they were legally in the right. McIntosh hired a lawyer to write an letter explaining the fair use analysis to YouTube, who agreed, and reinstated the video, and Lionsgate (seemingly) dropped the claim.

But Lionsgate came back with another claim: the "audiovisual" elements in the video were fair use, but the "visual" elements were not (yeah, I know). McIntosh went through the process again, with the same result -- and so Lionsgate filed a complaint with YouTube that resulted in it being taken offline altogether.

McIntosh's correspondence with Lionsgate has been very unsatisfying. The company claims that since he refused to let them make money off of his creativity, they had "no choice" but to have it censored from YouTube. The company's representatives refuse to address the fair use claims at all.

Meanwhile, to add insult to injury, McIntosh had to complete an insulting "copyright education" course in order to continue using YouTube (even though he is an expert on fair use and had done no wrong), and is permanently barred from uploading videos longer than 15 minutes to the service -- all because of the repeated, fraudulent assertions made by Lionsgate.

In the past, companies that sent similar fraudulent takedowns to YouTube have faced penalties (remember EFF and the dancing baby versus Prince and Universal Music?). It would be an expensive and difficult proposition for McIntosh to bring Lionsgate to court for repeating the fraud, but let's hope that these copyfraudsters don't get off scot-free.

In the meantime, here's a really cool version of the video with annotations courtesy of Mozilla's popcorn.js tool.

Buffy vs Edward Remix Unfairly Removed by Lionsgate

Phrases used by corporate fraudsters

The FBI and Ernst and Young have released a list of top-ten phrases that indicate corporate fraud, based on data-mining evidence from real corporate fraud investigations.

In total more than 3,000 terms are logged by the technology, which monitors for conversations within the "fraud triangle", where pressure, rationalisation, and opportunity meet, said the FBI and Ernst & Young...

1. Cover up
2. Write off
3. Illegal
4. Failed investment
5. Nobody will find out
6. Grey area
7. They owe it to me
8. Do not volunteer information
9. Not ethical
10. Off the books

Top email terms used by corporate fraudsters published by FBI (via /.)

Chinese tourists say crooked NZ tour-operator took them to a "buffet" that was really a church soup-kitchen

Chinese tourists say a crooked tour-operator who'd promised them the best sightseeing in New Zealand and a buffet dinner instead took them to a bunch of public parks and then dumped them in the line at a soup-kitchen:

"I thought it was a real bargain, but the main reason we decided to go with him was because we thought it would be handy to have a local guide who spoke Mandarin," he said.

"I was shocked to find out later from media reports that the Christmas lunch was a charity lunch for the poor and homeless, and that most of the places we had been taken to were free and were not meant for tourists."

A TVNZ Christmas Day news report said Chinese tourists on organised tours were among the 2800 people at the Viaduct Events Centre for the annual charity lunch.

Chinese visitor says tour operator told him charity event was Govt treat. (Thanks, Juha!)

Buddy Holly's demo for "Words of Love"

Piglisi sez, "Experimenting with double-tracking his voice and guitar, Buddy Holly recorded a demo for a song he'd composed (by himself, despite his producer/manager taking half the songwriting credit). A scratchy acetate survives."

Buddy Holly - Words Of Love ('Echo Chamber Demo')

See also:

* Buddy Holly's first-ever recording, from 1949
* Rave On Buddy Holly: tribute album streaming now
* Buddy Holly's secretly recorded contract negotiation with Decca
* What was in Buddy Holly's plane-crash overnight bag?

Ukrainian steampunk mask-maker gets plagiarized by Skymall stalwarts Design Toscano


Update: Design Toscano has apologized for this and agreed to pay a royalty to Bob Basset. They blame an unscrupulous supplier who presented the design as its own.


Design Toscano, a wealthy, fast-growing company, is selling a leather steampunk mask that clearly plagiarises the work of Ukrainian leatherworker Bob Basset, a favorite around these parts. As Rob Murdoch points out in his post, Toscano could easily spare the budget to work with Basset to produce masks or designs for them -- the ethical thing to do. Basset, a poor artists living in Ukraine, feels powerless to do anything about it. This ugly business calls all of Toscano's products into question: are all the designs in their catalog unacknowledged rip-offs from independent designers, or just this one?

So having known and loved Bob’s work for 10 years at this point, imagine my happiness for him when I came across a sculpture of one of his masks being sold on this site. I thought “Great for Bob! More of his work is out there and it’s a great paying gig for him!” (Toscano is a multi-million dollar company so they can afford to pay their artists well and they often give credit to the artist). Then I had the horrible thought that maybe this isn’t good and it’s a case of a big company ripping off the little guy, which has happened before and will happen again so long as companies can get away with it. So I popped over to Bob’s personal Facebook page and linked him the online catalogue page with his mask and asked if he knew about it. An hour later, he replied with “Yes, I know they simply stolen our design. But what I can do from Ukraine I don’t know.”

So there you have it. There is no mistaking that the sculpture is a copy of Bob Basset work: his style is so unique. Not only was he not given credit for it, but he was not compensated at all for their using his mask. Now I hate to have to bring this to light because I have loved Design Toscano for years. I have a lot of fantastic statues and art from them lining my walls. But something has to be said. And you have to wonder, why did this happen? Toscano makes good money on the art they sell. They didn’t need to copy this work without compensation. Why not have approached the artist who made the masks they obviously liked and wanted to sell and commission a sculpture from him? Artists live or die by their sales. They need to be paid by people who want to make use of their work, and they need to be credited for their art.

Toscano's catalog copy is an exercise in chutzpah: "Get ready for a little anti-establishment, alternate history with our forward-thinking Steampunk gas mask that boasts a gramophone for hearing and no end of techno-Victorian charm!" They even call it a "Design Toscano Exclusive." Well, yes, they are the exclusive purveyor of the cheap knock-off.

Jaborwhalky Productions • Steampunk art stolen by Design Toscano? When you... (Thanks, Rob!)

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.

Two-for-one: Amazon.com’s Socially Engineered Replacement Order Scam (via Hacker News)

Steven Levy on the patent wars


Steven Levy's Wired magazine feature on the cancerous multiplication of patents has all the hallmarks of Levy's work: excellent, eminently readable, human-scale tech reporting that makes important issues comprehensible.

The rise of trolls came as a result of a court system that seemed to favor them every step of the way. The vagueness of the underlying patents, the ridiculous ease with which plaintiffs could file a suit, the high costs defendants faced, and the unthinkable consequences of losing—all created an environment in which trolls were routinely rewarded for filing frivolous suits. But by the late 2000s, courts and the legislature began slowly chipping away at these factors. In 2003 a company called MercExchange successfully sued eBay over the provenance of its Buy It Now button. When eBay appealed, MercExchange took the common step of asking for an injunction against the defendant, which would have barred eBay from using the disputed technology as long as the case remained open. This was intended to prevent firms from profiting unfairly from someone else’s invention. But all too often it further pressured companies to settle quickly so they could go back to business. Courts could be quick to grant such injunctions, but when the issue came before the Supreme Court in 2006, the justices determined that more care should be taken with that drastic step. This precedent made it harder for challengers to threaten a defendant’s entire business.

The Patent Problem

(Image: Brock Davis)

iPad left at airport checkpoint ends up at TSA inspector's house

ABC News ran a sting against dirty TSA inspectors by leaving behind iPads (with tracking spyware) at ten airport checkpoints known for theft and following them electronically. One iPad, left at an Orlando checkpoint, moved 30 miles to the home of Andy Ramirez, a TSA inspector at the airport. Initially, he denied stealing the iPad, then he blamed his wife. He has since been fired from the TSA.

I'm sure that he was the only crook working in the entire agency and now we're all safe. Thank goodness.

According to the TSA, 381 TSA officers have been fired for theft between 2003 and 2012, including 11 so far in this year.

The agency disputes that theft is a widespread problem, however, saying the number of officers fired "represents less than one-half of one percent of officers that have been employed" by TSA.

...Ramirez produced the iPad only after ABC News activated an audio alarm feature, and turned it over after taking off his TSA uniform shirt.

His explanation for the missing iPad in his home was that his wife had taken it from the airport.

"I'm so embarrassed," he told ABC News. "My wife says she got the iPad and brought it home," he said.

... No TSA official, including director John Pistole, would agree to be interviewed by ABC News about the issue of theft and what steps TSA has taken to address the long-standing problem.

In its statement, the TSA said it "holds its employees to the highest ethical standards."

Republicans have promised to fix this problem by firing the unionized federal workers and replacing them with private contractors. Because private contractors -- not directly accountable to the government, insulated by layers of contractor/subcontractor relationships -- would never, ever abuse their authority. Which is why mall security guards are the pinnacle of policing efficiency.

ABC News Tracks Missing iPad To Florida Home of TSA Officer (via Beth Pratt)

How Facebook design tricks people into trading away privacy


On TechCrunch, Avi Charkham provides an excellent side-by-side comparison of an older Facebook design and the latest one, showing how the service has moved to minimize the extent to which its users are notified of the privacy "choices" they make when they interact with the service. The Facebook rubric is that people don't value their privacy ("privacy is dead, get over it,") and we can tell that because they demonstrate it by using Facebook. But really, Facebook is designed to minimize your understanding of the privacy trades you're making and your ability to make those trades intelligently.

All privacy offers on FB are take-it-or-leave-it: you give up all your privacy to play Angry Birds, or you don't play Angry Birds. There's no "give up some of your privacy to play Angry Birds" offer, or "here's a game that's 95% as fun as Angry Birds but requires that you only yield up the most trivial facts of your life to play it" that we can test the market against.

Charkham's five examples from the visual interface design are very good evidence that FB isn't a harbinger of the death of privacy; rather, it's a tribute to the power of deceptive hard-sell tactics to get people to make privacy trade-offs they wouldn't make in a fair deal.

#3: The Tiny Hidden Info Symbol Trick

In the old Design Facebook presented a detailed explanation about the “basic” information you’re about to expose to the apps you’re adding. In the new design they decided to hide that info. If you pay careful attention you’ll see a tiny little “?” symbol and if you hover over it you’ll discover that this app is about to gain access to your name, profile pic, Facebook user ID, gender, networks, list of friends and any piece of info you’ve made public on Facebook. Quite a lot of info for a 20×10 pixel tiny hidden info symbol don’t you think?!

Of course, the interface is only a small part of the tactics used to manipulate privacy decisions on FB. More insidious and likely more effective is the use of the proprietary algorithms to apply intermittent social reward for disclosure, driving users to greater and greater disclosures -- something well documented in The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser's 2011 book on the subject.

5 Design Tricks Facebook Uses To Affect Your Privacy Decisions (via Hacker News)

Pastor claims holy black currant drink will cure cancer, HIV, diabetes

The Manchester Evening News's Richard Wheatstone has done a good investigative series on the Victorious Pentecostal Assembly Manchester, which hard-sells a "holy" cure-all (made from black currant drink and olive oil) that the church's leader, "Pastor Mbenga," claims will cure cancer, HIV and diabetes. In one article, the reporter presented himself to Mbenga, saying that he was worried about his uncle's cancer. The pastor advised him to pray and buy a lot of miracle cure, which the pastor would bless. The pastor's hard sell included stories of people with cancer and diabetes who "had been able to throw away their medication after making a full recovery." The pastor instructed the reporter to dilute the blessed sugary drink three to one with olive oil and administer it to his uncle, whereupon "God will take over with divine intervention and the cancer will disappear."

When subsequently cornered, the pastor insisted he harmed no one and framed his sales of the "cure" as an issue of religious freedom:

He said: "It is the word of God, it is in the scriptures that God can heal these illnesses and that is the message we are passing on to people.

"I wasn’t aware of that law, but we live in a free society and if this is what people believe then people should be free to believe in it and carry out their faith.

"We have seen divine intervention in the past where people have been healed of terrible diseases and believe that God has the supernatural power to bring about miracles.

"This is what we believe and we are just trying to help people, trying to help them live a better life by giving them the power through God to make changes in their lives. We are not hurting anyone."

Pastor: We are trying to help ... we aren’t hurting anyone (via ERV)