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Week of 19 February 2007

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Monday, 19 February 2007
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09:32 - Busy weekend. I got the UPSs swapped out, although I haven't popped the lid on the old one to clean it out. We had dinner with Mary and Paul Saturday at the Chinese place. During dinner, we asked them if they'd like to go out to the pistol range and shoot. They wanted to give it a try, so we went out to the range yesterday afternoon, burned about 650 rounds of ammunition, and then headed over to the Mexican place next door for dinner.

Paul had never shot a pistol before, but as it turned out he's a natural. He started with my .45 ACP Colt Combat Commander, and put two or three in the bull and the remainder of his first magazine mostly in the 7 to 9 rings. He also did pretty well with my Ruger .357 revolver. He started at 15 feet, which doesn't sound like much to anyone who's never shot a pistol, but believe me when I say that most beginners have trouble even keeping shots on the paper at 15 feet, let alone putting them in the bull. Paul soon moved back to the 25-foot range, and later to 50 feet, which is fairly long range for pistol shooting, particularly for a beginner. (At 50 feet, I can keep all or nearly all rounds in the K5 area of an FBI kill-disable silhouette target, but I'm not going to hit a lot of bulls, particularly when firing combat pistol style, double-tap and so on.)

Mary started off a bit slower. She'd shot a 9mm pistol a few times in graduate school, but that was 10 years ago. I let her start with the .45 ACP, but firing full-bore .45's is a bit much for someone who has small hands and is less than half Paul's or my mass. I moved her over to the Ruger .22 bull-barrel target pistol, and she immediately started doing much better. By the end of the session, she was hitting the bull regularly. I think her rapid improvement had less to do with the lower recoil of the .22 than with the fact that the Ruger target pistol fits her hands much better.

I told Mary that I've taught a lot of people to shoot pistols over the years, and in terms of natural ability she's definitely well toward the right end of the curve. She did better sooner than about 90% of the people I've introduced to pistol shooting. After watching her practice for only an hour or so, I sure wouldn't want her shooting at me.


Tuesday, 20 February 2007
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08:18 - Oh, yeah. I forgot to mention yesterday that Brian and Marcia Bilbrey had driven down from Bowie, Maryland to spend the weekend with us. We had a very relaxing break. Brian also went to the range with us, and shot extremely well. These guys worry me.

More bad news for folks still stuck on the Microsoft merry-go-round. Steve Ballmer, faced with poor sales of Vista, has announced that Microsoft will crank up WGA this year.

"[Ballmer] said that there was software within Windows Genuine Advantage which could be dialled up by the Vole to make it even more tougher for the pirates to take out.

He promised that the Vole would "really ferret through how far we can dial it up, and what that means for customer experience and customer satisfaction"."

The real problem with Vista, of course, is that no one in his right mind wants it. Think of it as a service pack for Windows XP that has no compelling new features, breaks many current programs and utilities, lacks drivers for many recent and current peripherals, adds unwanted DRM "features", and costs a lot of money. And Microsoft is surprised that people aren't rushing out to buy Vista? Duh.

On what may be a related note, Dell is surveying customers about what they want. When I checked this morning, I found the following were the top five requests:

1. Pre-Installed Linux | Ubuntu | Fedora | OpenSUSE | Multi-Boot

2. Pre-Installed OpenOffice | alternative to MS Works & MS Office


4. linux laptop

5. No OS Preloaded

Which makes it pretty clear that the old argument about OSS software not being available on new systems because there's no demand for it is entirely bogus.

11:54 - Someone asked me about AMD's new Athlon 64 X2 6000+. Short answer: don't bother. This is a stopgap processor for AMD, until they can get their 65 nm line rolled out. The 6000+ is a 90 nm part that consumes 125W, runs loud and hot, and is beaten in performance across the board by less expensive Intel Core 2 Duo processors.

It's funny to read the reviews from sites who obviously want to find something nice to say about the 6000+. Presumably they're afraid that if they review it honestly AMD won't send them any more samples. Everyone seems to be comparing the Athlon 64 X2 6000+ to the Core 2 Duo E6700, probably because they are both priced at about $500. But the E6700 simply blows the doors off the 6000+. A better comparison would have been with the $300 E6600, which still beats the 6000+ in most benchmarks, but at least not as badly as the E6700 does.

If AMD had priced the 6000+ in the $275 range, it would have been a competitive processor. At nearly twice that, it's not even in the ballpark.


Wednesday, 21 February 2007
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09:20 - I'm hard at work on the astronomy book, so postings here are going to be kind of sparse for a while. Until I complete the astronomy book, I'll work five days a week on it, and do some work on weekends on the home chem lab book. I also need to think about my next project, which may or may not be another book.

Computer books seem to be a dying category. One of my contacts tells me that Barnes and Noble stores now devote less than 20% of the floor space to computer books that they did five years ago, and five or ten years from now it's not unlikely that they'll have reduced floor space for computer books to almost nothing.

There are many factors contributing to this trend, but the Internet is certainly the major one. People who would formerly have bought a computer book now just look up the information they need on Google. The effect on computer book sales has been dramatic. People who used to buy half a dozen or a dozen computer books a year now buy one or two, if that. Many authors who used to do well writing computer books have moved on to other things, because they're now unable to earn a living writing computer books.

And it's not just computer books. Non-fiction book publishing in general is under the gun, and even fiction publishers are starting to feel the bite. People are reading fewer books nowadays, both those books that are for enjoyment and those for practical purposes such as learning about computers. Magazines and newspapers are hurting badly, with an increasing percentage of their readership (and advertising revenue) being claimed by web sites. Many smaller towns and even some not-so-small ones no longer have a daily newspaper, and most magazines are a pale shadow of what they once were, both in size and circulation.

I suspect that printed books will become increasingly rare over the coming years, replaced mostly by electronic books. It costs a lot of money to produce, print, and distribute a printed book, not to mention dealing with the inevitable returns. As the average sales per title continue to fall, I think it's likely that at some point it will become very unusual for a book to appear in printed form. Eventually, only novels from the top authors will be printed. Bookstores will disappear, and you'll have to buy your printed books at Wal*Mart.

By then, most people will have a book reader, which will probably be a device about the size and shape of a paperback book, with a high-resolution color LCD screen, wireless connectivity, a small keyboard for entering search strings and so on, and enough storage to contain 10,000 or more full books, including graphics and images. A typical book reader will also store a lot of movies and music, of course.

Given that DRM does not and cannot work, we authors will have to get used to being paid by only a tiny percentage of our readers. Payment will become essentially voluntary, and we'll have to hope that enough readers realize that it's in their own best interest to pay for material they can download for free. I'd guess that perhaps 1% of them will pay voluntarily. (About 1% of the readers of this journal voluntarily subscribe.)

Although 1% sounds like a small number, it's not necessarily catastrophic for authors. For example, if I publish an e-book that is downloaded by 1,000,000 people of whom 1% pay, that translates to 10,000 buyers. If each of those buyers sends me $5, that's $50,000 in revenue for that book. If, say, Pournelle and Niven e-publish a new novel that's downloaded by 10,000,000 readers, they stand to recoup $500,000 from their book.

Of course, for many authors the numbers will be smaller. A new mystery novel by a mid-list author may get only 250,000 downloads and generate only $12,500 in revenue. Conversely, a very specialized e-book targeted at a small niche market may be downloaded only 10,000 times, but get 50% voluntary payments at $20 each for $100,000 in revenue.

This new model disintermediates publishers entirely, of course, but it opens new opportunities for authors. Most authors will be horrified at the thought of only 1% of their readers actually paying them for the privilege, with 99% freeloading. That's certainly one way to look at it.

Another way is to look at the expected value of each copy. Using my example of 1,000,000 copies and $50,000 in revenue, that means that every copy that is distributed by whatever means is worth $0.05 to me. I just have to get used to the fact that most of my readers won't be paying me, and hope that the number who do pay me will suffice.


Thursday, 22 February 2007
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09:40 - I'm spending some time this morning cleaning out my inbox. It had gotten up to more than 60 messages, all of which require some action, if only a quick reply. Most of them are administrative stuff from O'Reilly, requests for me to do interviews, and so on. Some are new or renewal subscriptions, for which I thank you and apologize for taking so long to process. Quite a few are comments on what I wrote yesterday, like this one.

From: Jan Swijsen
  To: Robert Thompson
Date: 21 February 2007 17:05:38

> I just have to get used to the fact that most of my readers won't
> be paying me, and hope that the number who do pay me will suffice.

On the other hand foreign readers will get new books easier. None of your books are found in the book stores around here. For a start 90% of books, even computer books, sold here are translation, only very successful books or books from famous authors or highly trend following books are available in the original language. Sure one can order a specific book but then the cost rise considerably (50 to 100%) so why do that when another one is available.

If your books become available on line I might well download one (or more). And a payment of 5€ would be forthcoming. 5€ would be about 10% of the normal price I would have to pay to get one of your books here.

Kind regards   
Sjon Svenson

That's interesting. Our books have been translated into numerous languages, including French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and several I don't recognize. For major markets, we get half or less our usual royalty rate on sales of translated editions. For minor markets, O'Reilly sells the translation rights for a lump sum and splits the proceeds 50/50 with us. That usually amounts to pocket change. Our share is often under $50, and the largest payment I remember getting was something like $250.

I'm currently exploring the details of PDF publishing. I can produce PDFs directly from the OOo word processor, which I think have all the features I need. For obvious reasons, I need to lock up the PDF to forbid modification of the original text and images. Otherwise, I want the PDF to grant the user all functionality, including copying and printing text, and so on. I'm not a hypocrite, so there will be no DRM whatsoever, although I plan to stamp each purchased copy with the purchaser's name on the title page, with a note that explains to others who have a copy of that PDF how to buy their own copy.

I need to do some thinking about formatting, fonts, and so on. Reading most PDFs on screen is annoying. You scroll down the page as you read the left column and then have to scroll back up the page to read the top of the right column. There's lots of wasted motion, kind of like reading a typical blog. The obvious solution to that problem is to format the PDF landscape, so that one entire page of the PDF fits on the screen without scrolling. Of course, that raises issues about aspect ratios, both of the screen itself--4:3 or 16:9?--but of the effective aspect ratio if the reader is not displaying the PDF full screen.

I'll also be looking into payment methods. I'm convinced that the reason more people don't pay for freely distributable electronic books has nothing to do with readers not wanting to pay the few bucks the author is asking. It's more likely that it's just too much trouble to get the money to the author. If I make it easy to pay, I believe the percentage of readers who will pay may be double or more what it would be otherwise.

For example, if I find an electronic book I want on an author's web site and that author asks me to send a check for $5, I'm probably not going to bother. It's too much hassle to get the checkbook from Barbara, write a check and mail it to him, and then wait to get the book. On the other hand, if he has a PayPal link, I'll click on it to send him the $5 and download the book immediately.

Similarly, if I find that book on a torrent and download it, I'm probably not going to bother sending him a check if that's the only payment option. But if that "illegal" copy has a PayPal link embedded in it, I'll click on it and send the guy his five bucks or whatever.

For that matter, I'll probably put up a "conscience jar" on the web site for the book. I wonder why so few musicians who publish their own CDs do that. Barbara buys a lot of CDs directly from the musicians, and every time I visit one of their web sites I look for such a link. I seldom find one. All they need to do is put up a simple link that says if you've downloaded one of our CDs and not paid for it, please click here to send us a few bucks via PayPal.


Friday, 23 February 2007
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10:03 - In the wake of a $1.52 billion judgment against it, Microsoft is probably reconsidering its support for software patents. The judgment is absurd, of course. Microsoft had already paid a $16 million licensing fee to Fraunhofer, the recognized owner of the MP3 patents, which were based on work done by Fraunhofer and Bell Labs. Microsoft thought, reasonably enough, that it had complied with all licensing requirements, and yet it still ended up on the wrong end of a $1.52 billion judgment. What's wrong with this picture?

Of course, it's hard to have any sympathy for Microsoft, which continues to wield its patent portfolio as a club against Linux and other OSS. Just this week, Ballmer has been muttering about Linux violating Microsoft patents, although of course he refuses to say which patents those might be. He might have learned a lesson from the fiasco SCO faces after making similar unfounded threats, but apparently Ballmer is a slow learner.

Perhaps Microsoft will come to its senses and throw its significant lobbying clout into the battle against software patents. Surely Microsoft must have realized by now that software patents benefit no one other than patent trolls. Microsoft has already been the victim of patent trolls to the tune of billions of dollars. How many more billions will it have to pay before it realizes that software patents are a bad idea, period?


Saturday, 24 February 2007
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Sunday, 25 February 2007
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