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Week of 9 May 2011

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Monday, 9 May 2011
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08:39 - With my Kindle TBR pile growing by leaps and bounds, I've gotten more selective about which books to buy. I didn't realize just how much more selective until yesterday, when I came across this title on sale, discounted from the regular $15 price.

Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project [Kindle Edition] $0.05

I hesitated before clicking the Buy button. Not because of the price, obviously. Because I wasn't sure that I'd ever have time to read it. A second or two later, I came to my senses, realizing that even if I never did have time to read it, it was obviously worth 5 cents to have it in my TBR pile. One thing is sure. Never again will I find myself wandering around the house looking for something interesting to read.

Here's Barbara in her Chevy HHR crossover. When I first showed her the images on the credit union car buying service website, she didn't like it. She said it looked like a hearse, which it kind of does. When I was growing up, we'd have called it a station wagon, albeit one with some ground clearance. As a matter of fact, years ago I remember seeing a ad for a used hearse that described the vehicle as a "Cadillac station wagon".

Barbara in Chevy HHR

At the lot, I convinced her to sit in it and give it a test drive. She quickly decided it was exactly what she wanted. Although it's described as a compact, it's actually nearly as long and wide as her Trooper, and only about 8" (20 cm) shorter. The rear seats and the front passenger seat fold down, and there's plenty of room to haul stuff. Despite the 4-cylinder engine, it has better acceleration than the Trooper, and it handles better. It gets nearly twice the gas mileage of the Trooper. She's happy, so I'm happy.

Here's Colin at 12 weeks old. He is growing. Every time we get a puppy, I tell Barbara I'm afraid we're going to end up with a miniature Border Collie. Every time, somehow, they end up growing into full-size Border Collies, so I'm sure Colin will as well.

Colin 12 weeks

11:03 - Like many other working authors, I'm amused by many of the posts from newbie/wannabe authors on Joe Konrath's blog and other self-publishing forums. I am reminded of Buffy: "Your logic does not resemble our Earth logic."

For example, I read a post the other day on Konrath's blog by a guy who had self-pubbed his first book. He'd spent $650 on having a professional cover done, as well as editing and formatting work. He complained that he'd sold a total of only seven copies to date, and concluded that self-publishing is a losing proposition. So I went over and looked at his title on Amazon. It had been published three days prior. Geez. This guy brings new meaning to the phrase "unrealistic expectations".

Then there was the moron who complained that he's written four books and gotten no sales. What a waste of time, he said. He'd spent four hundred hours writing those four books. One hundred hours per book, all of it wasted, says he. Can you imagine how bad those "books" are? A skilled and experienced author, one who's a very fast writer, can easily spend 400 hours writing one book. Put it this way: an experienced workaholic fiction author may spend 2,000 hours per year actually at the keyboard, writing, plus a lot more time doing non-writing stuff. In that amount of time, an averagely fast author can turn out maybe three books. Call it 700 hours per book. A very fast author can turn out four or five books in that 2,000 hours, at 400 to 500 hours per book. And this moron thinks he's written four books in 400 hours.


Tuesday, 10 May 2011
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08:00 - Mention over on the forums of the not-yet-available library lending function for Kindle got me to thinking. That is really going to distort the relative popularities of authors, as the Nook library function is doing now. Ebook library lending works pretty much the same way that traditional book lending does, except that you don't have to go to the library to pick up the book and you don't have to return it.

That in itself has an unintended consequence. Many heavy readers visit the library weekly or more often, and most of them seldom keep a book for the full term of the loan. Because ebooks aren't returned, by definition they remain checked out for the duration of the loan period, which in most public libraries is two or three weeks. A very popular new print title might for the first several months turn over once a week, which means libraries will need to purchase twice as many ebook copies of that title as they do print copies. Either that, or people will be waiting a long, long time.

Also, as far as I know, there's no rental program for ebook titles as there is for print book titles. The way it works for print is that a library may decide to buy two copies of a book they expect to be very popular, knowing that that's nowhere near enough copies to satisfy demand. So they rent another 50 copies, which they're free to keep for as long as they wish. After the first few weeks, they may return 25 of the 50 rented print copies, and then another 10 a month or two later, and the remainder a month or two after that, leaving them with only the two copies they actually purchased. By that time, those two copies are sufficient to meet demand.

The library pays a fixed monthly price to the rental company, which allows them to have X number of rented books simultaneously, much like Netflix. When demand dies down for one title, they ship a bunch of copies of it back to the rental company and replace them with another popular new title. Rentals allow the library to match demand to supply. Without such a service for ebooks, the library has the choice of buying many too many copies originally or buying only the number they want to keep permanently and having patrons waiting months to get the title.

The upshot of all this is that I think many readers will opt to buy reasonably-priced titles rather than waiting to borrow them from the library. If I want to read the latest Follett or Patterson, there's no way I'm going to pay $15 or $20 for the ebook. I'll just wait a few months until it's available to borrow at the library. Of course, many people will simply visit Pirate Bay and download it for free. Conversely, if I want the latest J. A. Konrath, there's no way I'm going to wait even days, let alone weeks or months, for a library copy to become available. It's selling for $0.99 or $2.99, for heaven's sake. Why wait?

And if that does happen, library circulation statistics will be completely distorted. The libraries may believe that the $15 Patterson title is much more popular than the $3 Konrath title, when in fact twice as many people read the Konrath, nearly all of whom bought it for themselves.

Of course, there's no reason a public library has to be a physical building run by a local government. We may yet see "public libraries" that are actually just websites that subscribe to Overdrive and rent popular titles over the net. Kind of like Netflix for books. One thing is sure. Public libraries won't survive in their present form. Heavy readers, who make up the bulk of library borrowers, have already shifted to ebooks in a big way. Soon, it will become blindingly obvious to everyone that there's really no point to maintaining physical buildings full of physical books.

10:00 - Sometimes chemistry really is indistinguishable from cooking. I just made up a couple of liters of starch indicator in the kitchen. I brought about 1.5 liters of water to a boil in one of Barbara's pans. While I was doing that, I weighed out 20 grams of soluble starch and made up a slurry in cold water. As the water boiled, I slowly stirred the starch slurry into the boiling water, and then allowed the liquid to boil for five minutes or so with frequent stirring. I then took it off the heat and sprinkled in a few crystals of thymol to prevent growth of microorganisms. Barbara has a bottle of thyme in the cupboard, and I suppose I could have just added some of it to the liquid with much the same effect.


Wednesday, 11 May 2011
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08:55 - More bad news for the US Postal Service, which lost $2 billion for the first three months of this year, and saw mail volume decrease 3% for the quarter year on year. In even more bad news, Netflix, which probably accounts for at least half a billion first-class mail pieces a month, is well into its transition to streaming, and within a few years will probably no longer be a major USPS customer.

Even after cutting 130,000 jobs, labor costs continue to cripple the USPS. Raising postal rates isn't an option. Doing that will simply speed up the shift to alternatives. The day can't be far off when the unthinkable must happen. RFD is no longer sustainable, although eliminating deliveries to rural addresses will raise howls of protest. The postal unions have to go away, and salaries, current benefits, and retirement benefits must be cut dramatically, both for current employees and retired employees. Otherwise, there simply won't be anything left to fight over.

Then there's also the wasteful duplication of delivery services, which I noticed again yesterday. A USPS truck, a FedEx truck, and a UPS truck, all parked on our street at the same time. That's three vehicles and three employees all making deliveries to the same places at the same time. I'm all in favor of the free market and competition, but that's ridiculous. We need a "last-mile" delivery service that accepts mail and packages from USPS, FedEx, and UPS at central collection points and makes the actual neighborhood deliveries. USPS could end up being those central collection points and that last-mile delivery service.

Barbara is off to the supermarket, and preparing to leave tomorrow on a bus tour to Hilton Head with her parents. She'll be back Saturday, but it'll be wild women and parties for Colin and me while she's gone. Either that, or I may watch Firefly when I'm not working.

13:25 - Back from a Costco run and buying Barbara a new cannister vacuum cleaner. The old one died Sunday and at 11 years old wasn't worth fixing.

Sometimes I wonder what the Costco checkout people think of me. My first trip to Costco, I wheeled up a cart with 14 boxes of four 2-liter Cokes, or 112 liters total. The woman at the checkout asked if I was having a party. I told her, no, that I just liked Coke and always bought a week's supply at a time. Today, we had seven 2-packs of one-quart (0.95 L) bottles of hydrogen peroxide in our cart, for a total of 3.5 gallons (13+ L). They were $2.09 per 2-pack at Costco versus $3 per 2-pack for the identical product at Walgreens.

If you're wondering why I need 3.5 gallons of 3% hydrogen peroxide, the answer is that I really don't. Actually, it's useful for removing stains from puppy accidents in the carpeted downstairs area, but what I really wanted was those 1-quart brown HDPE bottles, which actually hold a liter. I was ready to order a bunch of one-liter HDPE bottles from one of my wholesalers, which sells packs of 6 for $10.22, or about $1.70 each, not counting shipping. Instead, I bought them at Costco for $1.05 each. I need about 50 of them, but I figured buying that many might get me a visit from the Heimatsicherheitshauptamt. After all, who'd buy that much hydrogen peroxide unless he was making acetone peroxide?


Thursday, 12 May 2011
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09:44 - Barbara left at 0400 this morning to pick up her friend Marcie and her parents and head for Level Cross, where they'll get on a tour bus and head for Hilton Head. Colin and I are bereft. I can tell Colin is bereft because he's chewing on something and keeps whimpering. As usual, Barbara just laughed when I mentioned my plan for wild women and parties.  She knows that I don't know any wild women and don't like parties. Fortunately, it's a short trip. She'll be back Saturday evening.

I've had a few emails asking about how to find free Kindle books. Obviously, one way is to go to the Amazon site and scroll through the Top 100 free ebooks, but it's easy to miss good stuff that way. Some free ebooks remain free for only a day or even a few hours, so signing up for a notification service is a better way to avoid missing good stuff. The one I use is Kindle Review, which posts lists of free book daily or more often. Just enter your email address in the box at the top left of the home page if you want email notifications. A lot of the featured books are from indie authors, but there are also a fair number from traditional publishers running promos. You probably won't find anything free from Patterson or Koontz or King or Rowling, but a lot of good midlist authors are represented.

Incidentally, if you're outside the US, check before you one-click order a title that's listed as free. Some of these titles aren't free outside the US. Amazon often adds a couple bucks or more to a book price in Europe, for example, to cover the cost of the "free" 3G delivery and presumably VAT and other charges. I actually had that happen to me, albeit for a very minor add-on charge. I ordered a book shown as $0.00, and when I got the email invoice from Amazon it was for $0.08 or something like that. That's happened only once in the couple hundred free books I've ordered.

With a few exceptions--books I know I want to read--I'm treating these free books as samples. When I have some time, I'll blast through a bunch of them, reading only the first few pages unless the book grabs me. I'll probably discard 9 of 10 or even 19 of 20, but I should be able to find at least a few new-to-me authors that I like. At that point, I'll order their other titles, assuming they're priced reasonably, $2.99 or under. In particular, I want to reward and encourage good new indie authors.


Friday, 13 May 2011
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09:41 - Friday the 13th falls on a Friday this month.

Paul Jones stopped over yesterday afternoon. His dad, who lives in Oklahoma, had been having computer problems and shipped the system to Paul. Paul built this system probably six years ago. (It has a Celeron D processor, so that seems about right.) We messed around with it for three hours or so, including doing my first install of Kubuntu 11.04, and discussing whether Paul's dad should just buy a new PC.

Paul finally left around 7:00. I made a quick microwave dinner, and as I was sitting there eating it the PC spontaneously rebooted. Ruh-roh. That could be power supply, memory, motherboard, or something else. It's just not worth the effort and cost to troubleshoot and repair a system this old. Even if we got it working reliably, some other component is likely to drop dead soon.

Barbara is due back tomorrow evening. Colin and I are anxiously awaiting her return. Even as a three-month-old puppy, it's obvious that he misses Barbara. He walks around the house whining and whimpering even more than usual. I haven't kept count, but I think yesterday was an all-time record for accidents, including one that occurred literally as I was cleaning up the preceding one. This after spotting the first one and rushing Colin outside in case he had more to do. We spent five or ten minutes sniffing around the yard and fanging the leash. I finally brought Colin back inside, started to clean up the accident, and watched him have another accident.

Fortunately, our floors upstairs are all hardwood and ceramic tile. A mop and Lysol are our constant companions these days.

Brian Jepson, my O'Reilly/MAKE editor, just sent me a sample layout for the biology lab book. It's very close to the home chemistry book layout. Unfortunately, they contracted out the work on that earlier book, so they had to reinvent the wheel to reproduce the look and feel. The chemistry book has a blue theme, which they also used for this one. I'm going to suggest we use a green theme, which seems appropriate for biology. This book will be two-color rather than four. The publishing industry is changing fast, and doing this book in four-color would have made it more expensive than we wanted. With two-color, we'll be able to keep the price low, making it accessible to more people.

We discussed doing a four-color insert in the same style sometimes used by older books, with a 16-page (or whatever) four-color central section bound in. As soon as I started work on the book, it became obvious that I'd have trouble staying within budgeted page count while still covering everthing I wanted to cover. I asked Brian if I could trade away the four-color insert in exchange for a higher page count, which he says we can do. That gives me some breathing space, but as usual it'll be, as Bob Seger said, what to leave in and what to leave out.

10:23 - The more I read about Newt Gingrich, the more I'm convinced that his name is appropriate. I mean, think about it. A newt is a small lizard-like creature that dumps his wife when she has cancer, remarries and then cheats on and dumps his new wife when someone younger comes along, and pretends to have a personal relationship with Jebus, whatever that means. Or so someone told me. Newt is indeed a newt. And a weasel of the first magnitude. Jerry Pournelle seems to admire this sleazy excuse for a human being. Why, I can't imagine. I suppose we can hope that this Newt will be eaten by an owl.

14:06 - Aha! The secret weapon I needed. Colin was a bit cranked up, pulling on the leg of my office chair, so I fired up Bach's Concerto for Violin in E Major. Colin immediately lay down behind me, and he's now squeaking his purple ball, I swear in tempo with the music.

Okay, a bit more experimentation. I just switched to the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction. Colin's ears went up and he ran out of the office and went on a tear. Hmmm. I'd try Louie, Louie, but I'm afraid he'd start fanging me.


Saturday, 14 May 2011
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09:11 - We had thunderstorms last night. When Colin and I went out this morning, there was a branch about 10 feet (3 meters) long and as thick as my arm lying in the neighbors' yard. Colin sniffed around for a minute before he noticed it. When he did, his ears went up and he yelled, "Look at the size of that stick!" He pulled his way over to it and fanged onto it, but soon realized that it was a bit large for a 25-pound (11 kilo) puppy to carry around in his mouth. So he settled for one of the smaller ones nearby.

Barbara is due back late this evening, and we're both looking forward to her return. As I expected, Colin has already started to transfer his affections to Barbara. He still likes me well enough, but it won't be all that much longer until Barbara is his human and I'm just someone who's also around.

Last night I watched a Ken Burns documentary about the first cross-country auto trip and then the 1964 movie Zulu, which is a fictionalized account of the British army's stand at Rourke's Drift. It's rife with historical inaccuracies, including many gratuitous changes, but nonetheless it nails the essence of what it must have been like to be there. I hadn't seen Zulu since 1964 or 1965, when my parents took my brother and me to see it at a drive-in theater.

There were many science and nature documentaries in our instant queue that I'd rather have watched, but I'm saving those to watch with Barbara. Which got me to thinking about what a wonderful resource Netflix is for home schoolers. There are hundreds if not thousands of excellent educational videos in their catalog, covering science and nature, history, geography, literature, music, and most other topics, at levels from elementary school to high school and beyond, and all for as little as $9 per month.

I also thought about some things that Netflix could do at little or no cost to improve its usefulness for home education. For example, adding the MIT lecture series to their streaming catalog, or even commissioning a comprehensive series of middle- and high-school lecture classes on various topics. Even without that, though, Netflix is a truly excellent resource for home schoolers. If I were home schooling, I'd integrate it into the curriculum.

15:50 - A few days ago, I mentioned Laura Nyro, whom I admired then and now, both as a person and for her music. Random play just turned up another one, whom I've mentioned before. Mariska Veres, best known as the lead singer of the Dutch rock band Shocking Blue, always reminded me of Grace Slick. Both were very attractive young women, and both had powerful voices. There were some minor differences, of course. Slick spent most of the 60's and 70's drunk, doped-up, and in bed with a succession of casual lovers. Veres didn't drink alcohol or use illegal drugs, and made it clear to everyone that she wasn't interested in having sex with band members, managers, and others who were a part of the rock scene. Like Nyro, Veres got started in music young--here she is performing at age 16--and died much too young. Veres is almost unknown to most Americans, with the exception of the immediately recognizable Venus.

Little did I realize when I was writing in the forensics lab book about alternate light sources how useful an ALS would be with Colin. With all the doors closed to keep him out of rooms that aren't puppy-safe, the hallway is a dark and foreboding place. One is never sure where it's safe to step. Even with bright white light, puddles are easy to miss on the hardwood floor unless you're at the correct angle to spot the reflection. But with an ALS, all is revealed. I'm wondering what would happen if I sprinkled a bit of luminol on his puppy food. Having accidents revealed as a dim blue glow might be useful.

Only a few more hours until Barbara gets home...


Sunday, 15 May 2011
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09:21 - Barbara arrived home last night to frantic barking, spinning around in circles, tail wagging, and slurps. Colin was also pretty excited.

I'll soon be migrating all of my domains to a new hosting service. For the last decade, I've been running everything on a co-hosted server--originally rocket, later zidane--managed by my friends Greg Lincoln and Brian Bilbrey. I've had basically a free ride for ten years now, paying only my share of the actual costs to rent the co-hosted server and nothing for Greg's and Brian's work to maintain that server. Greg and Brian are both much too busy to continue managing a server, so a couple weeks ago they let all of us who are on that server know that they planned to stop providing web hosting services. Brian has already migrated all of his own stuff to DreamHost, and I'll be joining him there.

I have a bunch of domains to migrate, with web sites, email, messageboards, mailing lists, and so on. I expect the process to be reasonably transparent, but there are obviously lots of opportunities for mistakes. If you encounter glitches here or on any of my other sites, please let me know. I'll get them fixed as soon as possible. At this point, I'm not sure when I'll make the transition. It could be as early as the next couple of days. I'll keep you posted.

Once again, thanks to Greg and Brian for what they've done over the last ten years. I don't thank them often enough.


Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 by Robert Bruce Thompson. All Rights Reserved.