Skip to main content

David Flanagan, author of JavaScript: The Definitive Guide, writes:

For 15 years I've been one of those lucky authors who has been able to support himself and his family almost entirely on book royalties. But the publishing industry has been in decline and my royalties checks have decreased more-or-less steadily since the dot-com bust, and I've now decided that I need to look for a salaried job.

15 years is a long time. What a blessing to have been able to do something you love for that long, and get paid for it.

But then he goes off into the weeds a little bit and starts in with his opinions of piracy and Google's role in the world. [Note: I work for Google but not on search. I don't speak for Google and they don't speak for me. It works out well.]

David continues:

I was trying to be provocative when I tweeted the question "Does Google enable piracy?" But I do think it is a valid question. If Google indexes sites like ebookee that link directly to download sites and makes it easy to find the pirated content you want and even offers suggestions on what to search for, I think there is a case to be made that they're encouraging piracy.

Note how quickly we've moved the goalposts from "enabling" piracy to "encouraging" piracy. Lots of technology "enables" piracy; after all, it's only 1s and 0s. In the analog world, even libraries "enable" piracy by putting a photocopier in the same building as a bunch of books. But do libraries "encourage" piracy? No, there are big signs next to the photocopier warning you about copyright law, and photocopies are prohibitively expensive to do anything more than copy a few pages for reference. Does technology "encourage" digital piracy? No, it's only 1s and 0s.

More importantly, contrary to David's assertion, ebookee does not have David's latest book. The entire site is a scam to get people to sign up for Usenet or "premium" file sharing services. They have a page for every book in the universe. A small fraction of them actually have download links, most of which are broken. Mostly, the site just goes round and round. There's a case to be made that the site should be delisted because it's fucking useless, but its existence in search results does not bolster David's argument that Google is "encouraging" piracy.

And now JavaScript: The Definitive Guide is out. I don't have a copy of it yet, but illegal copies are free for anyone who wants one.

This is not true; see above.

And Google will suggest those illegal downloads to anyone who tries to research the book (see the screenshot).

That screenshot actually shows the results of Google's existing filtering program for piracy-related terms like "bittorrent," "rapidshare," and "megaupload." Without that filtering, the suggestion box would be full of piracy-related terms. But more to the point, it would be full of piracy-related terms because that's what people search for. Google's suggestions come from actual searches. It's a mirror onto the world, descriptive not prescriptive. If you don't like how the world looks in the mirror, don't blame the mirror.

David continues:

Here are some small steps that might help:

  • Google could filter its search suggestions so that they do not actively suggest piracy.

Google already does this; see above.

  • Google could flag (without filtering) search results that are likely links to pirated content. Google already flags some results with "this site may harm your computer". Why not flag pirate sites: "Downloading content from this site may result in legal action by the copyright holder" or "Downloads from this site may be illegal". Or nice and simple: "this site may harm your karma".

The difference is that "this site may harm your computer" is based on an objective measurement. You can read how it works. Suspected sites are automatically verified in a virtual machine running an unpatched browser. It is both fascinating and mind-boggling to imagine that it works at all, much less works at Internet scale in near-real time.

On the other hand, legal concepts like "copyrighted material" are more difficult to automate at Internet scale. This is not to say it's impossible; YouTube has its Content ID program for audio and video, but it relies on the fact that people are actually uploading content to YouTube directly. To replicate this program on RapidShare, Google would need to download everything from RapidShare in order to identify it. Ironically, RapidShare makes this technically difficult in order to discourage third-party downloader programs that help users "steal" content from RapidShare without viewing ads or paying for "premium" membership.

And even if all the technical hurdles could be overcome, it still wouldn't necessarily warrant flagging sites like ebookee, which only hosts links to infringing content and not the content itself. (And if Google did start flagging them, they would just add another layer of indirection, or cloak their download URLs, or some other damn thing. You'll never beat piracy this way.)

Speaking of "beating" piracy, an anonymous commenter makes this point:

One of the reasons iTunes is so successful is that they successfully compete with the file sharers. ... Why should I waste time looking for an mp3 that may or may not be of any decent quality when I can download immediately at low cost from iTunes?

Commenter "Peter" makes a related point:

I have been an OReilly Safari subscriber for several years. I can recommend this to every developer out there. ... Yet, must admit it still pains me that for ~$500/year we as honest subscribers can not get the same convenience (offline access, unencumbered PDF's) as people who just download a pirated PDF library for free.

So is piracy really the problem? Is it even a problem? David has provided no evidence that his book is, in fact, wildly pirated. It's not even available yet from dedicated pirate sites. But the larger, more disturbing question is this: who bothers to steal books these days when you can go to Stack Overflow or a web forum or, yes, even Google, type a question, and get an answer?

I'll close with this observation from "Curt":

Most technical book are actually really painful to navigate, but at [one] time they were the only option, now I can find context relevant information in seconds hence books are less convenient and they cost money. The default is now deeply linked, highly specific data. IMHO you are not losing money to piracy, you are failing to make money due to the inadequacy of the book as a medium for technical data.

I think David would actually agree with this. In response to another comment, David himself wrote:

I will say that my book was written as a book, and it probably wouldn't work well online (regardless of whether it could work financially that way). And maybe that is a big piece of my revenue problem: I'm producing content in an old-fashioned medium.

The "book" is dead. Long live "content." And God help us all if world-class writers like David can't make a living from it.


During my brief but memorable tenure at Earlham College, I wrote a column for the school newspaper. (For the kids in the audience, that's like Twittering on paper once a week.) Columns aren't news articles (which sounded like work); they're more like the opinions you read on the op-ed pages, without the opinions. Think Dave Barry (my inspiration) or George Will (not so much).

My first trimester (that's right, trimester), I mostly wrote irreverent articles about making the Internet accessible to newbies. My first ever published article was entitled "Getting Wired at Earlham." Don't laugh; this was 1994. It was published on the inside back page, across from a half-page advertisement for the Macintosh Performa 636. The Performa impressively came with "the Internet Companion to help you tap into on-line research resources." Plus ClarisWorks, and a CD-ROM drive. "And now, with an Apple Computer Loan, you can own a Macintosh for less than a dollar a day." Screw those starving kids in Africa; I'm getting myself a Performa!

Anyway, I hereby present my first article, published on September 9, 1994 under the heading "Lost in Cyberspace":

If you've picked up a newspaper in the last year, you've probably seen the term "cyberspace," and if you actually read the newspaper, you are probably confused. This is not entirely your fault; the general media, for the most part, doesn't have the first clue what cyberspace is, where it came from, or what to do about it. [Note: this is still true. -ed]

Loosely defined, cyberspace is anything you can see, hear, taste, touch, or feel on the Internet. Depending on what you read (and what you believe), this may also include anything people claim you will be able to do on the Information Superhighway, just as soon as they get around to building it. These claims range from buying groceries to walking your virtual dog, but none of these things are actually happening yet. [I predicted Second Life in 1994. -ed]

The Internet, on the other hand, already exists, and it resembles the proposed Information Superhighway about as much as Earlham Hall resembles a four-star Hilton.

Dave Barry says that the Internet is just like the Information Superhighway, except that you're driving in pouring rain with no windshield wipers and all the road signs are upside-down and backwards. [Note: this is still true. -ed]

A long time ago, only scientists and tenured physics professors were on the Internet, and cyberspace was a "no shirt, no shoes, no brains, no service" kind of place. The population was 99.44% white males of European descent, and the other 0.56% were widely believed to be a glitch in the original software. [In retrospect, this is not funny. -ed]

By 1994, all that has changed -- the "virtual community" includes virtually everybody (a fact which annoys the scientists and physics professors to no end, and it is easier than ever to get "wired."

If you want to get yourself wired without the help of caffeine or other harmless drugs, the first thing you should do is find Ira Carmel and get an account on Earlham's mainframe. [Note: so not kidding. -ed] This is actually trickier than it sounds, since Ira is usually only in his office during normal business hours, so you may have to wake up early to catch him.

Ira and I are old friends (we had Wiffleball class together last spring) [Note: this is true; it counted as a gym credit. -ed] and if you mention my name, he's give you a 10% discount. This doesn't amount to much, since accounts are free, but it never hurts to ask.

His office is in the computer center in the basement of Lilly Library, and it has no windows, so small talk about the weather will probably only make him angry. But tell him your name and the year you'll graduate (which, for some reason, is assumed to be four years after you get here), and he'll give you an account.

Congratulations, you've just gotten yourself wired.

Next week: omniscient beings in cyberspace.

The next week's article was devoted to the Usenet superstar of the day, James Parry, a.k.a. Kibo. The week after that was on the importance of choosing a good password. Then an entire article about the 'finger' command, then one about Internet-connected vending machines. (Remember the Coke machine at RIT that you could finger? I swear I recycled every 1994 Internet meme into print.) Then an article about the World Wide Web, featuring lynx and a URL with a port number. Then an article on the MAKE MONEY FAST pyramid scheme that infested Usenet and bulletin boards for years. (The article began with this plea: "Will the person who sent me a pyramid scheme chain letter in the mail a few weeks ago stand up, go to the nearest wall, and bang your head against it?") Finally, an article on how to forge e-mail by logging into unsecured SMTP servers. So not kidding. (That article was controversial, even in 1994.)

Looking through my newspaper archives, it appears I took a trimester off. When I came back, I was bored with writing about computer stuff. I came up with a new heading -- "Ars Magna" -- and wrote a series of articles, each a different style of constrained writing. (I didn't know that it had a name. We didn't have Wikipedia back then, you know.)

Did you know that a common word usually has two to six synonyms? It's not as difficult as you might think to find a synonym for a word if you wish. Many programs such as Microsoft Word can look up words for you just by typing and clicking a button or two. in fact, I'm using Word right now for writing this column.

It's practically a truism of writing that using synonyms can add color to your compositions. This is not to say that you should abandon your original word in favor of its synonyms, but substituting a synonym for a common word can transform a dull and prosaic thought into a piquant locution. You can always try substituting a synonym or mixing a common word with various analogous notions, as long as this won't sound confusing to your instructor.

Also, using various grammatical forms can allow you to signify your original thought in various ways, using synonyms, antonyms, or both. But always pick your synonyms and antonyms thoughtfully: words can carry unusual connotations that you may not wish to imply. And, as always, a hazard of writing this way is that, by using too many synonyms or antonyms of common words, or by using highly unusual grammatical constructions, you may actually hurt your writing; your instructor may not know that your abundant synonyms signify an individual notion. Too much of a good thing...

This brings up a similar point: your writing should flow naturally. Adding flair to your writing is a worthy goal, but trying to match Kant's intricacy of forms and vocabulary is not a particularly good way to win favor with your instructors. (Philosophy majors will strongly concur on this point.) Naturally, this calls for a broad vocabulary and a thorough command of grammatical forms. Accomplishing this is no light task, but if you can gain this important skill, you can go a long way towards dramatically improving your writing.


Why am I writing about writing? You may think that this topic is insignificant, but in fact it is anything but trivial. Of all my columns, this probably ranks as my most important; it was without a doubt my most difficult. I had four rough drafts prior to writing this final copy. Why was it so difficult? It has to do with a particular oddity in my writing, a curiosity that you probably will not spot right away. If you do spot it, jot down a quick summary and mail it to my account on yang (PILGRMA). Happy hunting.

I titled it "Writing with Ease." The entire article was written without the letter E. (This is called a lipogram, though I didn't know that until today.) Several of my friends figured out the constraint, which I would say speaks to the quality of my friends at the time. I let the rest of my audience in on the joke in my next column.

After that, I wrote a column about vegetarianism where every sentence included an anagram of the word "vegetarian." (That column was titled "I Love Vegetarians, They Taste Great." My girlfriend's best friend's boyfriend was the newspaper editor, so we all basically did whatever we wanted.) And although I can't find it in my archives, I swear I wrote another where all the article's sentences were in alphabetical order. (This is harder than it sounds.)

Many years later, I published "Addiction is...," which follows the obvious constraint that every item in the list starts with the same two words. A lesser-known example is my story "That Close," which comprises nothing but words of one syllable. (I cheated a little by anonymizing names with single letters.) I couldn't say why I felt compelled to choose those constraints, but in each case the choice was explicit and intentional from the very first drafts. In the case of "That Close," I think it was a vague feeling that the story was simple and blunt, and fancying it up with long words would just fuck it up. "There are not a lot of roles to fill," and all that. To this day, I can re-read those stories and lose myself in them, forgetting the constraints I imposed on myself while writing them.

And that's all she wrote.


I've been peripherally following the latest fad of full-screen "writing-focused" text editors. Here's what I've learned so far: in the beginning, there was WriteRoom (Mac OS X, $24.95). WriteRoom is "just about you and your text." WriteRoom begat DarkRoom (Windows + .NET, $0), which is also "just about you and your text" but requires a 22 MB runtime environment. DarkRoom begat JDarkRoom (Java, $0), which is just about you, your text, and somebody else's multi-megabyte runtime environment. (Depending on your platform, it may be as small as 13 MB, which is what the kids these days would call "an improvement.")

No doubt JDarkRoom will beget something even sillier, like PalmDarkRoom ("just you and your graffiti"), or iPodRoom ("just you, your text, and your scroll wheel"), or WiiDarkRoom ("just you, your text, and the incessant flicking of your wrist"). It's like a Biblical lineage of silliness.

Here's the basic problem: you're writing a text editor. Stop doing that. It's 2007. Saying to yourself "I'm gonna build my own text editor" is as silly as saying "I'm gonna build my own build system" or "I'm gonna build my own amusement park." Blackjack and hookers and all that. Writing a great text editor is insanely difficult. There is a certain class of software that sounds easy but is actually insanely difficult. I call it "garden path software." If I ever start a software company, I'll name it "Garden Path Software," but until then, just stop.

Reading the change logs of these programs is like traveling back in time. Way back. Latest changes in JDarkRoom 8: Undo / Redo. Seriously. Version 8, and they now support undo. No offense, but what the fuck?

I guess the part I don't understand is the target audience. Who is so serious about writing that they need a full-screen editor, but so unserious that they don't have a favorite editor already? I've published two full-length books and posted a hell of a lot more than that, and you can pry my text editor from my cold dead hands. I'm not even going to mention which one it is; it doesn't matter. Switching to a new one would be a frustrating and painful experience that would get in the way of my writing for weeks, maybe months.

All right, I think I've got it. (Write|J?Dark)Room is the SUV of editors. Remember when SUVs were new, and they were actually advertised as off-road vehicles? At some point the auto makers realized that no one was taking them off-road, and they switched to playing up their safety instead (which turned out to be just as much a fantasy as the off-road thing, but hey, it's advertising). I think that's what's going on here. These programs aren't for serious writers at all. They're for the writer's equivalent of script kiddies -- people who want to go to Starbucks and pick up chicks with their MacBooks and their iPods and their glowing full-screen text editors.

No doubt they will be wildly successful. Meanwhile, if you need me, I'll be in the corner writing my next book with a real text editor. I think it even has a full-screen mode.