Day Notes

A (mostly) daily journal of the trials, tribulations, and random observations of Robert Bruce Thompson, a writer of computer books.


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Monday, October 19, 1998

Another Monday morning, and it's back to work on the book. I didn't get much done on it over the weekend. Instead, I took some time off to read, lie around, and get household stuff done. We rearranged Barbara's office, although we didn't get the shelving installed. Other than that, I read a stack of books, did laundry, blew out the gutters, and so forth.

We also got some of Barbara's photos from her Canadian trip up on her web page.  That was made a lot easier by the fact that we had Kodak photo diskettes made of most of the rolls she shot. They return a floppy diskette with each image in 600X400 resolution and 256 colors--ideal for putting up on the web directly. One aggravating thing. Every image was upside down.

Time to get back to work on the book.

DHL just showed up with a package from Executive Software. I was expecting to get an eval copy of Diskeeper 3.0, and was surprised to find that it instead contained Diskeeper 4.0. I'll get this installed on one of my NT boxes and have a special report posted tomorrow morning to let you know what I find out.

Tuesday, October 20, 1998

I got Diskeeper 4.0 installed and spent a couple hours playing with it. It appears to be a very good product. Read Diskeeper 4.0 Preliminary Report to find out what I learned.

Wednesday, October 21, 1998

Last night I found that my to-be-read stack had dwindled to almost nothing. I was scrounging around for something new to read when I found the partially-read Murder in Macedon, by Anna Apostolou buried in a stack of stuff. That's unusual for me. Usually I finish books in one sitting. This time, I'd read half the book, put it aside, forgot about it, and ended up reading a dozen or so books before I found it again. It ended up being a pretty fair mystery. The pseudonymous Ms. Apostolou did a good job of taking the substantial base of known facts about Philip, Olympias, and Alexander and crafting a very believable explanation for Philip's murder around them.

Tonight, I start Elizabeth Peters' new Amelia Peabody Emerson mystery, The Ape Who Guards the Balance. Barbara bought me my own copy of this one when it first came out a month or so ago, but there's no use opening one of my first editions when I can read a library copy. When she got home last night, Barbara had not only the new Peters for me, but a half dozen of Caroline Graham's Chief Inspector Barnaby mysteries. I haven't decided yet if I like her books.

I got email yesterday from my contact at PowerQuest, who tells me that they're still trying to figure out what could possibly have caused Partition Magic 3.05 to scramble the NTFS partition on the 3.1 GB drive that is now in anubis/hathor.  I made things more difficult for PowerQuest tech support by failing to write down the original error message. I thought I could see it again anytime I wanted to just by re-running the Partition Resize operation. As it turns out, that's not the case. Once I cleared that message and tested the partition, PM returned a Seek Error message, and then stubbornly refused to do anything further.

I'm not completely convinced that Partition Magic was at fault when it returned that Seek Error message, although the drive is now working fine. I've used PM since V 1.0 on scores of drives with nary a hiccough, so I'm inclined to give it the strong benefit of the doubt in this case. Every dog should get one bite. Unless PM bites me again, I'm going to leave it on my highly recommended list.

I think Barbara may finally be getting serious about going into business for herself. She's been a librarian for the Forsyth County Public Library system ever since she got out of graduate school 20 years ago, the last fifteen of them as a department head or branch head. I think it's time for a change, and I am encouraging her to build her own business as a private researcher. She likes the idea of working at home, and of having complete control of her own schedule.

Barbara was originally thinking in terms of developing a local client base, but I think I've talked her out of that. With email, the web site, telephones, and fax, there's no reason to limit her efforts to this area, and every reason not to. From my point of view, one of the biggest advantages of writing for a living is that I'm not tied to a geographic location. I can do my job just as well and without interruption if we decide to move to Vermont or Oregon, or to New Zealand for that matter. If I decide to move, I don't have to give up the substantial investment that it takes to develop a local clientele and start over elsewhere. And moving is a real possibility. The Winston-Salem area is heavily dependent on tobacco and textiles, both of which have seen hard days recently, with more bad news to come.

If Barbara is to work from home, we'll need to do something about her office. Right now, it's a general-purpose room. She has a computer in there, but she also has everything from an ironing board to Christmas decorations in the closet. We'll need to convert it into a real work space for her. The bookshelves we're in the middle of installing are a part of that, but there's much more to come.

Time to get breakfast for my mother and then get to work on the book.

Thursday, October 22, 1998

Got quite a bit done on the book yesterday. I'm starting to get into full swing on it. Last night I got started on Elizabeth Peters' latest Amelia Peabody Emerson mystery, The Ape Who Guards the Balance. I didn't finish it, but I look forward to doing so tonight. This book is up to Ms. Peters' usual high standards. If you like mysteries, Egyptology, strong female protagonists, and Victoriana, you'll enjoy this series very much.

I don't usually spend much time looking at the access logs for this web site, but I happened to look at them yesterday. They give summary listings of many things, including which pages are accessed most frequently. I noticed that the Experiments with Universal Serial Bus (USB) page has gotten hundreds of hits since I first posted it, so apparently there's quite a bit of interest in USB. I'll say now that this page is just a placeholder for now, and is likely to remain so until after the first of the year. I have most of what I need to get started--Windows 98 installed, USB hubs and ports from ADStech, etc.--but I don't have any USB peripherals at the moment. I do have a USB-capable Microsoft Natural Keyboard (I'm typing on it at the moment), but it's connected to an NT box and using the legacy interface.

A few weeks ago, I started to request eval units of various USB hardware. What I found is that, although these devices have been announced and are being advertised, they're still pretty thin on the ground. I'm hoping that this logjam will clear itself by the beginning of next year. At that point, I'll again start requesting eval units of USB scanners, monitors, printers, etc. and we'll see what develops.

I got my cellular phone bill yesterday, and opened it to find yet another tax added to it. I took the time to sit down and write a rant about Phone Taxes and Subsidies, not that there's much any of us can do about them.

My agent, David Rogelberg of StudioB, called last night to ask if I was interested in taking on another project. It'd take the better part of a month working flat out to get the job done, but the money is great and there are some other advantages to doing it. I told David to go ahead and get things set up tentatively. I'll simply have to go into 16-hour-per-day by 7-day-per-week mode for a month. Barbara said to go for it. If David negotiates the deal successfully, that means I won't have much time to update this site for a month or so. We'll see.

Friday, October 23, 1998

I've about finished up another chapter on the new book, so I'll try to get that finished and off to O'Reilly today. I also need to head out to the lumber yard this afternoon and buy shelving for Barbara's office, which we'll be installing tomorrow. I'll get the shelving at a family owned lumber and hardware place in Rural Hall, NC, where Barbara's branch library is located. The wood will be better than what I can get at the DIY superstores, it'll probably cost the same or less, and I'm sure they'll be willing to cut it to the exact lengths I need for a small additional charge.

I've been doing some experimenting the last couple of days with Diskeeper 4.0 for remote and scheduled defragmenting. That involved violating the license agreement by installing it on multiple machines for testing, but I'm sure they won't care about that in this case. What I found was that Diskeeper 4.0 works as advertised for remote and scheduled defragging. I was able to create and export defrag schedules from my main workstation to various other computers running Windows NT Server 4.0 and Windows NT Workstation 4.0. The defrags ran as scheduled, and defragged both NTFS and FAT partitions.

I did uncover one minor oddity. The context-sensitive help in this pre-release version of Diskeeper 4.0 has at least some of its pointers askew. Clicking help from within a dialog sometimes calls up a help screen that bears no relation to the dialog it was invoked from. I emailed my source about this problem, and he relayed it on to their programmers. It'll be fixed before the 4.0 release sees the light of day. This was really a minor problem, because I was able to locate the help screens I needed by invoking Help from the menu and drilling down through the table of contents.

Saturday, October 24, 1998

Got the chapter finished up and submitted in first draft form yesterday afternoon. Now to decide which one to go to work on next. A lot of people assume that computer books are written in pretty much sequential order, and are surprised to learn that many authors write chapters completely out of order. A lot of times, that's due to the fact that the order you have to do things in isn't the order that makes sense for the book. Other times, it's just because the author tackles the chapters in the order he prefers. I tend to do the longer, harder ones first, knowing that I'll have technical review and other things interleaved while I'm writing the later ones. Sometimes, it's just a matter of what the author happens to feel like working on at the moment.

I went out to meet Barbara on her lunch hour yesterday, and we headed for the lumber yard. We picked up all the shelving we need for her office, precut to the exact lengths I needed at no additional charge. It cost 90 cents a foot for 1X10 spruce. It was what they called #2 grade, but it looked about two grades better than the #2 grade at Lowe's. In fact, it looks about as good as the stuff Lowe's calls "select." I hauled it home in my Isuzu Trooper, including the 12 foot lengths, proving yet again that I can haul anything I need to haul in it.

While we there, Barbara pointed out that they had a Generac 5000 on display out front for $625. I'd been thinking about buying a Generac 5500XL at Lowe's for $950. This cheaper unit provides 5000 continuous watts (6250 surge) versus the 5500/6875 of the more expensive unit. It also has a cheaper Briggs & Stratton engine, and doesn't have the XL designation. Supposedly, the XL means that the unit has a life three times as long as a non-XL version. I'm not sure I believe that. Briggs & Stratton makes pretty good engines. As with most four stroke engines, if I change the oil frequently, the thing will probably outlive me. So I bought it.

We could probably have shoehorned the generator into the Trooper, but I already had a pair of 12 foot boards sticking out the window, so we decided that instead I'd drop Barbara at her library and she'd return in her Trooper to pick up the generator. Now we need to pick up several 5-gallon jerrycans and some gasoline preservative. I think I want to keep enough gasoline and oil on hand to run the thing at 50% load for a week. We were without power for four days a couple of winters ago, and some people were without power for nearly two weeks as a result of that same storm. The gas stations couldn't even pump gas.

I figure I'll store enough gas to to wait out the ice and then find a gas station with power where I can refill my cans. I have a Viet Nam-era heavy-gauge steel can with an O-ring seal. It was originally used to ship cannon powder, but will hold about 20 gallons of gasoline. Barbara and I each have a Trooper with a 22 gallon gas tank. If we can assume they'll average half-full and that we'd want to keep a couple of gallons to fuel one of the Troopers, that gives us another 20 gallons of storage, for a total of 40 gallons. I'll add a 5-gallon jerrycan for convenient access during short power outages. With the 5 gallons the generator itself holds, that puts us at 50 gallons, which should be enough for most emergencies. Now to find out about preservative. I'd like something that'd let me store the 20-gallon tank for years rather than months, but that may not be possible.

Now I have to decide how to install it. There's the right way--installing a DPDT switch and a second panel; the popular way--running extension cords all over the house; and the illegal way--building a male-to-male 220V backfeed cable, turning off the main breakers and using the backfeed cable to run power into the 220V receptacle ordinarily used by the clothes dryer. The last method has the advantage of being a cheap and easy way to power every outlet in the house. It has the drawback that, if you're not very careful to disconnect the main breakers while the generator is running, you can easily end up electrocuting some unsuspecting lineman. That's why it's illegal, but everyone I know does it that way.

Then there's the matter of figuring out the implications, if any, of running my UPSs from a generator. My friend John Mikol tells me that low-end UPSs (like the APC BackUPS) don't play nice with generator power. We'll see what happens. At worst, I suspect I may have to install some power line conditioners ahead of the UPSs. Then there's the other matter of whether I want to start this thing up to do the testing. Right now, the generator is dry. Once I add oil and gasoline and fire it up, I'll need to start and run it at least once a month

Enough of this. To work on Barbara's office...

Sunday, October 25, 1998

Something weird just happened. I have my Internet Explorer start page set as the home page of my local copy of this web site. Ordinarily, when I start IE that page comes up immediately. This morning, it took several seconds. I didn't think much about it at the time.

Then I fired up FP98, which took two or three times longer than ususal to load the root web from disk. I always click the Modified column header in Folder View to sort the last modified files to the top. This time, the files seemed to be out of order. When I looked, every single *.htm* file in the web was showing a modified date of 10/25 at 8:20:xx, but none of the .gif, .jpeg, or other file extensions were affected.

I went out and looked in NT Explorer. Sure enough, each of the *.htm* files was showing today's date and the archive bit turned on, so something actually wrote the files to disk. Every one of my pages has a "date last modified" timestamp at the bottom, so I used IE to go in and look. The dates generated by the bot hadn't changed. They were the same as always.

The only thing I can figure out is that this is somehow related to NT automatically changing to reflect the daylight savings time change. I haven't tried publishing this web yet, but I'm concerned that things may be screwed up. If so, I have a complete copy safely stored on a network drive, which I just went out and zipped up for safety. My guess is that FP98 will republish every page.

Yep. I published the web from my local copy to the web server. Although I have FrontPage 98 configured to publish only changed pages, it thought every page (including the graphics) had been changed. Although the time/date stamps on the pages of the local copy were still correct, when I published them the bot updated them all to show this morning's date/time stamp. I guess the search engines will be updating every single page now, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I suppose I should be greatful that the only thing FrontPage screwed up was the date/time stamp. It could have been much worse. I thought it would be.

Got the shelves installed, although it was a struggle. The studs weren't where they were supposed to be, and we ended up using wall anchors to secure the screws on a couple of uprights. Still, they should work fine.

The only mailing list I subscribe to is the Computer Book Publishing list, run by StudioB. There have in the past been occassional short threads about the electronic book concept, but the e-book device that's recently been reported on by the general newspapers has started more intense discussion of this topic on the list. One of the related issues that arises is copy protection. Authors hate to have their work product freely distributed, but whether or not copy protection is a solution to this problem is now being debated.

One of the list members posted a message that stated, "It is my belief that copy protection is nonsense and hurts your sales a lot more than it helps sales." and John Levine, a well-known computer book author and member of the list agreed with him. I posted the following response to John:

I'm not sure I do. Granted, copy protection on PCs was hideous, but most of those problems were due to the fact that PCs were never designed to support copy-protection. Software vendors had to implement it unilaterally, with no support from the operating system or the hardware. Remember the "fighting dongles" issue, where every one of them wanted to be first? Copy protection on heavy iron never had the problems that were experienced on PCs, because the heavy iron included stuff like serialization in hardware. Also, the diversity of stuff running on PCs contributed to the problem. That wouldn't be an issue with an e-book, which would essentially be running only one application and loading different data files.

It seems to me that several things are necessary if this e-book concept is to work while protecting authors' rights:

First, the e-book itself has to have a unique embedded serialization chip. That shouldn't be a problem. Every PCS phone or satellite receiver has one.

Second, the book content needs to be encrypted at the point-of-sale, and married to the specific serial number of the ebook for which it is being purchased. In its encrypted form, the book would be freely copyable, allowing the buyer to store it on his hard disk, back it up, or whatever. The book should exist in unencrypted form only when stored within the ebook itself.

Third, just as people read a book and then pass it on, there has to be a mechanism to allow them to do the same with the ebook book. I think the way that makes the most sense is to allow two e-books to link via infrared or a cable and then permit the original owner to transfer the ebook content to the new ebook machine, in the process removing the mating between the book content and the serial number of the original machine. For this to work, the book format would obviously have to support a flag to indicate which was the "active" copy. Otherwise, the owner could transfer the copy to another user and then simply download another copy of the original from his hard disk and end up with two unencrypted copies.

If all of this is designed properly, the protection can be completely transparent to the users. The bigger question is what impact it will have on publishers and particularly on bookstores. I notice that both of them are getting involved in this in a big way, presumably to protect their turf. My morning paper tells me that Barnes & Noble plans to distribute e-books via the Internet at $18 to $25 per copy. That seems quite high, given that the costs of printing and moving the physical books are no longer present.

I wonder if in 10 years many authors will distribute their own books directly, contracting out for the editorial and other services that are currently provided by publishers. If ebooks reach critical mass, say 10 or 25 million of them out there, I can see Tom Clancy distributing his latest novel directly from his web site. He could charge $8 or $10 for it and end up making more than he does now in royalties, with enough left over to pay editorial costs, advertising, and the costs of distributing it. What'd be missing would be the costs of actually putting the book on paper and shipping it all over creation.

Obviously, some sort of dual distribution mechanism would prevail, because not everyone would have an e-book machine, and some people would simply prefer to have the book in traditional form. I think that'd gradually shift to favor e-books, however, just as many movies now go direct to video without ever being shown in a movie theatre. The economic factors would be compelling, particularly once Sony introduces a $75 Bookman and the cost of the reader hardware becomes a non-issue.

Just as publishers currently do hardback runs to cherry-pick the folks who have to have the new book as soon as possible and paperback runs to pick up revenue from the laggards, authors could do the same with e-books. Clancy could price a new book at $8 to $10 when it first comes out, and after 6 months or a year drop the price to $1 or $2.

All of this ultimately kind of leaves publishers and bookstores out in the cold, which is why they'll do everything they can to make sure it never happens.

And then this response (with my reply italicized):

On Saturday, October 24, 1998 at 11:12 AM, Joseph T. Sinclair wrote:

If there is to be a special software protocol or a hardware chip for ebooks, what happens if authors (and customers) ignore it in favor of standard protocols and normal hardware?

I should have stated explicitly that I was assuming development of non-proprietary standards to support all this. Not many people will buy e-books as long as the hardware uses proprietary standards for the data. I need to be able to transfer an ebook from my Sony Bookman to your Panasonic Bookslate, and you need to be able to transfer it to your friend's IBM BookReader (which will probably be OEM'd from Palm). If each brand of reader has its own proprietary format, ebooks will never take off. We'll be stuck in a situation like the days when software came in a baggie with a label to indicate which computer it ran on.

As far as customer choice, they don't have any, any more than they do now about using HTTP if they want to surf the web. Customers will use whatever standard protocols the hardware manufacturers eventually settle on, as will authors and other content providers.

I like your analysis, and perhaps it will become true.

I suspect, however, it will not come true and that that standards will prevail. After all, the Web is a text publishing medium. It doesn't need anything special for ebooks from a customer's point of view. It only needs something special from a publisher's point of view, and that something is copy protection. Can publishers force their thing on customers? I wonder?

Yes, but the web is essentially a free distribution mechanism. Subscription sites, micro-money, Millicent and all similar payment mechanisms are immaterial. Few authors or publishers are going to release their work in freely copyable form, whether or not it is paid for initially. They'll want assurances that it won't be copied, and some sort of copy-protection mechanism is needed to ensure that. It's not a question of publishers or authors forcing anything on readers. If the readers want the content, they'll take it in the form it's offered, which will almost certainly be protected in some form. It's going to be up to the folks who manufacture the hardware to come up with standardized methods for doing that.

They just need to avoid all the mistakes that the music industry has made. The music industry has put out billions of easily copyable CD's, and now fights continuously to kill technologies like DAT and DVD that would allow their products to be reproduced. MP3 is driving them nuts, and all because the material they ship has no copy protection. If electronic books are going to fly, safeguards have to be put in place early. Otherwise, content providers aren't going to allow their stuff to be published in e-form.



Coming Soon (I hope)


Updated: 05 July 2002 08:14

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.