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Week of 30 May 2011

Latest Update: Sunday, 5 June 2011 12:03 -0400

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Monday, 30 May 2011
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10:03 - It's Memorial Day here in the U.S., the day set aside to remember those who sacrificed themselves to protect our freedom. Although the official purpose of Memorial Day is to remember those who gave their lives in the service of our country, let's also remember all of those brave men and women, living and dead, who through the years have put their lives on the line to protect all of us. As we have our cookouts and family get-togethers today, let's all take a moment to think about our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, who can't be with their families. And let's have a thought, not just today but every day of the year, for them and the sacrifices they are making and have made.

From Nick Scipio's page, a solemn reminder of the price our men and women in uniform stand willing to pay to protect all of us.


Tuesday, 31 May 2011
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09:10 - I see that Brian Bilbrey has gone over to the dark side, converting his journal page to one of these new-fangled "blog" things. I discovered that yesterday when Barbara shouted, "Brian has a new page!" I didn't understand why she was so emphatic. Of course Brian had a new page; it was Monday. There's also been some discussion on Pournelle's back-channel mailing list about Jerry migrating from his static pages to a CMS, so I'm feeling increasingly isolated.

I don't know if my journal was the first-ever blog that remains active, but I do have some claim to that distinction. In its present form, my journal dates back only 13 years, to mid-1998. Before then, starting in February of 1995, I maintained my journal as a separate set of articles, which I posted several times a week to a web server located in our home and connected to the Internet via a nailed-up dial-up connection. (It's true; I made phone calls that lasted literally months or years at a time.) I even had my own C-block of IP addresses.

Those earlier journal entries may be lost now, although I may have copies in my archives. But even those weren't my earliest journal entries. Before I registered this domain, I had a BBS, originally single-line and later with several telephone lines. I also posted journal entries to that BBS, beginning (IIRC) around 1988, soon after we moved into our present home. At some point, a few years before I brought up a live web server, I'd set up a gateway from my BBS to the Internet. (I suspect I'm one of the few people who's actually "finished" the Web. Back then, at one point, I had visited every web site then available on the Internet. All twelve of them.) So, one way or another, I've been "blogging" for nearly 25 years now. If that doesn't make me the longest-running current blog, I'm not sure who is.

I suppose it's time for me to join the 21st century and start running a CMS. Brian tells me that Dreamhost's one-click setup really is pretty much one-click, so it's not a question of difficulty. It's more inertia and regret of the loss of an old way of doing things. I guess I'm either a leader or a laggard when it comes to adopting new technology. On the one hand, we've had a home network and a full-time Internet connection for 20 years; on the other, we didn't buy our first HDTV until most people already had one. So, new stuff is either very easy for me or very hard.

Don't be surprised if sometime in the next few days or weeks this page is replaced by a WordPress page.

As usual, Pat Condell nails it.

Let's Blame the Jews

11:29 - More from Gary...

From: Gary Mugford
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Tue May 31 10:44:06 2011
  Re: Change


Change is inevitable, but please hold back as long as possible before succumbing to Wordpress or the ilk. I can't think of a time where your blog was NOT available. There might have been outages, but never when I wanted to read your writings. I can't say the same for any of the major blogging sites/systems. I acknowledge that there HAS been change here. I first started reading because you raged against the Windows machine and you wrote about dogs. I never did make the linux leap (although I have a couple of VM's running ubuntu on the latest box). And my choice of dogs ran more to dachsunds than collies, but I love your straightforward truthfullness about computers and hardware. And a 'dog lover' is just another way of saying a better class of human.

As your interests and professional work turned away from the subjects I was most interested in, I kept coming back. Enough dog stories and you made even chemistry (one of my lesser enjoyments in school) almost entertaining. A feat of good writing. So, I will remain a reader whatever the format.

But can you hold off a little while longer. I don't have much longer than say 40 years to live.


NOTE: As for the retort on my Big Six email ... Didn't say it was THE reason Hocking signed, but it's been widely reported as a major factor. I did mention a time span to allow things like high-cost leases to wind down and for Big Six to become less centralized in their new form factors. And if you take rent, printing costs and useless middle management layers out of the mix, what remains are professionals who are still needed. The coming flood of crap will re-inforce Sturgeon's Law. And make it more difficult for people to find the pearls. One of the phrases in reviews I will most look for will be, "Well-edited. Add 'few typos.' After that, I will adjudge the reviews of the content. Life is too short to become a slush-pile reader.
*Gary M. Mugford*
Brampton, Ontario Canada
Mug Shots Blog: http://mugfordmugshots.blogspot.com
(Updated Semi-Regularly)

Thanks for the kind words.

Alas, I've already installed WordPress on my Dreamhost account, although I can't yet get to it because my nameservers are still pointed to zidane. I don't think you need worry much about the site being inaccessible. Like zidane, my new server is located in a facility that's redundant out the wazoo.

As to the Big Six, I don't doubt that many of the skilled editors and other professionals will continue doing what they're doing. It's just that they'll do it as independents, or perhaps as small groups offering a range of services. But the Big Six itself will cease to exist in any meaningful form.

I think you underestimate the power of crowd-sourced gatekeeping. We're still in early days yet in self-publishing, and there's certainly a lot of crap up for sale on Amazon and B&N. But even now, the crap is starting to sink to the bottom, and that trend will continue and accelerate. Unfortunately, there are a whole lot more people who think they are or can be writers than can actually write. Those wannabees will fall by the way. ("The cowards never started, and the weaklings died along the way...") Certainly, there'll always be a new crop of wannabees coming along, but the market will sort out the small fraction who are actually writers.

My guess is that things will stabilize with some small multiple of the current number of writers who make a living at it. That multiple may be ten or thereabouts. That is, for every writer who was making a living in print, we may end up with ten making a living in ebooks. There'll be superstars, just as there are in print, but the difference is that we'll again have a robust midlist, which we no longer have in print.

Could I become one of those? Almost certainly yes. I've even laid out how I'd pursue becoming a novelist, and not many of the wannabees are following that course. The first thing I'd do is write half a dozen good full-length novels before I self-published anything. All of them would be in one series, and I'd publish them all at the same time to get myself a jump start and let them feed off each other. I'd price the first in the series at $0.99, with the remainder at $2.99, assuming that Amazon keeps the minimum at $2.99 for the 70% royalty rate. If they dropped it to, say, $1.99, I'd price the rest of the series at that level, because that's about what just the story is worth. I'd publish them all without DRM. I wouldn't spend any time at all promoting them, other that perhaps incidentally on my journal page. I'd spend all my available time writing more books.

And, unlike many of the current self-publishers, who are disappointed when their one title is earning them only $1,000 per month (or whatever), I'd be delighted if my titles could average that. Ten titles averaging that earns me $10,000 per month. Thirty titles earns me $30,000 per month. Amateurs are always looking for (and expecting) a home run. Professionals don't expect home runs. They're satisfied with hitting a boatload of singles. If they hit a home run occasionally, that's wonderful. But they don't depend on that happening.

But the chances of me becoming a novelist any time in the near future are pretty remote. I have more than enough on my plate right now. Perhaps in five years I'll do it. Unlike a lot of the self-pub advocates, I don't really believe this is a gold rush in the sense that those who don't get in early won't be able to get in at all. There'll always be a market for good fiction, and there'll always be new writers joining the established ones. I am arrogant, no doubt, in thinking that I could write first-rate fiction without ever having attempted it, but I think I could do that any time I decided to try. It'd take me a year or two, but that's all it would take.

When we brought Colin home, we blocked off much of my office. It keeps Colin from getting to my microscopy station or my work table, but the problem is that it also keeps me from getting to them. The biology lab book will include several hundred photomicrographs, which I intend to start shooting soon. (Right now, the text just has placeholders such as "insert 1000X image of Gram Positive and Gram Negative bacteria here.") Shooting decent photomicrographs is surprisingly non-trivial. For the forensics book, I often shot 20 or 30 images to get one I considered usable. So there's a lot of work to be done, and I need access to my microscope to do it.

I just sat Colin down and had a heart-to-heart chat with him, telling him that I expected him to leave my stuff alone. I'll soon unblock the microscopy station and work table and see how well my lecture worked.


Wednesday, 1 June 2011
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08:08 - Then again, maybe not. The overwhelming consensus among readers I've heard from is to stay with static pages rather than migrate to WordPress. Never let it be said that I don't listen to my readers, particularly when their opinions confirm my own prejudice. So, for the foreseeable future, I've decided to stick with static pages for my journal.

It's been at least a decade since I made any significant change to the layout of this page. At that time, I sat down to design a page that looked clean, loaded fast, and was easy to navigate. Looking at it now, I see no reason to make any significant changes, so I'll just stick with what I have.

One change I did have to make is removing the search box from the top right of the page. That search depends on a script running on zidane that won't be available once this sites migrates to the new server. I suppose I could get that script working on the new server, but it's of such limited use that it's not worth the trouble. I seldom use it myself. Google is a much better way to search this site.

09:43 - Hmmm. I just moved the baby gate that protects my work table area. I have a bunch of kit inventory stacked under that table, which I intended to move to the work room temporarily. In the time it took me to get to the work room, open the door, and return to my office across the hall, Colin had already discovered the new treasure trove. I found him dragging a case of 24 100 mL graduated cylinders across my office floor, and a case of 24 250 mL beakers partially dragged out from under the table. He may be planning to set up his own lab. Perhaps I should send Colin over to Paul Jones's university lab and get him to drag a GC/MS and Rotovap home for me.


Thursday, 2 June 2011
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08:18 - Amazon tries to stomp all over the nook 2 announcement by putting 600 books on sale at prices from $0.99 to $2.99.

With the nook 2, B&N has finally reached parity with the Kindle 3, and Amazon doesn't like it much. The nook 2 and Kindle 3 might as well be clones. They use the same technology and are made by the same company. Both have access to a huge selection of books, which sell for about the same prices.

About the only remaining major differentiator is format support. With Kindle 3, you get .azw and .mobi support; with nook 2, you get epub. And speculation is that Amazon will soon announce epub support for Kindle, presumably to allow library lending, which Amazon has announced will be available on Kindle later this year.

Adding epub support gives Amazon one strong competitive advantage; Kindle will be able to read books purchased just about anywhere, while the nook 2 still won't be able to read books purchased from Amazon, at least if they're in .azw format. That by itself is enough to hurt B&N badly. Why buy a nook 2, when you can buy a universal ebook reader from Amazon? Or at least that's how Amazon will probably market their ereaders.

In reality, it's not quite that simple, at least for most people. Yes, the Kindle 3 will be able to read epub books, but getting an epub book purchased from B&N or another source onto the Kindle won't be trivial. You won't be able to sync your Kindle to the B&N store, so you'll need to do a USB transfer. For epub books with DRM, which is still most of them, just getting the book onto your Kindle won't be enough; you'll need to authorize the Kindle, which will involve firing up the Adobe software and processing the ebook to enable it to be read on the Kindle.

In effect, all this will do is encourage so-called piracy. Why screw around with all this authorization crap, when it's so easy to download a cracked copy of whatever book you want? If Amazon and B&N think this won't happen on a large scale because it didn't happen with DVDs, they're wrong. DVDs are 4,400 MB and awkward to transfer; a typical ebook is less than a megabyte. Ebook trading more resembles MP3 trading. And most people who own an ereader will have friends who give them all the cracked ebooks they could possibly want, just as everyone trades MP3 music files.

It's in Amazon's long-term best interests to avoid customer lock-in. If ebooks are cheap and easy to buy, people will buy them; otherwise, they'll simply download them for free. Amazon should introduce epub support across its entire line of Kindles and phase out .mobi/.azw files. Furthermore, Amazon should come to an arrangement with B&N whereby the Amazon store syncs ebooks purchased at Amazon to nook readers and B&N syncs ebooks purchased at B&N to Kindles.

They probably won't do that, at least for a few years, because Amazon dreams of doing with ebooks what Apple did with music, grabbing a monopoly share of the paid-for market. That's not going to happen. The world has moved on. The Kindle is dominant, but it doesn't have the monopoly position in ereaders that Apple managed to grab in portable music players. Amazon may have 75% market share for ereaders right now, but that share is eroding and will continue to do so.

Meanwhile, most readers want to do the right thing. They want to buy their ebooks rather than download them for free, not because they're altruistic or want to support the authors or fear being arrested for "piracy", but because it's just easier to pay $0.99 and have the book you want a few seconds later rather than deal with torrents, reformatting, and so on. But they also want to be able to read those ebooks on their choice of ereader. If the husband has a Kindle and the wife a nook, or vice versa, it's simply insane to expect them to buy a book twice just to be able to read it on both devices. Amazon and B&N need to step up and address this problem, or they'll lose control. It's as simple as that.

09:31 - It occurs to me that whenever I've posted images of my lab, it's always right after I cleaned it up. So, in the interest of full disclosure, here's what a working lab looks like, at least my working lab. The usual reason for cleaning up is that I've run out of either horizontal surfaces or labware. I have a lot of labware--for example, that brown box on top of the stool is a case of twelve 500 mL beakers, and there are two more cases of those in one of the cabinets--so it's usually the horizontal surface problem that mandates cleanups.

Barbara went to dinner the other night with two friends whom she used to work with at the library. One of them lives a mile or so from us, not in our neighborhood, but just on the edge of it. She told Barbara that they'd been burgled that day. She and her husband are retired, and he's usually around the house all day. That day, he happened to be out. When he returned, he was puzzled at the black Cadillac parked in their driveway. It turns out their house was in the process of being burgled, and the car roared away before he could get the license number. There have been some other burglaries in our vicinity recently, probably a result of the economy.

I told Barbara I'd keep my G3 assault rifle switched to rock-and-roll and if I spotted a black Cadillac I'd hose it down. It's amazing what 30 rounds (well, actually, I load mags to 28 rounds) of 7.62mm NATO blue-tips (incendiary) can do to a standard automobile.

13:37 - Ah, my mistake. Amazon's two-week sale on 600+ titles may have little or nothing to do with the nook 2, other than collateral damage. Instead, it's apparently Amazon offering publishers an organized opportunity to test lower prices on their books. Unsurprisingly, there are few or no titles from the Big Six among the sale items.

Earlier today, an unnamed Big Six representative commented on the ebook phenomenon: "I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow." Or maybe that was Scarlette O'Hara.


Friday, 3 June 2011
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08:54 - Bizarre stuff in the newspaper this morning. First, a reader sent in a question about first cousins marrying. As it turns out, only 25 states, including North Carolina, permit first cousins to marry, and some of those that do enforce some restrictions. North Carolina, for example, forbids "double first cousins" from marrying.

These restrictions are artifacts of early religious laws against "incest", which is an arbitrary and meaningless term in the way the bible defines it. Biologically, incest is defined as sex between people who are closely related genetically. The bible forbids sex between some categories of biologically-unrelated persons, while allowing it between people who are closely related biologically. (Whom do you think Adam's and Eve's children married?)

Genetically, the risk of first cousins marrying and having children is pretty minor, about the same as two unrelated people having a child if the woman is age 35 or more. But 25 states prohibit such marriages, primarily on biblical grounds, and even many of those that do permit it enforce severe restrictions, such as requiring that the woman be incapable of bearing children.

But the really bizarre thing was an obituary Barbara noticed. It was for a 22-week-old fetus. That's not a death, it's a miscarriage. Apparently, our newspaper will accept obituary notices from anyone willing to pay for them. No death certificate required. I'm sure the family was devastated, and they have my sympathy. But an obituary notice? Oh, well. I suppose it's a minor thing if it helps them deal with the loss. I'm just suspicious of attempts to define fetuses as people. They're not, any more than an acorn is an oak tree.

Speaking of Adam and Eve, Jerry Coyne has a good post about the irrefutable scientific evidence that Adam and Eve never existed. It blows the fundies out of the water. We Gnus love it when fundies make falsifiable statements like this.

11:47 - Well, economists were waiting for the other shoe to drop. The May jobs report is now out, and it's not just bad but catastrophically bad. Only 54,000 jobs created in May, less than a quarter of the 232,000 jobs created in April, which itself was only a small fraction of what was needed. Few people can admit even to themselves that all of those jobs that have been lost over the last few years aren't coming back, ever. We're looking at structural unemployment on a massive scale.

Yet another piece of horrible economic news in a month that's been filled with horrible economic news. One would think that even politicians would notice that we're in deep, deep shit, but even the so-called fiscal conservatives are proposing nothing more than band-aid solutions. They propose trivial reductions in the rate of increase in spending over the course of a decade or more, when what they need to do is take a meat-axe to current spending. Even cutting actual current federal spending by 50% overnight would be insufficient, and the chances of that happening are nil.

The ball is getting ready to drop in Europe, with Greece teetering on the edge of outright default. Once that happens, the dominoes start toppling, Europe goes, and we're in for a very rough ride. Worldwide depression, and there's apparently nothing that can be done to stop it. People will long for the days of that minor economic downturn a couple years ago.

If there's any cheerful news, it's that the US and Canada are best placed to recover from this mess, although that recovery will be long and painful. I'd really hate to be European right now, let alone a citizen of the third world. This is going to get really ugly.


Saturday, 4 June 2011
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09:44 - The media circus was in town yesterday for the Edwards hearing at the federal courthouse. Barbara tells me that downtown was a mess, with media vans all over the place and news helicopters hovering. Apparently, the activity even spilled over to her law firm, with some of their conference rooms being used for related activities. The morning paper says that, if he is convicted on all counts, Edwards could be sentenced to 30 years in prison.

If he's found guilty, I hope the judge sentences him to the full term, without parole, and sends him to the Black Hole of Calcutta. Politicians should be held to a higher standard than the rest of us. They (supposedly) represent us, and a betrayal of that trust is inexcusable. As a matter of fact, I'd like to see politicians who lie to voters or accept money or other benefits from lobbyists or PACs sentenced to a life term. Well, I'd actually prefer to see them hanged, but that's not gonna happen. Unfortunately.

Colin continues to grow. He's not four months old yet, but he's starting to look more like a dog than a puppy. His legs are long, as is his body. He looks kind of like a border dachshund on stilts. His puppy yap is now a deep and full-throated bark. When he barked yesterday at the UPS truck, he sounded like a large, protective dog rather than a puppy. When he reaches full size, I expect his bark to be even louder, deeper, and more intimidating.

We don't have a scale in the house, but I'd guess he's up to 30+ pounds (~14 kilos) by now. He was 27.5 pounds at the vet two or three weeks ago. When he reaches full size, I expect he'll be in the 65 pound (~ 30 kilo) range. That's still what I consider a small dog, but it's large enough to intimidate, say, burglars driving around in black Cadillacs.

Most of our domains are on Dreamhost now. Greg moved the science domains over from zidane yesterday. (Thanks, Greg!) The only two that remain, ttgnet.com and hardwareguys.com, are more complicated. Both are using the Ikonboard forum software. Ikonboard is dead, so Greg is moving the forums for those two domains to phpBB forum software, which requires him to write a translator. I'm not sure when those domains will be migrated, possibly this weekend, but when they do you'll need to log back in and re-enter your password. I expect Greg will shut down the old forums before he migrates them, so the process should be pretty transparent.


Sunday, 5 June 2011
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08:59 - All of our domains are migrated to Dreamhost, and I'm dealing with the inevitable minor glitches. Sorry about everything after Monday disappearing yesterday. I'd manually copied this page to the new server on Monday, but not since. Everything should be back to normal now.

The ttgnet.com and hardwareguys.com forums are now on the new host, but they're still running on Ikonboard rather than phpBB. Greg is in the process of buying a new house, and just ran out of time. He expects to get those forums migrated over to phpBB sometime in the next month or so.

12:03 - My mail is borked. When I attempt to POP new mail from the new server, sometimes the mail downloads and other times I get an authentication failure message. Sometimes I can access my webmail, and other times I get an authentication failure. Greg speculates that the problems may have something to do with DNS propagation. I hope so. If so, the problems should clear up over the next day or so.

There's a huge amount of angst on the indie author forums about Amazon's Kindle Sunshine Deals, which is currently discounting about 650 trad published books to the $0.99 to $2.99 level. Many of those titles are now in the Top 100, bumping most indie authors down several pegs. Many indie authors fear their books will disappear into the great Long Tail, never to be seen again.

The reality is that visibility on Amazon Top 100 lists and so on is a factor in sales volume, but not nearly as much as factor as these authors seem to fear. What really sells books on an ongoing basis is word of mouth. In the long run, being on a Top 100 list is a very temporary thing. Sustained sales originate largely from personal recommendations by friends and from readers who liked one book by an author buying that author's other books. So, many indie authors seem to expect overnight success without ever considering what's made other authors successful.

The main problem that most of these fearful authors have--assuming that they can actually write in the first place, which is by no means always true--is that their backlists are much too small. Some have only one or two books published, and often one or both of these is a novella or even a short story. They can't reasonably complain about low sales when they don't have much to offer readers. It's as though someone learned to hit a forehand, kind of, attempted to join the pro tennis tour, and was surprised when he never made it past the qualifying round. They never seem to consider that their complete lack of a backhand, serve, or volley might have something to do with the problem.


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