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Week of 1 December 2003

Latest Update : Sunday, 07 December 2003 10:04 -0500

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Monday, 1 December 2003

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{Five Years Ago Today]

10:15 - The start of another week and another month.

Now it can be told. Our friends Brian and Marcia Bilbrey visited us last week. Why Bill and Emily? On one level, because we didn't want to broadcast it all over the net that they'd be away from home, although we understand that our regular readers would see through our subterfuge. On another level, because Marcia Bilbrey's name produces one of my favorite anagrams, "Barbaric Emily", and when Brian called shortly before they drove down I mistook his voice for that of my brother Bill.

Brian and I spent most of our time resting between meals, as did Duncan and Sally. Barbara and Marcia spent a lot of time out and about, shopping, visiting the crafts fair, and so on. Malcolm spent most of his time growling, protecting everyone from everyone else. The upshot was that I didn't use the computer much between their arrival on Tuesday evening and their departure Saturday.

After they left, Barbara and I had to prepare for a public observation at Pilot Mountain State Park. That turned out to be a non-event. The ranger estimated total public attendance at 20 to 25 people, which wasn't all that many more than the number of club members who'd set up their scopes. The weather was cold and windy, albeit clear, and I don't think SciWorks bothered to tell the TV stations or newspapers about the event. After sitting there for two hours with almost no public visitors, Barbara and I finally packed up and left around 7:30. Our friends who stayed told us there were a few more public visitors after we left, but not many. All in all, a disastrous public event. Not surprising, given that it was on the Saturday following Thanksgiving and had not been publicized on TV or in the newspapers.

We spent the remainder of the evening reading and relaxing. Sunday morning, we did our usual house cleaning and laundry, and Barbara started setting up her Christmas decorations. She spent most of yesterday getting the tree decorated and doing other Christmas-y stuff, while I finally got around to checking my email. I had almost 3,000 new messages. As usual, more than half were spam, but even so. It'll take me a while to catch up with the real messages, so if you mailed me in the last week or so, please be patient.

I'm still accumulating pieces-parts for the new book. Friday morning, the doorbell rang. When Brian and I looked out, there was a large pile of boxes. As it turns out, they came from Antec. There are half a dozen cases, which I plan to use for the project systems. I'd thought about featuring some other brands of cases, but there really isn't much point. Antec cases are well-engineered, well-built, inexpensive, and have excellent power supplies. Another important factor that's easy to overlook is that Antec cases are very widely distributed. All of the on-line vendors carry them, and most people can buy them locally. I just checked our Best Buy, for example, and they carry a full range of Antec cases at reasonable prices. In fact, even with sales tax, it's often cheaper to pick up an Antec case locally than to order it from a web source and pay shipping costs.

The doorbell rang this morning and I found a FedEx box from ATi on the doorstep. This one had a 9200 and an All-In-Wonder 9800 Pro in it. They'll go on the shelf with the All-In-Wonder 9600 Pro and the 9800 XT. Once again, the book will feature ATi video adapters because I don't see a lot of point to using anything else. If embedded video suffices, I use integrated Intel Extreme Graphics. Otherwise, I use one or another ATi video adapter. The only real alternative is nVIDIA, and nVIDIA has fallen behind the curve in terms of performance and price. Also, the 2D display quality of nVIDIA adapters, while better than formerly, is still not up to ATi standards.

Speaking of ATi, I'm still dithering about the PVR/DVR system. My initial inclination was to build a Linux-based TiVo clone, and I may still do that. But the more I look at the Linux-based alternatives compared to the turn-key ATi PVR software, the more I'm inclined to build my project PVR/DVR system around an ATi All-In-Wonder running under Windows. The ATi PVR/DVR software appears to be fully-featured and straightforward to implement. The Linux-based stuff still has some pieces missing and would require a lot more tweaking.

I'm still not sure whether I'll include DVD burning capability in my PVR/DVR system. Either way, the PVR/DVR system has to have a network connection, so the question becomes whether it's better to burn DVDs (or CDs) locally at the PVR/DVR or simply to copy the video data over the network to a real computer in my office and master/burn the DVD/CD there.

I don't have a good handle on file sizes, but given that a two-hour movie in high-quality mode fits on a 4.7 GB DVD, I'm expecting that recording off-the-cable video might require 2 GB per hour in high quality mode. I have many hard drives around here that hold 120 GB, 160 GB, or more, so local storage space on the PVR/DVR shouldn't be a problem. I'll install enough for at least 80 hours of recording, and perhaps twice that. Most of what we record is Barbara's shows--NYPD, Left Wing, and ER. That stuff is ephemeral and doesn't need to be stored permanently. The local PVR/DVR hard drive should be fine for it. Even 80 hours of storage would be several months worth, so instead of adding a second hard drive for more recording time it may make more sense to mirror the second hard drive to protect against drive failures.

About the only time it'd make sense to burn video to DVD or CD is if we'd recorded a movie or special event that we wanted to keep, or if we'd recorded something that one of our friends wanted and had forgotten to record. I'm thinking it might make more sense to do that burning in my office, where I have more powerful computers with real monitors. I've never burned video to DVD, but I expect there are a lot of things I might want to do that would be easier on a real monitor instead of on a TV set running Windows at very low resolution. The only downside would be the need to transfer a large file from the PVR/DVR in the den to a system in my office, but even a 4 GB or larger file doesn't take all that long to transfer on a 100BaseT network.

While I'm at it, I suppose I should look at making the PVR/DVR a "multi-media server" for the entire house. I can visualize ripping Barbara's rather large CD collection to OGG format, storing them on the PVR/DVR, and simply accessing the music from there. Hmmm. Given that this box will be on the network I'll have to be quite careful about securing it. I'd hate to get the MPAA and the RIAA upset with me.

If you have any ideas about all of this, please post them over on the messageboard. I'd be interested to hear what you think.

Speaking of PVR/DVR systems, I see that some TV industry pundits are getting seriously concerned. PVR/DVR systems may well ultimately kill broadcast television. The equation is simple enough. Broadcast television exists because advertisers pay the broadcasters to run commercials. If no one watches those commercials, advertisers will no longer pay to run them. If everyone has a PVR/DVR, no one will watch commercials.

Actually, I think the article is overly-optimistic. They project 11% market penetration of PVR/DVR systems by 2005 and 15% by 2006. I think that's a bit low, given that cable systems are pushing the things hard. But even if you accept those forecasts, the situation is worse than it appears. The article uses estimates that PVR/DVR users skip 60% of commercials. Really? I'd have guessed the actual number is a lot closer to 100% than 60%. How many people with DVR/PVRs actually sit and watch commercials instead of fast-forwarding through them? Not many, I'd guess. Oh, I'm sure they let commercials run sometimes while they use the bathroom or go to the kitchen for a snack, but why would they actually sit and watch commercials when all they need to do is press a button to skip them? Not gonna happen.

And then there are demographics. Not all viewers are equal as far as advertisers are concerned. And those viewers who are most likely to use a PVR/DVR and who are most likely to skip commercials are exactly the same viewers that the advertisers want to see their commercials. Those who skip commercials are, on average, wealthier, better educated, and have more disposable income. Those who still watch them are, on average, poorer, less educated, and have less disposable income. I'm sure advertisers aren't happy about that.

I think ultimately the local TV stations will be cut out entirely. They're no longer necessary for distribution. The networks could just as easily make their programming available via cable and satellite. The only thing the local stations have going for them (other than laws and regulations that protect them) is their local news and weather. But their weather no longer counts for much. It's easy to get a more accurate and timely forecast just by turning to the Weather Channel or the web. That leaves local news, but local TV stations no longer broadcast much real news. It's mostly features. If you want the local news, the only real option in most markets nowadays is to read the local newspaper.

I think ultimately we'll have all commercial-free ala carte programming via cable and satellite. At first, it'll probably be a matter of subscribing to specific networks. If you want NBC, for example, you'll subscribe to it as a premium channel for a couple bucks a month. Eventually, it'll all be pay-per-view. If you want to watch this week's episode of Left Wing, your account will be dinged for a quarter or whatever. Networks, cable systems, and other aggregators will fight this tooth and nail, but they'll lose eventually. It'll probably take many years, but I think it's inevitable. The technology ultimately has the effect of giving the consumer choice. Content providers that recognize that fact will prosper. Those that attempt to hold back the tide will disappear. Ten years from now, and certainly twenty, the entertainment landscape will be very, very different.



Tuesday, 2 December 2003

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{Five Years Ago Today]

8:58 - It's déją Vu all over again. The writable DVD format wars lasted years, and the dust has yet to settle there. DVD-RAM got off to an early lead, but was overtaken by DVD-R because Apple and Compaq began bundling early Pioneer DVD-R drives. Then the DVD+R folks finally got their act together, and DVD+R/RW is now the format of choice for most purposes. Still, the end result of the format wars was that writable DVD took years longer to become a mainstream technology than it should have, extending the life of writable CD years past what it might have been expected to be. Now it looks as though we're going to start all over again, with two competing blue light standards. None of this has a whole lot to do with technology, any more than the first writable DVD format war did. It's all about whose format will dominate and thereby generate huge royalty streams to the company(s) that hold the rights to the winning format.

The DVD Forum has officially endorsed the blue light format put forward by Toshiba and NEC, leaving the competing standard advocated by Sony, Matsushita (JVC and Panasonic), and Philips out in the cold. If history is any guide, though, having a format endorsed by the DVD Forum may be the kiss of death. Because the initial implementations of the blue-light standard will be read-only rather than writable, support from Hollywood is critical. The MPAA wants only one format, which would seem to leave Sony et alia with no alternative but to adopt the NEC/Toshiba format. I doubt it'll be that simple, though. Sony and friends doubtless have quite a few arrows left in their quivers.

I'm researching the configuration for the PVR/DVR/HTPC system. As usual, there are conflicting opinions. When I asked some time ago about baby hardware routers, I got lots of advice from competent, well-intentioned people. Some said to buy a LinkSys, others that LinkSys was terrible. The same for NetGear and any number of other brands.

The same thing is happening with PVR/DVR/HTPC stuff. Some people say the ATi RADEON hardware and software are the best available. Others say it has poor picture quality and limited features relative to products from Sage. Still others say they've tried Sage stuff and wouldn't recommend it to their worst enemies, either because of problems with the Sage software or because of problems with the Hauppage hardware it runs on. I have everything I need to build an ATi system in hand, so I think that's what I'll start with. If it doesn't work to my satisfaction, I'll consider alternatives.

Here is an example of why most people don't take seriously the blatherings of the NAACP and other black racist organizations. A huge man (350 or 400 pounds, depending on which report you believe) goes berserk, and the cops have to subdue him. They try to cuff him, but he attacks them, flinging them around like rag dolls. They use their nightsticks to subdue him and get him cuffed. He is transported to the hospital, where he dies. An autopsy reveals that he has an enlarged heart (no surprise, given his size) and has cocaine and PCP (angel dust) in his system. The NAACP and other black racist organizations blame the cops.

Would the cops have behaved differently had they been faced with a berserk white man? No, of course not. What, specifically, would these critics have had the police do? Shoot him? Say "pretty please"? Perhaps they should have used the British police method, "Stop, or I'll cry stop again!" Or perhaps the NAACP thinks the cops should have abdicated their responsibilities and simply walked away. "Oh, it's a black guy going berserk. That's okay, then."

No one who has never had to subdue a very large man can understand what these cops faced. A huge, berserk man under the influence of PCP can wreak a lot of havoc very quickly. I know, because I once had to deal with a similar situation. Most people would consider me a large man. I'm about 6'4" tall and weigh about 240 pounds. But when a 400 pound guy went berserk in the lobby of a Holiday Inn one time, I and my associates were faced with a very difficult problem.

Tina, one of our female employees, was the first to encounter him. She was tough, but she was smart enough to know she was grossly overmatched, so she radioed for backup and tried to stay clear of him while still keeping between him and any innocent bystanders. Four of us showed up about the same time, and found Tina backed into a corner by this huge guy who was shouting at her and almost literally foaming at the mouth. I jumped on his back. He simply shrugged and I went flying across the room. The three other big guys helping me had the same problem. It was like trying to tackle a huge, enraged pile of Jello. There was no way to get a grip, and even if you could he was so strong there was no way to hold on.

We didn't have night sticks, and we didn't want to shoot him. Eventually, one of our guys emptied almost a whole can of Mace into the guy's face and all of us jumped on him at the same time. We were able to get him cuffed. The most any of us suffered was a sprained wrist, but it might very well have ended differently. In our case, the berserker was white. But I guarantee you we wouldn't have done anything differently had he been black.

12:19 - Subscriber Jim Cooley sends the following warning, with the subject:

Danger Will Robinson!, Norton Ghost 2003 and SATA

in a word: DON'T !!!

I had a nice clean beautiful fresh install of Win2K and all the apps and customer data on a nice clean beautiful new D865GBFL and decided to install Ghost 2003 to make the client an "Emergency Recovery Disk(s)".

Bloody thing temporarily repartioned the drive, then tried to reboot from its special parttion, only to find out it couldn't find the bloody IDE drive. It was hung -- hung as in John Holmes hung.

Rebooting didn't help because it had F&^%ed with the MBR...

Symantec says it's fixed with a LiveUpdate but of course I can't just download a patch, I have to run LiveFriggingUpdate.

I can just imagine what folks with only one unbootable computer, would do.

I'll muddle though (I hope! ) but let that be a lesson to you: SATA and Ghost don't mix unless you've danced with LiveUpdate.


Who me? Grumpy? Naw....



Wednesday, 3 December 2003

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{Five Years Ago Today]

9:58 - Barbara points out that I didn't mention her birthday yesterday. She turned 49 as ages are generally stated, 20-29 in Elaine Boosler's syntax, 31 in the hexadecimal I now use, or 7 in dog years. Incredibly, she looks no different to me than she did the day we married more than 20 years ago. I didn't get her a present. Well, I did buy her the new digital camera she'd mentioned several times, but I gave that to her as soon as it arrived a couple of weeks ago. That was supposed to be for her birthday, but I didn't see any point in hiding it for a couple of weeks.

Barbara took yesterday afternoon off to play golf with her dad. When she got home, we took off to visit the library to return books and get a new pile, and then went to our favorite Chinese place for dinner.

As I'm writing this, the city's leaf vacuum truck is sucking up the piles of leaves at the curb. Duncan and Malcolm are shouting, "Bob! Bob! Do something! They're stealing our leaves!" As far as the dogs are concerned, piles of leaves are a valuable resource. They have fascinating smells, and both Duncan and Malcolm can happily spend long periods with their snouts stuck in the piles just sniffing. They're also excellent dog bathrooms, which probably accounts for the sniffing mania.

John Bartley sends a Kipling poem I don't recall ever seeing before.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: I'm sorry about Kerry
Date: Thu, 20 Nov 2003 11:17:28 -0800
From: John Bartley
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

I'm sorry about Kerry.

I know you did the best you could to make sure he had a good life (which
may not help you feel better right now - but it's true.)

Rudyard Kipling

The Power of the Dog

There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I beg you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie--
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart to a dog to tear.

When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour or fits,
And the vet's unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find--it's your own affair--
But...you've given your heart to a dog to tear.

When the body that lived at your single will,
When its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!)
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone--wherever it goes--for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.

We've sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we've kept "em, the more do we grieve:
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong.
A short-term loan is as bad as a long--
So why in--Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?

Thanks. I apologize for my delay in responding. Your message somehow ended up in my suspect folder (I guess maybe all the spaces did it?) and I just now saw it.

I thought I'd read most of Kipling, but I'd not read that. I'm CC'ing Barbara so that she can read it as well, and I'll post it on my page for tomorrow.

Again, thanks.

And I forwarded that to Jerry Pournelle, who lost his 16-year-old Sasha a year or so ago. Jerry replies:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: RE: [Fwd: Re: I'm sorry about Kerry]
Date: Tue, 2 Dec 2003 13:49:33 -0800
From: Jerry Pournelle
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

Yes, I'd have sent you that except I thought you knew it. It does say it all.

I just ran across some old pictures of Sasha hunting on the hill a couple of years ago. Gets to me.

But better to have had and lost Sasha and Kerry than not to have known them.

There's an interesting letter to the editor over on The Inquirer.

You should know, and any Icelandic speaker would tell you, šat še right character to insert for še "hard" th is š, not ž. Admittedly writers of Middle English got lazy and used ž pretty promiscuously, so šey wrote žings like "že" for še definite article. Since in some calligraphic hands "ž" looks sort of like "y" if you squint just right, people started writing "ye" for "že" which was a misspelled "še" to begin wiš, and hence še infamous "Ye Olde Knick-Knack Shoppe" syndrome.

I hope šat šis makes žings clear.

James Jones

I'd always wondered about šat. But I žought šat še "th" in "še" was "soft" rašer šan "hard" and šat še "th" in "žing" was "hard" rašer šan "soft".

12:27 - Here's the reply I sent to Jerry.

Thanks. It is indeed better to have known them. At least Barbara has Duncan and Malcolm. Without them, she'd have been devastated.

Kerry was her first dog. He moved in with us when we moved my mother in a year or so after my father died in 1990. At the time, Barbara was actually more worried about the dog moving in with us than she was about my mother living with us.

Kerry was four at the time he came to live with us, so Barbara knew him through his life cycle from puppy to very old dog, and lived with him for everything except the puppy phase. She went through the typical stages:

"It's okay for him to lie on the floor, but not to jump onto the furniture."

"Well, it's okay for him to jump onto the furniture, but not onto the bed."

"Well, it's okay for him to jump onto the bed, but not to stay there while we're sleeping."

"Well, it's okay for him to sleep on the bed with us, but only if he stays down at the foot and out of our way."

"Move over, Bob, there's no room for Kerry."

I truly dread Duncan's growing old. He'll be nine on New Years Day, although he still acts and looks like a young dog. He was the first dog that Barbara raised from a pup. On our first trip up to the breeder, Duncan had just barely opened his eyes. It was a cold day, and Duncan snuggled into the arm of Barbara's parka. They bonded from that moment forward, and Barbara has always been Duncan's primary person. His death will be a horrible loss for Barbara.

But, as you say, their lives may be too short, but they are a joy while they are with us and provide memories that live forever.

12:57 - It's snowing in Winston-Salem. After I finished the last post and started publishing it, I took the dogs out. As I stepped off the front porch, I noticed a small white flake floating past. In the few minutes I was out there, the snow got a bit heavier. Still very light (there are words for light rain--sprinkle, shower, mist, and so on--are there any words for a light snow?) but definitely snow.

I was planning to climb up onto the roof this afternoon to blow out the gutters for the final time this year and to cover the roof vents, but it looks like that won't happen today. This is a very early snow for Winston-Salem. We don't get measurable amounts of snowfall every year, and January and February are the usual months for snowfall. Perhaps Barbara will have a White Christmas, which happens around here maybe once a decade, if that.

Also once a decade or so, we get a real snowfall. The biggest I remember in the 23 years I've lived in Winston-Salem was an 18" overnight snow fifteen years or so ago. The entire city, indeed the entire region, came to a complete standstill. Winston-Salem might have a couple dozen plows if that, so about all that got cleared was the major highways. When I lived up in Pennsylvania, every government truck, from pickups to garbage trucks to dump trucks to school busses, had the hydraulics for a snow plow mounted on the front. When a serious snowfall arrived, there were many hundreds of government trucks out there plowing.

I remember the time that a guy who worked for PennDot (the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation) literally bent a 10-ton dump truck. He'd been assigned to re-plow a stretch of highway that had already been plowed but had accumulated another several inches of light, fluffy snow. He wasn't familiar with the stretch of highway he'd been assigned. He was merrily plowing along at 40 MPH or so when the plow blade had a close encounter with a railroad track he didn't know was there. Not only did the truck frame end up bent, the railroad track ended up ripped out of the railbed. The guy walked away from it, but I'll bet he made damned sure he knew where the railroad tracks were after that one.




Thursday, 4 December 2003

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{Five Years Ago Today]

9:40 - I confess that I do sometimes learn something while scanning spam headers. Most recently, I was invited to look at "Nude images of Paris Hilton". That one gave me pause. Why would anyone be enticed by nude images of a hotel? And how could a hotel be considered nude, anyway? I wasn't interested enough to investigate, but I concluded that these must be nude images of a young woman, perhaps a member of the Hilton hotel family. If so, what must her parents have been thinking? Do they have other children named Chicago and London? Did they name the black sheep of the family Baghdad?

I have to wonder why anyone would buy a computer from a maker who installs spyware. Here's a slashdot article that says Dell technicians are not allowed to help users remove spyware. As it turns out, the slashdot article got it wrong, as they often do. Dell is not pre-loading spyware, but merely refusing to help customers remove third-party spyware. That may seem outrageous, but in fact they have a point. Using spyware removal tools, especially on a new PC that has not yet been configured, can lead to instability and failures to boot. Officially recommending a specific spyware removal tool would be a no-win situation for Dell. But Dell has gone too far. Refusing to support spyware removal tools or officially to recommend a specific tool is one thing, but this memo sent to Dell tech support staff makes it clear that Dell is going much further:

Subject: Spyware: What we can say to the customer

Dell does not support or endorse the use of spyware removal programs.

NOTICE: Use of spyware removal software may conflict with user license agreements of other applications installed on your system. Please consult your user license agreements for further information. Dell does not endorse the use of spyware removal software and cannot provide support on these products.

This means we do not take callers to download.com or doxdesk.com, nor do we recommend spyware removal programs, nor do we advise callers on the use of spyware removal programs. This includes using phrases "We don't support the removal of spyware, but I use..."

Please reply to this e-mail to indicate that you have read and understand this information.


So, not only does Dell not support spyware removal tools, but they officially direct their tech support staff not to mention such tools to customers or point them to a web site. But some PC makers go further even than Dell. When my wife's sister and her husband bought a new HP PC, I was flabbergasted when SpyBot Search & Destroy found that their system had come from HP with spyware already loaded on it.

Too many high-tech companies are treating their customers as a parasite treats its host. There are still many good companies out there, including many of those I recommend, but far too many companies now regard their customers as a merely source of revenue, to be sucked dry at their convenience. Companies like that deserve to fail. Perhaps I should start a Hall of Shame.

And it looks as though I was right about the hard/soft "th":

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Icelandic
Date: Wed, 3 Dec 2003 21:19:34 +0100
From: David Thorarinsson
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

Mr. Thompson,

You were right about the ž and š sounds (or Ž and Š in capitals). Ž is the "harder" one while the š is "softer".


David Thor Thorarinsson

(Davķš Žór Žórarinsson in my own language)


12:03 - Embarrassingly, I wrote "Šanks" above, when of course I really meant "Žanks". Mr. Thorarinsson replies:

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: Icelandic
Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2003 16:47:46 +0100
From: David Thorarinsson
To: Robert Bruce Thompson

On Thursday 04 December 2003 15.11, you wrote:
> Šanks!

I think I should also mention that Š is never the first letter of a word either :-)


Davķš Ž.

There are illegal activities that I've never been able to understand the rationale for outlawing.

There's this, for example. Why should it be illegal to shoot an Xbox in one's own home? As far as I can see, the only thing this guy did wrong was to use a 9mm pistol, which the article notes did not penetrate the Xbox. I'd have used my .44, which would have gutted it.

Then there's this (also see here). Again, why should this be illegal? The German police are charging this man with murder merely because he killed and ate another man. (They would have also charged him with cannibalism, but that is apparently not a crime in Germany.) But the other man consented to being killed and eaten, which surely excuses the man charged on the basis of it being an action taken by consenting adults. Now, certainly, I wouldn't want either of these men to live next door to me, or even in the same city, but it seems rather harsh to charge a man with murder when the victim gave his permission. Now, if this guy started going out and killing and eating people without their permission, that'd be a different matter entirely.

12:29 - On the other hand, I have to wonder why this guy is still breathing. A three-time convicted rapist, and he's walking around loose? Any rational justice system would have executed this guy one or two rapes ago. Instead, he's free to rape again. I don't know if he's guilty of abducting Dru Sjodin or not, but it doesn't really matter. What matters is that our court system allows a man who has been convicted of rape three times to walk around freely.

We need a fast-track justice system. Criminals are already Constitutionally guaranteed the right to a speedy trial, and it seems to me that society in general and victims in particular should be entitled to speedy executions. If this man is convicted, he should be sentenced to death, and should be publicly executed the following morning, ideally by hanging. Actually, he should be executed tomorrow morning even if he's not guilty of this particular crime. Three rape convictions already and he's still breathing? Jesus.



Friday, 5 December 2003

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{Five Years Ago Today]

10:08 - One of the topics that pushes my buttons is Print-on-Demand (POD) and e-books. There's been an ongoing discussion about POD on the DorothyL mystery mailing list, and I sent off this rather long response this morning:

G. Stratton wrote:

> Amid all the criticism leveled against self-published authors, I
> feel I should apologize for having gone that route. In a word, I
> self-published FIT FOR FATE because I'm impatient. After I saw the
> manuscript rejected by two publishers (and I withdrew it from a third),
> which consumed the best part of a year's time, I decided not to wait any
> longer to see my book get in print. So I used iUniverse for this purpose.
> Up until now, I have scrupulously avoided multiple submissions, even though
> it has hurt me.

Perhaps I haven't been paying attention, but I haven't noticed anyone criticizing self-publishing *authors*. All of the criticism I've seen has been of POD and POD printers.

In my opinion, POD is neutral. It's simply a technology that is an alternative to traditional offset printing. The key aspect of POD as it applies to mystery publishing is its cost structure. Compared to offset printing, and assuming a finished and edited manuscript in both cases, setting up and printing the first copy costs next to nothing with POD, but each subsequent POD copy has a hideously high unit cost. In other words, traditionally-printed books have a high fixed cost but a low unit cost, whereas POD books are just the opposite.

If you graph the costs of traditional versus POD, you get two lines with different slopes. To the left of the point where those lines intersect, it's cheaper to produce a book via POD. To the right of that intersection, it's cheaper to use traditional printing. The exact point of intersection depends on a lot of factors, but I'd guess that it's almost never more than 1,000 copies, and usually less.

That single fact means that POD as a technology is completely inappropriate for mass-market fiction, including any genre fiction, at least with the current cost structures. If POD had the same unit cost as offset printing *and* could produce copies as quickly, there wouldn't be any issue, except for the lower binding quality of POD books. If that were addressed, publishers would use POD almost exclusively.

But unless and until that happens, POD suffers an insuperable cost handicap, which is reflected in the much too high cover price, the lower discounts offered to distributors, and the refusal of POD printers to accept returns. Genre fiction is inherently mass-market, and POD is simply the wrong tool for a mass-market product. Traditional publishers use POD to keep backlist titles "in print", but they wouldn't even use it for that limited purpose if not for a tax case that was decided back during the Reagan administration. Until then, publishers could keep backlist titles in stock, carrying the inventory at the cost of paper and ink rather than as finished products. That decision changed all that, and made it uneconomic for publishers to keep older books in stock. POD allows them to maintain those backlist titles as electronic files upon which no inventory taxes need be paid, so to that extent POD is good news for readers (if not for authors, whose books now may never go OOP, allowing them to reclaim the rights to them).

POD can be a great publishing tool, if one keeps its economic realities in mind. For example, if I were writing a very specialized book that I expected to sell at a very high per-copy price but in limited numbers and over a period of years, POD would be perfect. For exampel, if I'm selling 100 or 200 copies a year of my book at $100 or $250 per copy and expect that to go on for years and years, the higher unit cost of POD is immaterial compared to the fixed costs and inventory carrying costs of an offset book. POD in that situation also has the advantage of allowing cheap and quick updates to the material. But that situation is a far cry from what mystery authors need.

Actually, I think offset printing is dead in the long term. One of two things (maybe both) will kill it, either universal local POD or electronic books. If every bookstore had a POD machine, POD could beat offset printing on costs even if its unit cost remained slightly higher than offset. That's true because shipping books around the country is an expensive thing to do. It costs a lot to ship them from the printer to the distributor, from the distributor to the bookstores, and then back to the publisher for unsold copies. If reliable, inexpensive POD machines become avaiable, and assuming a rights-management protocol that is acceptable to authors and publishers can be devised, it's possible that POD machines will appear at every local bookstore.

I don't think that's going to happen, though, for a lot of reasons. The main reason is that publishers make their profits primarily by controlling distribution, and universal POD takes them out of the distribution loop. There are also quality concerns with POD, and most authors and publishers would be paranoid about allowing bookstores to print copies unless there were very, very strong controls in effect to make sure that everyone got paid for each copy. So, on balance, I don't think POD will ever become universal, but I may be wrong.

I think what will really kill all forms of printed book is electronic books. To those who say that's been tried and failed, I say it's never really been tried. Publishers are scared to death of e-books, again because they eliminate the advantage of the distribution channels with which publishers maintain a monopoly. To a certain extent, it's a chicken and egg problem. If Sony (or whoever) introduces an inexpensive BookMan, expect to see e-book sales take off. It needs to sell for $100 or less, be about the size of a hardback book, have a high-res LCD display with backlighting for reading in bed, and use NiMH rechargeables or standard AA batteries interchangeably. It'll also have very strong DRM (Digital Restrictions Management), because most authors and publishers are convinced that otherwise everyone will copy their books without paying for them.

Smart authors and publishers will make their books available with no DRM copy-protection at all, and they'll clean up. Yes, 90% of the readers may not pay for the book, but the 10% who do will more than pay the bills, and 10% of a whole lot is much more money than 100% of a very little. People simply don't like copy-protection, and won't put up with it. Jim Baen has seen the truth of this, and posts unprotected versions of many of his science-fiction titles on the Baen web site. And guess what? People end up buying a lot more Baen books, not only those that aren't available as e-books, but those that are.

I think if I were a mystery author who was unable to get a publishing contract with a traditional publisher, I wouldn't even think about going the POD route. Instead, I'd get my book properly edited and then post it on my web site in unprotected form. I'd post the first chapter for free download, and allow people to download the whole book for, say, $2. I'd use PayPal to accept payments, and I wouldn't worry about what happened to each unprotected copy I'd sold. I'd *want* people to give away copies to their friends. I'm not losing any money when they do that, because those folks would never have paid me (or heard of me) anyway. But if I'm a good writer, they'll read my stuff and they'll want more. And, contrary to the opinion of the RIAA and MPAA, most people are honest. If you give them a good value proposition, which $2 is, they'll pay the $2. Or at least enough of them will to make it worthwhile. You probably won't make a whole lot of money, at least when you're starting out, but you'll make more money than you would publishing POD. More people will see your book, too. And $2 is a heck of a lot more than you'd get from a POD publisher.

Electronic books also provide pricing flexibility. If I were a big-name author going this route, I'd price my book at $5 or $8 when it first came out, to get the folks who have to have it immediately. After a month or two, I'd drop the price a bit. Eventually, it'd end up on my backlist, and would cost only $1 or $2 to download.

Doing this doesn't depend on the Sony Bookman, either. It's quite possible right now to publish ebooks that anyone can read on a PC, notebook, or PDA. I confess that I'd never read a full-length novel on screen until very recently, when I did a quick "sanity-check" edit for a well-known author who is on this list and publishes with a traditional publisher. The experience wasn't as good as reading a printed book, but it didn't suck, either.

That book is destined for traditional printing, but if she had decided to publish it as an e-book, I'd have been more than happy to send her $5 or $8, which would be a lot more than she'll eventually get in royalties when I buy my printed copy. That's why traditional publishers are doing everything they can to kill e-books, most especially by binding authors with new contract terms. Publishers are scared to death of e-books, because they eliminate the need for publishers. In ten years, I'd be willing to bet that many or most of the authors on this list will be writing e-books and distributing them directly to their readers. They'll still need editing and other services, of course, but they'll be able to contract those out.

I can't wait until it happens.

Sorry for the length of this, but this whole topic pushes a lot of my buttons.

15:45 - I absolutely hate the let's-try-it-and-see-if-it-works method. When I design a system, I want to design it from the start to accomplish the necessary goals. Sometimes the goal is low price, and I make compromises to accommodate that requirement. Other times, the main requirement may be low noise, high performance, small size, or some combination. But the common thread throughout all of that is that ordinarily I know what's going to happen, and it's simply a matter of balancing priorities to gain the desired end result.

With this PVR/DVR Home Theater PC (HTPC), it's a different story. I've spent a couple of days doing detailed reading of everything I can find on the topic, and the result is that I'm more confused than ever. When Pournelle called yesterday, I told him my head was about to explode. But there's an obvious answer. If one doesn't know what works, the answer isn't to sit around dithering. It's to try something to see if it works. So that's what I'm going to do.

This weekend, I'll be building our HTPC project system. The basic configuration, subject to change, is:

Antec Overture HTPC case
ASUS A7N8X Deluxe motherboard
AMD Athlon 2800+ processor
Dynatron CPU cooler
512 MB of DDR400 memory
ATi RADEON All-In-Wonder 9600 Pro
Seagate Barracuda 7200.7 (160 GB)
Plextor DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive
ATi Remote Wonder remote control
Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse

I say "our" because Barbara is now officially a co-author of the book. O'Reilly had gone into this assuming that I'd be sole author, but I really wanted Barbara's participation. So we'll be building this system this weekend on the kitchen table, and photographing the process with Barbara's new Olympus C-5000 digital camera.

Once the system is up and running the fun starts. Even getting it physically connected may be challenging. I need an Ethernet connection, both for program guide updates and to use the NetTime app to keep the clock accurate, but I don't have a jack nearby and the home-audio component rack is on an outside wall. I'd use a wireless connection, but even 802.11g isn't going to be fast enough for what I want, so I'll eventually need to run a 100BaseT drop to somewhere near the rack. Once I have everything connected comes the fun of playing with all the software, both what ATi provides and third-party stuff.

It's likely to be an interesting weekend, and I probably won't get everything done, but I'll try.

I also have to go over to Barbara's sister's house this weekend to connect up the new laser printer/hydra they bought. I hope this goes more smoothly than the last abortive attempt with the HP hydra.



Saturday, 6 December 2003

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{Five Years Ago Today]

11:06 - Barbara and I met her parents, sister, and brother-in-law last night for a belated birthday dinner for Barbara. After dinner, we adjourned to Frances and Al's home for coffee, cake, and presents. While the others were doing the birthday thing, I sat down in front of Frances and Al's new PC to connect their new multifunction device. It's a Brother MFC-4800, and it incorporates printer, fax, scanner, and copier. Unlike the HP hydra-from-hell they'd originally bought, the Brother installed with only one minor problem and worked perfectly.

Within an hour, I had the drivers installed, the hardware installed, and everything tested. The Brother MFC-4800 prints, scans, copies, and sends faxes perfectly. We weren't able to test inbound faxing, but we did call their fax number from a cell phone to make sure the fax answered the call. They installed distinctive ringing (BellSouth calls it RingMaster) on their phone line, giving them two numbers on one line. RingMaster was set to ring cadence #1, which the Brother MFC-4800 interprets perfectly.

This is a very nice multifunction device, as such devices go. I'm still not a fan of them for any environment where they'd be used heavily, but it should be fine for Frances and Al. Best of all, it's a laser printer rather than an inkjet printer. They give up color printing, which is a who-cares, but they get reliable, high-quality laser output with reasonable consumables costs. I still think inkjet printing is a racket. Looking at one of those little ink cartridges, I'm always reminded that the tiny quantity of ink in them is selling for more, weight-for-weight, than pure gold. People think of HP as a computer company or a printer company, but it's not. It's an ink company. If you look at their revenues and profits, it's pretty clear that the money they make selling ink at outrageous prices is what makes them profitable overall.

I'll refer Frances and Al to LaserMonks when they need to replace their toner and drum. I wasn't happy when LaserMonks started using spam to sell their products, but they are after all a bunch of monks. They probably didn't realize what they were doing was wrong. More worldly people than they have used spam without realizing the implications, so I'll cut them a break, at least for now. Still, I must admit, it was disconcerting to be spammed by a bunch of monks. Kind of like being savagely attacked by a ChipMonk.

I'm off to build and photograph the Home Theater PC system. It always takes a lot longer when I'm documenting the process photographically. It'll take even longer this time, because Barbara's new Olympus C-5000 digital camera has only a 32 MB memory card. That translates into only 8 images at the resolution and compression I'm using. I often shoot multiple images of a single step, so having to transfer the images every eight shots is going to draw things out a bit.



Sunday, 7 December 2003

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{Five Years Ago Today]

10:04 - It was 62 years ago today. Most of the men and women who fought that war, in the maelstrom or on the home front, are gone now, my mother and father among them. It was a different world then.

When news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came, America pretty much came to a standstill. But not for long. American men soon headed for the recruiting offices in droves, in some cases literally breaking down the doors in order to sign up to go kill "Japs". The entire Green Bay Packers football team signed up en masse, and that was just one example among thousands. For a while, companies that produced war materiel panicked, because all of their skilled workers were signing up to go carry rifles. My father was 18 years old and a first-year law student at Dickinson. Like millions of others, he headed for the recruiting office. Fifty- and sixty-year-old guys dyed their hair and lied about their birth dates, trying to get into the US Army. They wanted to go kill Japs. Fifteen-year-old boys lied about their ages, so they could go kill Japs. After four years of war, we finally nuked the sons of bitches, and most people were satisfied that we'd killed enough Japs.

More than two years ago, America suffered a similarly dastardly sneak attack, this time by Saudi Arabian Islamics. Patriotism came to the fore for a while, certainly, but there were no general calls to go kill Saudis. Why not? I think perhaps red-blooded American men are no longer as red-blooded as they were 62 years ago today.

Here's why Barbara hates it when I start work on a new book...

logitech-den-stuff.jpg (71648 bytes)



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