Letter to the editor: Look, Muslims! #soscary

In this country, over a hundred years ago, Prime Minister Henry Parkes ran a huge, unjustified scare campaign against Catholics. They were legally and socially persecuted, leaving divisions in our society for generations. (I still remember the way my grandmother would lower her voice and say, "But she's Catholic", as though the lady in question had a particularly pernicious STD.)

In the 1930s, a huge, unjustified scare campaign was run against Jewish people. In the 1960s, a huge, unjustified scare campaign was run against communists.

Now it's Muslims.

In all these cases, politicians have started the whole thing and/or supported it and exploited it for personal gain.

Surely we're smarter than this by now.

Muslim people, on the whole, work as hard, love their families as much and contribute just as much to our society as any other social or religious group.
The "Islamic State" blowhards no more represent Muslims than the Westboro Baptist Church represents Christians, or the few violent, racist monks in Burma represent Buddhism.

Treat criminal acts by a few as just that: they're criminals. But don't give in to artificially-created fear and hysteria, and allow our government to demonize an entire religious or ethnic group.

Location:Renmark, South Australia

Letter to the editor: terrorism and domestic violence

Terrorism is the domain of sad, pitiful human beings manipulated by egotistical loudmouths for personal gain.

However, that also describes the current state of politics in Australia, so let's sit back for a moment and think.

What sort of society do we want to live in?

One where we cringe on command, and passively allow the government to monitor everything we say, everything we do online?

That has all the hallmarks of an abusive relationship. It's time to face the facts and reach out to one another for support and understanding.

After all, domestic violence kills more Australians every 2 years than terrorists have in the past 35. DV services are being cut all over the country, while our tax dollars are being spent on multi-$billion weapons and widespread surveillance of ordinary Australians, including me, you and that lady with a scarf. (She's an Iraqi Christian BTW. Heck, my grandmother used to pop on a scarf when she went out. Ban the grannies! #scarftax)


Doing the Wrong thing for the Right reason

You know those scenes where someone has an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other? It must help if you can see the red skin, horns and barbed tail of the devil. Don't listen to that guy, huh?

It's interesting that we depict the devil in such an obvious way. In Abrahamic (Judaic, Christian, Muslim) mythology, Lucifer, Son of the Morning was the most powerful angel, and so beautiful that any human who saw him would weep for joy. Did he get the spiky suit because he rebelled against God? Or can the devil still look like a force for good?

And why am I asking these questions?

I was thinking about leaders, what they say and what they expect us to do. They tell us that sacrifices (inevitably of people not-them) are necessary. They divide us against each other. They find ways to normalize things (murder, torture, egregious invasion of privacy) which previously they have promised not to do in our name. These are the good guys.

After all, wouldn't it be easier for the devil if he could look appealing and impressive, if he could tell you you're doing the right thing, while directing you ineluctably towards self-destruction?

My gut feeling on this is: if someone in authority asks you to harm another human being, that's wrong. I don't care what suit they're wearing, or what arguments they use. Harming people is wrong.

Most of us probably won't be asked to torture a prisoner. But we are asked to approve it, by voting for people who do it. We don't get out there and club peaceful protestors, but we vote for administrations which do.

Worse still, our leaders tell us that we are doing the right thing, that these "difficult steps" are necessary to defend our freedom and have a peaceful place to live.

In Australia, they tell us we're putting refugees in concentration camps to prevent them from drowning, and taking away the choices of Indigenous people in order to build them Stronger Futures.

We're starving the unemployed in order to encourage them to get jobs, which either don't exist or for which they don't have the training.

We're paying huge amounts of taxpayers' money every year to subsidize the production and use of fossil fuels, the emissions from which are changing our climate and threatening the survival of our own people.

But hey, our leaders make it sound like we're doing the right thing. We can trust them!

Sometimes, those we trust and admire can make wrong things sound right. A long time ago, there was a guy called Agamemnon, whose sister-in-law went off with another man. So he decided to invade and loot that man's city and enslave everyone in it. His army loaded up the sailing ships, but he needed a good wind to push them to Troy (the other city).

His god told him he would get a good wind if he killed his daughter in front of everyone. So Agamemnon murdered his daughter in front of cheering crowds, got the good sailing wind and was universally praised by his people.

Because it was the right thing to do.

Her name was Iphigenia, by the way. Next time you turn on the news or walk down the street, you could be looking right at her.


How the U.S. government created Julian Assange as an international issue

Let's say someone bumps you a bit on the stairs. Most of us would think, "It's crowded, I bump people sometimes" and just take it in our stride. The exceptions are the people who genuinely believe they are so important and special that nobody should be allowed to inconvenience them.

These people often surround themselves with a buffer of money and/or power, to protect themselves from any bumps. As a consequence of this paid-for illusion of control, they become hyper-sensitive to the slightest bump.

You can't accidentally bump this person, because they are the centre of the universe. Everything either supports or threatens them.

This is how a single teenage blogger in Vietnam or Bahrain, simply writing their opinion online, becomes a "threat to the security of the state" and results in those kids being tortured and imprisoned.

"You can't disagree with me, because I'm always right! I have to be right!

Truly strong people are quite willing to admit to mistakes and learn from them. This is how you build strength: by facing reality. You don't lie about what you did. You don't blame it on someone else. It's your mess: you fix it.

So, when Wikileaks released the "Collateral Murder" Apache helicopter video, did the U.S. government say, "It's true. No, it's not OK to kill civilians. We're going to do our best to make up for this, we're going to change our procedures to try and prevent it happening again, and we'll report back to you."?

No. The U.S. government complained, loud and long, that someone had dared to release this information. They blamed the messenger. They repeatedly said that they saw the release of facts about their activities as "a threat", and anyone who let us know those facts was a criminal, a terrorist, should be executed etc.

This was

Mistake #1: refuse to take responsibility for illegal acts and atrocities revealed by your own documents

combined with

Mistake #2: blame the person who reveals the truth

It thus becomes obvious to us ordinary people that you don't want us to know the truth. Since relationships are based on trust, you're throwing credibility away in heaping handfuls right now.

So, do you acknowledge your mistakes and come clean? No, as Hercule Poirot once said, you "cover the bad fish with a thick sauce". You go into CYA mode. "See? There's nothing wrong with the fish. *choke, gasp* It's the sauce which is making it look bad."

At this point in history, few people knew about Wikileaks. The U.S. government could have taken responsibility for their actions, and Wikileaks would have faded off the radar, like many small publication groups and even key whistleblowers whose names we don't know. Later Wikileaks releases would have simply brought more issues to the U.S. government's attention (something their constitution, and any healthy organization, explicitly encourages). Wikileaks would have just been a publication pipeline, nobody important.

But no, the U.S. government made

Mistake #3: build up the messenger's profile

As an attempted distraction from the revealed facts, they put a great deal of time and energy into accusing Wikileaks of being a serious and imminent threat to the whole country. They insisted on the existence of a "leader", a single person behind this organization who could be targeted, personally reviled and taken down, thus disabling the threat. Wikileaks isn't an hierarchical organization, and removing an elected/consensus leader doesn't disable any healthy group, but somehow the U.S. government thought this was a good idea.

To a certain extent, they achieved their aim of distracting the wider community from the facts Wikileaks had revealed. There was constant speculation about this shadowy leader, much FUD generated, and the more difficult issues of government law-breaking were largely abandoned for the more personal, everyday focus on whether someone is "hot or not": whether you like/approve of them or not. This is easy, and requires virtually no thought.

However, in generating this distraction, the U.S. government made

Mistake #4: create the messenger as a popular icon

A lot of mainstream media time was spent speculating who this supposed leader was, until Julian Assange came forward to try and water down the distraction. Then a staggering amount of MSM time was spent speculating on Assange's background, opinions, appearance, personality and God knows what else. Whether people agreed with him or not, they certainly knew about him. And inevitably, as the U.S. government polarized the discussion, some people started supporting him.

Even then, Wikileaks and Assange could have dropped out of public discourse, if the U.S. government had simply played a soft bat: "Yes, we've seen the documents, and we're working on those issues. Follow this site for updates." Instead, each document release resulted in the same frothing outrage, convincing the public that there must be something really important being revealed, and that Assange and Wikileaks were people to watch. Even so, not many people supported Wikileaks at this stage, not really being sure what they embodied.

Instead of leaving well enough alone, the U.S. government then made

Mistake #5: financially blockade the messenger

This may have worked in the days when you could blockade a country, stopping all communications, but we're long past that. Again, the U.S. government might as well have put up billboards saying, "We can't cope with what Wikileaks reveals". Financial blockades are directed by governments at whole countries, and are only ever partial, strengthening negotiations about specific behaviours. However, the U.S. government pressured Visa, MasterCard, several banks and more than one other government into cutting off Wikileaks completely.

Since we ordinary people can easily identify with not having access to our bank accounts, this brought Wikileaks into the everyday frame. We can also identify with being bullied. Suddenly, the most powerful country on earth was obviously trying to suffocate a small publishing organization. These actions also didn't pass the smell test: you can donate to the Klu Klux Klan, or a range of other law-breaking and destructive groups, but you can't donate to Wikileaks?

Along with the financial blockade, the U.S. government pressured Amazon into throwing Wikileaks off their servers, and continued to make grandiose threats in the mainstream media. Any PR professional would be pulling his or her hair out by now. When you want an issue to go away, you deal with it, addressing the underlying concerns. You don't keep lighting rockets under it, continually re-detonating it in the public eye.

Like anyone playing Whack-a-Mole, the U.S. government appeared to think that just one or two more strikes, and they would win. Nevermind everyone standing around and losing respect for you by the minute. Nevermind the fact that the bad fish still stinks. You're going to yell a lot and everyone will go away. Because you have told them that there are no issues, and besides, we can squash these guys like a gnat.

Mistake #6: put enormous pressure on the messenger: assume that legal threats, imprisonment and financial starvation will make the messenger fold

On the information the U.S. government already had about Wikileaks and Assange, that was a notably inaccurate assumption. Even we ordinary people knew by now that Wikileaks was a minimalist distributed group, and that Assange had no expectations of an easy life. Incidentally, even after one year of torture, two years of imprisonment without trial, Bradley Manning (who might have been considered a softer target) hasn't folded.

Punishing people for telling the truth tends to strip life down for them. Do I believe the truth is worth this struggle, or not? If you go up against an oppressor, there will always be a cost. You decide if it's worth that cost.

Some of the Wikileaks members may have had an illusion of safety, and a few did run when confronted with the reality. The rest were disillusioned but probably not all that surprised. I doubt if Assange was surprised at all.

I could say, "Assange has been chased by a crazy cult before" (which is true), but that would probably be unfair to the U.S. government. They're not crazy, they're just choosing to be staggeringly inept. It's hard to understand why.

Faced with growing popular engagement with Wikileaks, and interest in Assange, the U.S. government brings the whole thing into a long, drawn-out spotlight by making

Mistake #7: be seen to be persecuting the messenger

The whole "yes it's rape, no it isn't, you can leave the country, INTERPOL MOST WANTED!" soap opera has dragged even more eyes onto the situation. Women sincerely wish even a tiny proportion of these resources were directed at the rapes which happen in our communities every day. Assange's alleged victims don't get the speedy and professional investigation they deserve. Assange is hunted with far more tenacity (and bombast) than existing mass-murderers. The U.S. government repeatedly denies that it wants to prosecute him under the 1917 Espionage Act (despite plenty of evidence to the contrary), the Australian government refuses to represent him in any useful way (on the facts, he'd be much better off if he'd been caught smuggling kilos of cocaine into Indonesia), the Swedish government says it doesn't extradite political prisoners to the U.S. (despite having been involved in illegal CIA "renditions" of its own citizens) and the British government has specifically threatened to invade an international embassy in London.

Seriously, we pay you guys the big bucks to make decisions like these?

Maybe it's worked for you in the past. Maybe dramatizing, pointing fingers, making threats and misusing the legal system has made some people go away.

It doesn't make the underlying problems go away.

As long as people are losing trust in government, worrying about systematic invasion of their privacy and being confused, fragmented and even misinformed by polarization of issues, the fabric of our society is indeed threatened.

It's not Wikileaks down there, driving a pick-axe into our foundations. It's you.


OzLog undermines trust in Australian government

Australian technology site Delimiter has done an excellent job of following up on the Australian government's planned #OzLog legislation. Under OzLog, everything Australians do online, every phone call, every email, every chat session, every browser address and action, will be stored for two years at our ISP, available on request to any Australian government agency (plus those in a slew of dodgy European countries)... and we will pay for it.

Does that seem right to you?

We've been lucky so far that guys like Delimiter, the EFA and Greens Senator Scott Ludlam have been willing to put a lot of time and energy into digging up OzLog info our government is patently unwilling to share with us. However, as with imposed "treaties" like ACTA, the facts don't look good. We get screwed, while big corporations and government gain enormous power over us.

I really don't get how supposedly democratic governments can get away with pushing copyright-enforcement and police-data-collecting work and costs onto local ISPs. If there are any small ISPs left (our regional ISP just went under), this will sink them.

If the justification is that anyone can become a criminal, then we need to factor into the severity and scope of surveillance the actual probability of that happening. 0.00001?

Unless our government plans to legislate against normal life in the future, OzLog bills us, and comprehensively invades our privacy, based on law-breaking we're overwhelmingly not doing. Why not address the actual causes of criminality, especially in communities where some decent social investment would have immediate and significant results?

Why assume a whole population intends to break the law, when we have a very low criminality index compared with other developed countries? Trust in government is a fundamental part of a successful democracy. How can we trust a government which invests huge amounts of our money into demonstrating how little it trusts us?

Basically, laws succeed when people agree with them. In general, nobody thinks it's OK to bash a grannie or hurt a child. We know it's stupid to drive on the wrong side of the road. We're not so sure about being blocked from buying ebooks, movies, TV shows or music. We're quite willing to buy them, so we don't understand why so much effort goes into stopping us. We don't accept that our privacy should be systematically invaded, just in case we decide to change a lifetime of behaviour and become criminals.

If YOU – the government – want community support for OzLog, you're going to have to convince us that we have adequate privacy protection, that our information is not going to be misused (or simply handed over on request to thinly-disguised European dictatorships like Azerbaijan), and that our lifetimes of responsible civilian behaviour add up to more than "Yeah, but you might do something".

Trust goes both ways. Let's see you earn some from us. Stop hiding things which affect us. Respect our skills and experience: really listen to what we say. Work with us to create responsible communities, rather than treating us as the enemy.

The U.S. may have 49 million people living in poverty, but we still have a functioning democracy. Use it.


Dear Mr Baillieu – Don't Slash TAFE

Dear Mr Baillieu

It doesn't make sense to slash TAFE funding when we are so critically in need of workers with vocational skills. TAFE is an essential bridge between secondary-level skills and actual employment. It is also an opportunity for the unemployed and/or dispossessed, which makes it an essential safety-valve in a era of growing social discontent.

I have seen kids turn their lives around by attending TAFE. I've seen single mums returning to work through TAFE. I've seen migrants improve their language skills and become independently functional in our community, through TAFE. I've seen people upskill to gain entrance to emergency services and armed services, through TAFE. I've seen people reskill for university entrance, through TAFE. I've seen employers benefit from TAFE workplace education, gaining evenly-skilled workers and avoiding low productivity and injury liability, through TAFE.

Oversee TAFE and its profit-motivated competitors, by all means. Just don't pull the rug out from under people who can improve their lives, our community and our economy through TAFE.

Clytie Siddall


No Australians Allowed: the joys of ebook-buying online

(originally published on Oz Ebooks)

No Australians Allowed

The joys of ebook-buying online

(Thankyou to Darryl for his invitation to post on Oz Ebooks!)

As anyone reading my previous (and possibly acerbic) posts and comments will know, I get pretty steamed about geographic limitations on buying ebooks.
They're like a weird DVD-zoning system which assumes Australians can't read.
We're half the U.K. book-buying market, despite our much smaller population, so it should be evident to even the most confused publisher that not only can we read, but that we read a lot.
We're good customers.

Good customers get...

...shafted. In the days of loyalty programs and reward points, this comes as a bit of a shock. It would shock an accountant even more. "What, you have all these customers who want to buy your ebooks, and you won't let them? What are you, an idiot?"
It's a good question. For those of you not yet familiar with the geolims saga, I'm going to explain it briefly before going on. Geolims veterans may skip the next section.

Barbed Wire on the Internet

Up until a couple of years ago, you could buy ebooks from anywhere online. The Internet is a worldwide network, and we've all found that amazingly convenient when it comes to finding the things we want to buy or know. The Internet has removed the national boundaries which kept us all apart.
Apparently, this freedom to communicate has made corporations/governments nervous. They have less control over what we see and do. So they try to impose various kinds of censorship. In Australia, for example, our government is still threatening to censor and monitor everything we do online.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

so Internet censorship specifically violates our rights.
It's also massively inconvenient. Nowadays, can you buy electronic media online? Or is it "limited" by "geographic location"?
In effect, the media "industry" decided to put up barbed-wire fences on the Internet. They divided us back into different countries again. Music, movies, TV shows, audio and ebooks are "available" (or not) according to where you live.
For ebooks, this means Australians are "not allowed" to buy most of the ebooks produced by the "Big 6" or "Agency" publishers. These companies own nearly all of the popular authors. So how do you get the titles you want?

Dodging the Prickles

I'd really like to see a good guide for navigating the ebook-buying maze if you happen to be one of the majority of English-speakers who don't live in the U.S. Meanwhile, here's mine. ;)

1. Use an ebook search engine

I use Inkmesh. You'll notice that its home page has links to a range of free ebooks and specific genres. Plug your book title and/or author into the search field, and you get a fast and accurate result. I used to spend hours trying to find ebooks via Google: Inkmesh takes you right to the ebook retailers. You get a list of titles matching your search, and the one you want is usually at the top. Click on that, and you get a much shorter list: the retailers who are actually selling that ebook.
Inkmesh provides results for a number of the major ebook retailers, including W. H. Smith in the U.K. They told me some time ago that they would add Borders Australia. They seem willing to provide more country-specific sites for those of us locked out by the main U.S.-based publishers.

2. Watch out for geolims

Inkmesh results usually include excellent ebook sites like Fictionwise, Diesel Ebooks, BooksOnBoard and Amazon. If you live in the U.S., you can click on the link and immediately buy that book. If you don't (and especially if you live in Australia or NZ), you can save browsing time and attempted-buying time by watching out for the signs saying effectively "Not For You, Mate".
Amazon gives the best and clearest warning. Every time I curse at them for not allowing me to buy the ebook I want, I also reluctantly acknowledge that they didn't lead me on. ;) On the RHS, where I normally see the brightly-coloured "Buy with 1-click" and "Deliver to Clytie's iPhone" choices, I see the green-only box saying "This title is not available to customers from: Australia".
Fictionwise and Kobo will simply not show you a title if you aren't allowed to buy it. In some ways this is kinder (not dangling a much-wanted book in front of your nose), but it sometimes gives you the impression there isn't much there. In over two years of checking Kobo results from Inkmesh, I've never found a title I wanted to buy. I'm told Kobo has a great range, but evidently it's not so great if you live in Australia. Fictionwise has been bought out and systematically strangled by its competitor Barnes and Noble, so it's not the one-stop-ebook-shop it used to be. However, it does still have its advantages, as I mention further on.
Diesel eBooks shows an "Allowed Countries (Hover)" link in red, under the book description and Buy/Wishlist buttons. When I hopefully "hover" my mouse cursor over that link, it inevitably says "US". Before Diesel added this info, I used to get all the way to Checkout with a stack of great books, only to find I wasn't allowed to buy them. Early warnings do save us time, even if they continue to frustrate us as legitimate customers.
BooksOnBoard won't show a price for a title if you're not allowed to buy it. If you click the Buy link anyway, a popup window will tell you you're not allowed to buy that title because you live where you do.
Retailers could also play a raspberry sound as well. "Hey, April Fool! We let you think you could buy this book, but you can't. LMFAO!!!" :S

3. Shop around: there is inconsistency

Not only do geolims not make any sense from the book-selling or book-buying points of view, they can also be inconsistent. For example, a few months back HarperCollins released the first three titles of Lynsey Sands' Argeneau series. They hadn't previously been available in ebook, so followers of that series (including me) rushed to grab them. Australian readers quickly found out that we were only "allowed" to buy 2 out of the 3 titles. Huh?
As I asked HarperCollins at the time, why would three consecutive ebook titles from the same series by the same author and published simultaneously by the same publisher have different geographic limitations?
I didn't get an answer. Diesel Ebooks also contacted HarperCollins about this inconsistency, receiving the disjointed reply "We haven't turned on any of our ebooks for Australia yet". You get the impression that the publishers don't understand geolims either.
The point of this story is that I actually found different sites blocked a different title out of the three ebooks. God only knows why, but I wasn't about to question my good fortune. This meant I could buy all three titles, with a little ebook-retailer-surfing.
I keep a list of the titles I haven't been allowed to buy (especially those part-way through a series I follow), and recently I also found a single ebook site (which normally blocks me on everything) allowed me to buy not one, but several of my most-wanted titles. Again, I have no idea why that site didn't have the same geolims info as the others: I just bought the books! I've also noticed that sometimes I'm allowed to buy a book in pre-order, and get it, where it's blocked to purchase once the pre-order period is over. All this means it can be worth shopping around.

4. Use Calibre

Calibre is a free cross-platform tool for managing, cataloguing, converting and transferring ebooks. Seriously, this thing rocks. It will convert any non-DRM format, transfer to just about any device, provide a catalogue you can access from a computer or smartphone, allow you to search your catalogue, keep track of what titles/authors you have, keep track of series, import metadata (including cover images, blurb and ISBN) and apply your own tags.Before geolims were imposed, I didn't need Calibre. I bought all my ebooks from Fictionwise, which had an excellent Bookshelf with categories (including your own categories). It was really easy to keep track of which books I had, which ones I'd read (or not), which were in series etc.
After the Electronic Curtain came down, I spent way too much time not only trying to find books I was allowed to buy, but trying to keep track of which books I'd bought from where, in what format, and whether they belonged to series. My collection was all over the place. Instead of series all being in one format from one retailer, they had titles in multiple formats from different retailers. One series of seven books is in five different formats from five different retailers, requiring me to read it in five different apps on my iPhone. I couldn't go on reading some series (because none of the newer books were available to Australians), and other series had missing titles (I could buy all the books in a 9-book series except Book 5? WTF?). I couldn't keep track, and ended up buying some ebooks I already had, and missing the opportunity to buy others I wanted.
Calibre keeps track of all my ebooks now, and some of my hard-copy books (you can add an "empty" record and use it for a hard-copy book, magazine etc.). I imported all my previous ebooks into it, and I drag new ebooks into it as I buy them. Tags and series make it really easy to keep track of which books are from which retailers, which I'm missing, which I've read, which have DRM or not. So what if my ebooks are now scattered across different locations on my hard drive (Digital Editions, My Kindle Content, eReader etc.)? Calibre keeps a copy of each ebook in its own Calibre Library.
Calibre also works seamlessly with Stanza (one of the best e-readers for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch). If you turn on the Calibre Server preference, Stanza immediately sees your Calibre library, and allows you to download titles over a wireless or wired connection. I find this quite a time-saver.
Update: if Amazon (who bought Stanza to stifle competition) breaks the app again, you can also access Calibre from Tomes and several other mobile reading apps.

5. Support your local online bookseller

For Australia, that's Borders Online. Despite the ongoing bloodletting within the company, Borders Online is likely to continue. Its costs are low, and its profits should be substantial. OK, its website still sucks (see my recent post), but by and large Borders is a viable Australian ebookstore. Every ebook in its catalogue is available to Australians. Its range is improving, and it does get titles which are otherwise blocked to us. Keep an eye on Borders, and buy ebooks there when you can.
Some local publishers (e.g. Pan Macmillan Australia) and local sites like Read Without Paper are starting to sell ebooks online, so it's also worth looking around for Australian book sites. You may pay more, but at least you may be able to buy the book. That goes literally double for iBooks (iTunes bookstore): you will pay at least twice the U.S. price, but if you can't find a title anywhere else, you might be desperate enough to pay that much.
Otherwise we're left with sites like ebooks.com, a major international ebook retailer located in Perth, Western Australia, which follows the U.S. publishing model and blocks us from most titles. It's hard to see what Australians get out of having this site in our country. Perhaps ebooks.com could start getting ebooks for Australians?

6. Try author sites, indies, self-pub and public domain

Once geolims were imposed, I spent a lot of time trying to find out WTF was going on. (There was no announcement to customers: I just couldn't buy the books I wanted anymore.) Publishers seem to be a dead end: either they don't care, or they are genuinely confused about their job. Some are both, which is a little disturbing. Authors, on the other hand, really want you to read their books. So it's definitely worth visiting author websites (and just about every author has one nowadays). Author websites often offer free stories, directly sell their backlist titles at a much better price and without DRM, and keep you informed about upcoming titles. Most importantly, every author I've contacted is shocked and upset that Australians can't buy his or her ebooks. Most have said numbly, "But I insisted on world rights for ebooks". Telling an author that you're blocked from buying his or her ebooks is a good way to raise awareness about geolims. The author complains to his or her agent, the agent complains to the publisher, and things may change. You can also contribute to the Lost Book Sales site, to advise publishers when they have lost a sale due to geolims (or ridiculously high prices, bad formatting, dreadful typos etc.).
The Big 6 aren't the only publishers of ebooks. They may have amalgamated all the well-known brand-names, but they don't necessarily have a stranglehold on authors. Due to the much lower cost of publishing ebooks, a number of independent ebook publishers exist now. Each one has its own website and ebookstore, and many of their titles are also available at Fictionwise in Multiformat (a range of non-DRM formats) for considerably less than you pay the Big 6. You can discover some new and entertaining authors from Indie (independent) epublishers. Indie publishers give you more book for your buck. ;)
Ebooks also make it easier for people to self-publish. Authors self-publish their own work: both backlist and new titles, sometimes in response to reader request. In particular, have a look at the websites of long-time professional authors J. K. Konrath and Michael Stackpole. Both have found creative ways to communicate directly with their readers, while charging much lower prices. The great part about self-published authors is that you are directly paying them. Do you know how much an author of your favourite paperback gets when you buy it? As low as 7% of the selling price. If they self-publish on Amazon they get 70%. Smashwords gives them at least that much. Sites like Author Direct also help you buy books straight from the author. Who wants to pay the middleman?
It's also much easier now for a new author to get started. Anyone can self-publish on Amazon or Smashwords. There are several sites dedicated to finding the best of the new ebooks. The Web Fiction Guide focusses on the best free online fiction, and on member reviews of new ebooks. Don't be discouraged by the sheer number of new self-published ebooks, or by the bad quality of some. There are some real gems out there.
Thanks to the sterling work done by Project Gutenberg (named after the inventor of the first printing press), you can also read an amazing range of completely free, non-DRM books which are in the public domain. This is particularly valuable, since the media industry is greedily pushing laws which will ensure nothing ever goes out of copyright again. Make the most of Project Gutenberg's volunteer effort: these books are available from its own site, from your local Project Gutenberg if there's one in your country (e.g. Project Gutenberg Australia, which has some books not available at the main PG site) and from a range of book sites online (like Feedbooks and ManyBooks). Read great stories for free!

Paying the Price

I'd have to say, geolims have changed my reading and purchasing patterns. I used to buy a great many ebooks from Fictionwise (over 2000 in three years), but now I can't buy the ebooks I want, I read more free books, more blogs and websites, and buy more directly from authors. I'm spending less money overall and enjoying my reading. I hope you do, too. :)
The "Agency Six" publication cartel hasn't just severely limited the books we're allowed to buy. It's also set a much higher price than ebook-production justifies. Before geolims, I rarely paid over $5 for a popular ebook, usually paying between $2 and $3. Now, most ebooks I can buy from Amazon cost between $7 and $10. Recently, I finally found a middle-of-the-series previously-missing title in iBooks (iTunes Store Australia), and had to pay $14 for it. This may or may not be a reasonable price for a hard-copy paper book, but it is not reasonable for an ebook.
Update: just before Christmas 2011, Hachette and HarperCollins more than doubled ebook prices specifically for Australians. This means a new-ebook price of over $20, while the new paperback is around $7. Penguin and Macmillan have since followed suit. There is now (2012) a Parliamentary committee investigating extortionate technology prices targeting Australian consumers and business. Have your say. :)
I'm a great P. G. Wodehouse fan, and at times like these I remember him commenting in his stories that publishers always excused the pittance they paid him by saying the "cost of pulp paper" had risen. When questioned on the price of ebooks (and the pittance they give authors), publishers moan about the cost of scanning, proofreading and "promoting" a book. Oddly enough, Project Gutenberg can do all that for free, and at a higher level of quality.
There's no excuse for charging more then $5 for an ebook, and self-published professional authors will tell you the same. All current ebooks would be presented to publishers in electronic form, if not already in ePub (heck, you can produce an ePub file in Pages (OSX) or Word), and I haven't noticed publishers spending any money on proofreading. In a way, you don't mind spending $2.99 on an ebook and finding typos, but you do mind when you spend $14 because the publisher claims that is the cost of quality.
Let's say you pay $9.99 for a new paperback. It had to be printed, stored, transported, stored again, promoted in the shop and eventually sold to you by a human who deserves a living wage. The price of paperbacks also includes "returns", the number of printed copies which won't be sold and will eventually be pulped. It includes the fact that you can keep the book anywhere (not in one particular program), read it in bright daylight, make copious notes and photocopies, give or lend it to friends and family, and eventually sell it to a second-hand bookshop, which will sell it on. A paper book costs a lot more to produce, and provides much greater and longer-lasting value than an ebook.
An ebook at $9.99 doesn't have any of those costs, extra features or ongoing value. I was a bit shocked to find this out, but according to the "sale" contract, we only rent an ebook. We don't actually own it. At most, we should be paying a quarter of the paperback price. Where is the flexibility, the ongoing value of an ebook?
For Australians, and particularly for disabled Australians like me who can't read paper books, access to ebooks is a big issue. Why are we barred from buying ebooks online? How come we are "allowed" to buy any hard-copy book from anywhere in the world, but we're not allowed to buy ebooks?
Australians are probably the biggest customers of U.K. online book retailer The Book Depository. Hard-copy books there, even ones published in Australia then shipped half-way around the world and back, are half the price of books sold locally. Yet ebooks on that site are still blocked to us.
Australians pay what Delimiter refers to as the "Australian technology tax". Everything here is much more expensive, even when it comes directly from overseas. Even when it's a data download like an ebook. So it's good to have Project Gutenberg, independent publishers and self-publishing authors, who evidently consider us part of the wider world.

The Good Guys

It's not only the independent publishers and the self-publishers who can provide good books without DRM and at a reasonable price. The real heroes of our story are Baen Books. Very early on in the use of ebooks, Baen decided that DRM was self-defeating and that providing free books was good for business. They have proven that thoroughly over the intervening years.
Baen publish great science fiction (including military and historical) and fantasy. Even if this isn't your thing, have a look at some of the titles in the Baen Free Library. You might be surprised. :)
Why don't the Big 6 publishers follow Baen's example? Beats me. It's worked for Baen, and all the ebook-limitations are doing is pushing legitimate customers to the darknet. Maybe in real life, the people wearing the black hats really don't know they're heading for Tombstone.

More good tools

Once you start cataloguing your ebooks and/or hard-copy books using Calibre, you might be looking for cover images, blurbs or other details. You might want to share your reading experience with other keen readers online, or swap books, or get newsletters on good stuff out there. Here are some excellent sites to help you!
has its own collection of free ebooks for download. It also has a specific forum for each type of e-reader. It's the place to sit down, read a book and chat with friends. Visit the Mobileread café.
Ebook Friendly
is a distraction-free site for browsing ebooks. It's particularly useful if you're sick of overloaded webpages, or if (like me) you have visual or concentration difficulties. It's a peaceful place to find ebooks.
"is a self-adapting community system based on the gnod engine. Discover new writers you will like, travel the map of literature and discuss your favorite books and authors."
is a site where you can catalogue your whole library, if you want (including importing from Calibre export files). It's also "the world's biggest book club". There are lots of features, and you can easily connect with people who like to read the same books.
provides heaps of information about fiction books, including series, author background and bibliography and a good search across their categories. You can also catalogue your books there.
Password Incorrect
is an ebook site with lots of quick guides and a mobile focus.
is a cross-platform editor for ePub ebooks without DRM. It's quite easy to use, and allows you to edit your own ePub books, or fix awful typos and formatting in existing ePubs. I also use it to change the background colour and font type/size in ebooks for which I don't have an accessible ereader app.
is a terrific tool for distraction-free reading. It provides two bookmarklets you drag into your bookmark bar in your browser: one to Read Later (saving the articles for later) and one to Read Now. This works with Instapaper on your mobile device. Readability also provides a subscription option so you can reward (micropay) the bloggers and websites you read online. Whatever you want to read, Readability will provide it when you want it, on the background you want, with the font size and spacing you want, and most importantly, without distractions. Sick of flashing and cluttered webpages? Use Readability. (Again, it's particularly valuable for people with visual and/or concentration difficulties.) Update: the Safari browser for desktop and mobile devices now includes a "Reader" button in the address bar. Click that for distraction-free reading, and click-and-hold on a link to add it to your Reading List.
Enjoy. :)