30, 2006: Is Fructose the Problem?
I was down at Safeway earlier today, and I was reading labels on
sodas and bottled teas. It's no secret that they are loaded
with sugar, and almost all of that sugar is in the form of high-fructose
corn syrup (HFCS). I'm seeing more and more recognition that the
introduction of high-fructose corn syrup in the early 1980s corresponds
very closely with the beginning of the American obesity epidemic.
article provides a good summary.
So what's really going on? Is there something biologically evil
about corn syrup? As one source in the article suggests, the operative
problem with HFCS may simply be that it's just so cheap that it's
everywhere in huge quantities. However, some research also suggests
that the problem with HCFS may not be its origin in corn, but in
the nature of fructose itself. This
article suggests that there are all kinds of weird little downsides
to consuming sugar as fructose rather than sucrose or lactose. Our
high-stress lives may also contribute: The stress hormone cortisol
causes the liver to release glucose whether it's needed or not,
which controbutes to insulin fatique and makes us needlessly hungry.
Yes, I know, I've been on this box for a number of years, but it's
important. A fat calorie is not metabolized the same way a
sugar calorie is. We may well be eating too much of everything, but
it's becoming clearer all the time that the part of "everything"
that really seems to be killing us is sugar.
28, 2006: Titlez
I may eventually build a little Delphi app to go up and probe Amazon
every hour to bring down book rankings, but I went looking for ready-made
solutions last week, and found Titlez.
It's a Web-based solution, something like JungleScan,
which has not allowed me to enter new books for a long time and
is currently down completely. For the moment the service is free,
but it sounds like they intend to charge for it once it matures.
It's...ok. I doubt I would pay for it, since all the basic information
is available through Amazon's APIs, or right from their Web pages
if you'd just prefer to parse a block of HTML and look for the rankings.
And the data displays are not especially versatile, though it's
still early and the thing is shot full of bugs. I've scraped a GIF
of some of my own books and you can see it here.
Interestingly, my assembly book was already being tracked, but
my email book and SF novel were not. I was able to enter them, but
only have data on the graphs for the last several days. This actually
isn't entirely a bad thing: Because there's no way to specify the
time period over which the data is displayed, the two short graphs
actually tell a clearer story than the one long one, which is so
condensed as to be virtually useless.
It'll be interesting to see when (or whether) Titlez grows up into
something that publishers and/or authors might be willing to pay for.
27, 2006: Screen Paver
(Furiously busy here, so entries may be shorter and perhaps sparser
than they usually are.) I picked up a nice little screen saver program
that doubles as a simple slide show presenter: Screen
Paver. It's technically a screen saver, and you can set the
program's parameters through Control Panel's Display applet, as
with any screen saver. But if you set the time interval between
images to 0, then it waits for a mouse click to change images.
From the Display applet, you enter several different directories
containing images, and Screen Paver will pull images randomly from
all entered directories and display them at the specified interval.
It will also play MP3s pulled randomly from a directory if you want
music during your dead-times.
One reason I like Screen Paver is that you can individually select
among 32 different transition effects. I find some of the available
transitions annoying, but each one has a check box, and you can
un-check whatever transitions you don't want.
Small, works as advertised, and precisely what I needed, right when
I needed it. $12.95. Highly recommended.
25, 2006: Blackholing Geocities
I recap my ongoing battle with spam here from time to time, so
here's another report: I had to blackhole Geocities. If you send
me email with a Geocities site URL in it, those messages will go
right to my spam bucket. More on this in a moment.
I changed overall antispam strategies radically several months
ago: I abandoned POPFile completely; it crashed too often, and couldn't
keep its false positive rate to zero. I now use the Bayesian filter
built into PocoMail. It's much more conservative than POPFile, and
I get zero false positives from it. Of course, that means it lets
a certain amount of spam through too. I've kept my blocked senders
list current, and have managed to block a certain amount of spam
with forged sender addresses by looking for strings like ".com/un.php"
In recent weeks, a species of spam I used to see only now and then
abruptly exploded: referrer pages located on Geocities. What this
means is that a spam message payload is a single URL in this form:
Addresses like this one (which I altered from one that arrived
yesterday so it isn't valid) point to minimal HTML pages that contain
only a referrer address in a refresh header. Click the Geocities
URL that you get in a spam message, and the Geocities page instantly
transfers you to a conventional spammer Website URL somewhere else.
They do this so that we can't filter on spammer payload domains.
Interestingly, I've never gotten that sort of payload pointing
to the US Geocities site. Every single one was on a foreign Geocities
server. I haven't tried to create a page on a foreign Geocities
site, but I did check and found that the US Geocities server requires
solving a captcha
to registerand it's a good captcha, with crooked 3D-ish
letters and extraneous bars and things that would make OCR diabolically
difficult. My guess is that foreign Geocities servers haven't implemented
captchas yet. (I understand that there are other ways than OCR to
break badly implemented captchas, but the field is young and captcha
technology can only get better.)
No matter. I've blackholed "geocities.com" for the time
being. I suspect that some spammer somewhere automated the Geocities
referrer site creation process, accounting for the huge runup in
these messages, all of which came in through botnets. If all Geocities
servers eventually require the solving of good captchas to create
a site, this problem may go away, and I'll let the Geocities name
out of jail. However, on one day last week when I counted, 27% of
all my spam contained Geocities referrer URLs. I had to do something.
15% -20% of the spam that comes in still gets through my filters.
The really big problem I have right now is with stock pump-and-dump
schemes, where the entire text of the message is in a .gif or .jpg
bitmap. These messages don't have a payload other than the message;
there's no Web site to go to, except (for the true dimbulbs out
there) to your broker's. Too many people send me messages with background
graphics in .gif form, so I can't just nuke any message that comes
in carrying a GIF. Nor are recent stock-scam messages otherwise
empty. Spammers are now adding the conventional nonsense text to
the messages, usually disguised in such a way as to make it minimally
visible in a rendering window.
I wonder sometimes what might make botnet control more difficult.
Most zombies listen for commands on IRC; if ISPs blocked IRC (like
many now block SMTP port 25) would subscribers revolt? Perhaps the
secret is to add a feature to ISP servers where opening the IRC
ports required solving a captcha for every connection. Something
as simple as an ISP notification email to subscribers telling them
that something on their machine is using IRC protocols might alert
a few people to the presence of zombie software on their PCs. Anything
that makes the botnet business more difficult would be a good thing.
I use IRC only rarely (and then only for the #oldcatholic chat room)
and I wouldn't mind solving a captcha to open an IRC port if it made
a dent in botnet activity. I know, I know, the battle will never end,
but that doesn't mean we all ought to give up the fight!
23, 2006: Vitamin B12 and Dementia
The May 2006 issue of the alternative health magazine Townsend
Letter carried an article (not online) by Joseph G. Hatterlsey
concerning the role of vitamin B12 deficiency in the development
of various dementias, including Alzheimer's Disease. Vitamin B12
deficiency runs in my family, and although I have no proof, I suspect
it may have been a contributing factor in my mother's wasting death
from an uncommon dementia (not AD, according to her physician) in
2000. I discovered sublingual Vitamin B12 a few years ago (see my
entry for March
1, 2003) and have used it periodically when I feel a little
I think I may begin using it daily or at very least, weekly. The
Townsend Letter article started me researching, and while
relatively recent, the dementia connection is not crackpot stuff.
Mild B12 deficiency can cause mild depression and sleep disorders,
both of which I've struggled with since I've turned 50. My mother,
in the years immediately prior to her death, suffered from severe
depression and severe insomnia, which we always assumed were purely
psychiatric disorders stemming from her bizarre Manichaean Roman
Catholic faith and my father's long struggle with cancer. Now I'm
wondering if she were B12 deficient as well, and kicking myself
that we never suggested B12 injections, which are cheap and without
significant side effects. (One occasional side effect is aggravation
of acne, which I doubt would have been an issue in a 76-year-old
woman.) The literature I've read doesn't imply that AD is caused
by vitamin B12 deficiency, but that insufficient levels of B12 can
aggravate AD symptoms and accelerate the progress of the disease.
Bringing serum B12 levels back to normal can ameliorate AD symptoms,
and slow the disease's progress.
Here's one of the
better articles I've seen on B12. You apparently ingest B12
only through animal foods, but that ingestion is a complicated process
involving partner proteins ("intrinsic factor") and folic
acid, and the process becomes less and less efficient over the years.
The elderly are thus most at risk for B12 deficiency, but vegans
suffer from B12 deficiency as well simply because they don't eat
the foods that contain it. (I think that our dependency on B12 is
an excellent indicationfuriously denied by certain crackpot
vegansthat we evolved as meat eaters.)
I live by my brain (pace Woody Allen, I consider it my first
favorite organ) and if a cheap and safe daily squirt of red stuff
that doesn't taste too bad will help me keep it a little longer, well,
I'm for it. The stuff can be had in almost any health food store.
If you're over 50 and draggy, give it a shot. It works wonders for
me. I only wish I had known this soon enough to have my poor mother
22, 2006: Mouse Gunk Supreme
A friend of ours from church asked me to take a look at her PC mouse,
which had "gotten a little sticky." I took it home, opened
it up, and, well, look for yourself.
(129K image.) I've seen (and cleaned) a lot of dirty mice in my time,
but this was by far the winner. There are several small warm-blooded
animals in her house, so I told her that the best thing to do would
be to get one of the new optical mice. Some battles simply don't stay
21, 2006: Strolling 16th Street
and I finally got away (a few days later than we had hoped), put
QBit in Camp Bow-Wow, and ran up to Denver to celebratewell,
just being alive. (The older you get, the less of an excuse you
need.) We stayed a night at the Brown
Palace, a stately 1890-vintage stone hotel with a six-story
atrium and cast-iron stairs, railings, and pillars. We stopped at
a couple of places to look at camper vans (including the awesome
Camping World at the west fringes of the city) and just did a lot
of rubbernecking. For having been here three years now, we've seen
relatively little of Colorado, and are planning a number of short
trips around the state for the odd idle moments of the summer. We're
going to rent a camper van in June and go West on I-70 to Frisco
and work our way south amidst the fourteeners to US 50, then east
to Colorado 115 and back north and home. Or maybe we'll go somewhere
else; we don't know yetand with a camper van, we may not care
The best part of the trip, though, was simply strolling down the
16th street pedestrian mall, hand in hand, looking in windows and
watching the low-key street theater. I allowed myself a little bag
of jelly beans (the first in many months) and we stumbled upon a
very good clothing shop called Triage
in the Writer's Square complex at 16th and Larimer. Carol spotted
a dress she liked in the window, and we spent an hour there, Carol
trying on dresses while we both chatted with proprietor David Scott.
David knows a lot about clothes, and I actually bought a
couple pair of casual pants that fit better than anything I've bought
in a quite a few years. Carol bought the item in the window (a spectacular
watermelon-pink halter dress) and will wear it to my 40th grade
school reunion in Chicago in a couple of weeks. We split a brilliant
little pizza for lunch at Cafe
Colore, again at Writer's Square. It's small and easy to miss,
but well worth looking for.
Denver has some spectacular architecture, the best of it dating
from 1880-1920. Much can be seen just by walking along 16th street
from the Capital to LoDo. (Don't miss Tattered Cover Books!) After
picking up our car from valet parking, we went into a couple of
elegant stone churches: Trinity
Methodist and St. John's
Episcopal Cathedral, seat of the Colorado Diocese. By then it
was heading for suppertime, so we rolled back down I-25 to pick
up our puppy and get back to real life.
Denver was actually our first choice as a place to move when we decided
to leave Arizona, but it was an intimidatingly huge city, and for
what I paid for a new, 4,400 square foot custom home here I could
have gotten (maybe) a nice 80-year-old bungalow there. Denver is 70
miles north of us, far enough to be away from its traffic and sphere
of political influence, but close enough to make day trips and overnighters
like this one easy. That's almost ideal. As with most big cities,
I like Denver...from a distance.
18, 2006: Odd Lots
- Sony just announced its
own entry in the ultra-mobile PC arena, and it's an interesting
one. The unit weighs only 1.2 pounds, with a 3.5" 1024 X
600 color display, built-in wireless a/b/g, and a slide-out QWERTY
keyboard that may or may be especially useful, except for the
thumb-and-peck school of typing. There's 512MB of RAM, 30 GB of
hard drive space, and the full version of Windows XP. The resolution
and screen size are good enough for reading novels, though any
sort of technical illustration will be a problem. Alas, Sony wants
$1800 for the little double handful, and that may be a dealbreaker.
- Pete Albrecht sent me a pointer to a
nice article about the Bonneville Salt Flats, and the sorts
of bizarre vehicles that have vied for land-speed records there
since the 1920s.
- Another article (relayed to me by Harry Helms) in Slate questions
the conventional wisdom that losing independent bookstores is
a tragedy. The article is worth reading, but the author obviously
knows nothing about publishing and very little about how book
retailing works internally. The entire book business is broken,
seriously broken, and our indie bookstores are the canaries in
- I took a hike yesterday through some of the undeveloped land
at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain with my X41 in my backpack and
its GPS antenna in my pocket. I was trying to determine if the
GPS receiver I have can work under tree branches, and amazingly,
it did. The X41 recorded a waypoint every five seconds, and I
now have a nice track of where I went. I have an older topo map
program that doesn't understand waypoints, and need to get one
that does. If any of you have ever tried this sort of thing, what
mapping software do you plot waypoints on? I'm going to try it
on Google Earth's commercial upgrade at some point, but what I
really want to do is plot paths on a topo rather than a satellite
- Ok. I'm not hip. I know. I thought this
dopey little game was fun.
17, 2006: Why The Terrorists Aren't Biting, Part 2
As I described yesterday, Bruce Schneier made an important point
in floating his
movie-plot terrorist scenario contest: Terrorist scenarios are
a dime a dozen...and yet we haven't been attacked since 9-11. Bruce
didn't lay out any detailed guesses as to why, but I think it's
a mighty important question. Highly visible security programs like
airport screening come off as so completely stupid at times that
some people think we don't know what we're doing. On the other hand...maybe
that's part of the strategy: Look stupid, then when the mugger acts
like you're a pushover, he's on the pavement before he knows what
Perhaps that's giving the authorities too much credit. Still, it's
hard to imagine that Al Qaeda just gave up. So what's really going
on? I have two theories:
- The public is paying attention to anybody who looks middle-eastern.
I'm not saying it's right; I'm saying it's real: The climate
of fear since 9-11 has grown into a layer of low-level paranoia
covering the entire country. Mugshots of the 9-11 suicide pilots
and photos of the "Arab street" in the Middle East throwing
tantrums over one thing or another are permanently embedded in
the American zeitgeist. Most Americans now see a young Arabic-looking
man and think danger! danger! I'd guess it's a lot tougher
for people who fit the terrorist "profile" to live unobtrusively,
and this makes planning for any kind of difficult operation a
lot tougher than it used to be.
- But that may be minor next to the related issue: Arab-Americans
(and American Muslims of any heritage) are keenly aware of the
fearful attention they're receiving here, and they know that another
terrorist attack from Islamic crackpots would unleash new mass
hatred against anything Arabic or Islamic, additional government
scrutiny, and nonviolent reprisals or even physical attacks from
the public. Some few may be silently cheering the terrorists on,
but most are ordinary people who genuinely like the lives they
live here. As someone put it, "America is catching."
I suspect that moderate American Muslims are watching their own,
and if they hear anything even remotely suggesting planning for
an attack, a quiet phone call to the FBI can put the pinch on
the malefactors. Basically, Islamic terrorists can no longer trust
anyone in the US, not even their own coreligionists, and
that makes any significant attack a great deal harder to pull
Neither of these are proof against terrorist activity, obviously,
but they definitely raise the bar. The nature of terrorist psychology
doesn't prefer small-scale events, especially things (like street
shootings or wildfire arson) that happen regularly out of ordinarily
criminality and don't carry any kind of gut-gripping symbolic value.
The events that carry genuine value for the terrorists have become
spectacularly difficult to mount. The question Why haven't the
terrorists struck again? may have a simple answer: They tried.
We stopped them. Nobody talked about it.
Maybe we're just not the suckers we used to be. And maybe we have
friends in unlikely places.
16, 2006: Bruce Schneier's Terrorist Scenario Contest
By now, I think everbody in the world has heard about security
guru Bruce Schneier's blog-based contest for "movie plot"
terrorist scenarios. Even the
New York Times picked up the story. To see the (now very long)
list of scenarios, go to Bruce's
blog for April 1, 2006. I ran over there the first I heard of
it, but found that one of the first scenarios posted was the one
I had thought of: A coordinated effort to light wildfires in American
drought regions, especially California.
Seeing the list of scenarios gave me some chills, and second thoughts:
Is this really a good idea? I was slow on the uptake (perhaps, as
an SF writer, I can imagine things a little too vividly) but I understand
now. Bruce is making a point: There are a gazillion ways to mount
a terrorist attack, some of them apparently easy and not all of
them suicide missions. However, for all that, it's been four and
a half years since 9-11, and Islamic terrorists have not struck
Bruce's point is one I see no one else making: If they were
coming, you'd think they'd have been here by now. I remember
having nightmares over Richard A. Clarke's article in The Atlantic
for January/February 2005. A
fictional retrospective looking back from the year 2011, Clarke
thought up a long laundry list of his own terrorist scenarios and
laid them out with morbid clarity.
None of them have happened. I considered many of Clarke's scenarios
unlikely at the time (and a few outrageously unlikely) but
the article still scared the crap out of me. It's worth asking why
we haven't been attacked. There are two points worth pondering:
- We're not as dumb as we're acting. Although the mostly
pointless "security theater" one sees in airports (seizing
bicycle spoke wrenches from middle-aged Americans, for example)
would give the impression that we have no clue about security,
the truth is that no one is talking about the security efforts
that really matter. That's the way the various government agencies
want it. The best preventive measure against terrorism is always
good intelligence at the lowest levels. I've had some discussions
with a few guys in the FBI, and they were not the plodding
dumbasses you generally see in the movies. Once they knew that
the threat was out there (which 9-11 put up in lights for all
time) I'd wager they got a lot better at sniffing out cluesand
keeping the whole program as nearly invisible as possible.
- They're not as smart/capable/powerful/all-knowing as we've
made them out to be. There's something I might call the "bogeyman
effect" at play here: Islamic terrorists have become more
and more mythic in the American mind, to the point where they've
assumed borderline superpowers. Although there's the occasional
criminal genius (Bin Laden being one) such creatures are no more
effective than their underlings, and getting smart criminal underlings
has never been easy. Part of being smart is knowing that getting
caught by people as motivated as American security forces will
not be pleasant, and whereas Allah may reward them in the afterlife,
the "debriefing" down here is gonna hurt.
The 9-11 plot wasn't so much brilliant as audaciousand lucky.
It doesn't take a criminal genius to know that you can cause considerable
damage with large objects full of explosive fuel moving very quickly.
The wonder is that they got all the many moving parts to mesh without
being detected. I'm pretty sure it only worked because we weren't
paying much attention, and I'm even more sure that nothing remotely
like it will ever happen again.
I'm out of time for today, but there's an additional factor or two
that I'll take up tomorrow.
15, 2006: The Gumball Ebook Network: Summary
Before I move on to other things (this has been a long series)
I wanted to summarize the most important points in my argument for
the creation of the Gumball Ebook Network (GEN):
- Authors need to be in control of their own sales parameters.
In print book publishing, financial issues are handed as a given
to all but the most outrageously popular authors. Authors have
nothing to say about pricing their work, and almost nothing on
how much they receive per sale. In the GEN, authors have a choice.
They can dicker with referrers over the sales commission, or they
can create relationships with referrers willing to use the standard
split, whatever it turns out to be. (My guess: 15%-20%.) If authors
don't want to deal with any GEN technology at all, they can sign
up with an agency/publisher to handle everything and give up additional
margin. It's their choice.
- Middlemen need to prove that they're adding value. In
print publishing, middlemen are necessary to some extent because
physical objects need managing. In the GEN, middlemen (which as
a class I call referrers) help consumers discover ebooks,
and develop trust relationships with consumers by endorsing quality
titles. Referrers only get paid when they actually provide value
to the authors in the form of completed sales. If they endorse
bad books, consumers will withdraw their trust and go to another
- The GEN needs to be vendor and format neutral. This is
why I want to see it as an open source system. My biggest fear
is that some gigantic firm will someday field an ebook distribution
and reading system that will catch on, and will tie it all up
in exclusive publishing contracts and proprietary technology.
Apple has come close to doing this with their music downloads,
and while it may have taken something Apple's size to bring the
Big 5 music labels to heel, publishing is not nearly as monopolistic
as popular music (not yet) and if small publishers are seen to
be making money through an open system, the big guys may fall
- The GEN needs to be DRM-agnostic. There is a great deal
of hostility to DRM in many quarters, but the decision of whether
or not to impose DRM on an ebook must remain with the authors.
Some will demand it, and many will not. The key is to let the
market decide, with DRM-free books for sale alongside DRMed books.
The GEN should not make it impossible to add a DRM module that
works smoothly with the Gumball Machine. Those implacably hostile
to DRM should see it this way: This is our last and best chance
to let the market prove that DRM hurts authors and consumers more
than it helps anybodyeven publishers.
- The GEN needs to be flexible enough to allow different business
models to evolve. Publishing does not work precisely the same
way for all categories of books. Novels, technical books, and
textbooks are not all sold the same way in the print world. The
GEN must allow for that sort of difference in the ebook world
as well. The non-physical nature of ebooks allows things that
are difficult in print publishing. Anthologists, for example,
can create "samplers" of material they like (stories,
articles, whatever) and the system must be able to be configured
so that authors, anthologists, and referrers all make money. Ideas
may appear that we just can't anticipate, try as I have. The GEN,
if designed correctly, will allow those ideas to take their places
at the table and live or die on their own merits.
I'm not sure what the next step is; I'm taking notes and sketching
up ER diagrams, but this is one I can't just go off and write myself.
I need to read up on shopping carts and possibly dissect one. I
need to research payment systems. Per-transaction costs are still
pretty high: PayPal and Amazon Honor System both demand 2.9% of
the transfer value plus thirty cents for each transaction, and in
practical terms that sets a minimum price per item of two or three
dollars. Other firms may offer better deals. We'll see.
In the meantime, I'm open to suggestions. If I create any actual code,
(or if someone else wants to chase this one and get it underway) I'll
create a project on SourceForge and put it under the GPL.
14, 2006: Ebooks, Quality, and the Gatekeepers
If any idiot can publish a book, most of them will. The biggest
challenge we as authors may face is having our books drown in an
endless ocean of absolutely useless text. This happens to some extent
in conventional print publishing. It happens a lot in the
world of print on demand (POD) publishing. As the world of ebook
publishing doesn't really exist yet (not the way the others do)
it's hard to tell how bad the problem will be once ebooks are a
commonplacebut one can guess. In fact, one can also guess
that if we don't solve the quality problem going in, there
may never actually be an ebook publishing industry.
In my May
11, 2006 entry, I spoke positively of self-publishing, because
I have actually seen it work. I can also pick the raisins out of
my oatmeal, because I know what's raisins and what's oatmeal. This
is nominally what editors do for a living. (Agents are supposed
to as well, but all too often they wait for someone else to spot
the raisins, and then arrange bidding wars for the raisins among
editors who are in the wrong business and don't know raisins from
Let's just say that although I've seen some self-published raisins,
I have also seen an immense amount of oatmeal.
The drive to express oneself is powerful, and as technology makes
the whole mechanism of publishing (depending on how you define "publishing")
almost trivial, the sheer number of published works will explode
until the conventional notion of "being published" will
become meaningless. In conventional print publishing, the capital
investment in PPBpaper, print, and bindingplus human
costs inherent in preparing books, makes publishers careful. Publish
a bad book, and you lose your investment. Alas, even well-written,
on-point books don't always find markets, and that's why I still
haunt the remainder piles. Want to read a fine, fine novel? Go find
a copy of Conjuror's Journal, by Frances Shine. As best I
can tell, the book sold a few hundred copies and was remaindered.
I got it for two bucks on a remainder pile almost 30 years ago,
and I consider it one of the best novels in my reading experience.
(Your mileage, obviously, will vary.) So imagine how bad the problem
will be once the incremental cost of publishing a book falls to
near zero. Cash will no longer be any kind of gatekeeper.
This is pretty much the case in POD publishing right now. Retailers
won't stock POD books, and often won't even special order them.
Reviewers for the most part won't look at them. If you don't sell
them yourself (and by sell them, I literally mean take orders somewhere
and stuff them into bubble envelopes) they won't get sold. Tens
of thousands of POD books are published every year, nearly all of
them unedited and un-vetted by anybody with raisin-sight. Nobody
anywhere in the machinery of conventional publishing wants to have
anything to do with them.
Almost. Chris Gerrib recently put me on to POD-dy
Mouth, and if POD publishing interests you at all, I'd recommend
budgeting a few hours and reading the site's entire fifteen-month
run. A brave woman is using her blog not only to report news (and
explain concepts) relevant to the POD publishing business, but also
to fish good books out of the mire and put them up in the spotlight.
I don't read conventional fiction much, but people seem to think
she has a sense for spotting the raisins.
She's currently doing it for free. (She isn't even posting ads!)
But suppose her site were a Gumball Newsstand, or perhaps a related,
more modest species we might call a Gumball Blog. How she spots
the raisins is her problemher secret, if she wants to keep
it. But if there were a standard mechanism allowing her readers
to order the books she recommends direct from the authors (with
a sales commission going back to her) both she and the authors could
realize more money on fewer sales than by going through a mostly
unnecessary middleman like Amazon.
Discovery is key, and trusted recommenders is one way discovery
happens. (Think Oprah, heh.) I would probably review more books
if there were any money in at at all (there is but a pittance in
using Amazon Associates) and I think a lot of my bookish friends
would do so too. I would probably specialize in hard SF, or perhaps
upbeat popular theology, if that's a category. (Maybe I could make
it one.) The point is that if I could gather an audience of people
who share my opinion of good books in a given category, I could
become a gatekeeper in that category. I wouldn't be the only one,
but that's OK. The more people who link to a given author's Gumball
Machine, the more money the author would make, and authors who are
willing to cut the gatekeepers a few more points would probably
have more links and thus more sales. Pulling in the other direction
is the necessity of trust: If gatekeepers begin recommending indifferent
books just to keep the nickels flowing in, their audiences will
shrink as trust evaporates. A free market will eventually find the
sweet spot in the middle that keeps both the authors and the gatekeepers
solvent by floating genuinely good books to the top of the endless
waves of oatmeal.
This is where I hope something like the Gumball Ebook Network will
lead. If time allows, I'll do a more organized presentation in a white
paper, to put the idea out of the patent trolls' reach if nothing
else. Sooner or later, somebody will do it, or something like it.
Like I said, pieces are all over the place. All we have to do is pull
12, 2006: Agents and Ebooks
A quick aside before we head up to Denver to decompress a little
bit. John Hall asked me how agents and agenting fit into the ebook
publishing mechanism I've been describing, and the question is worth
a thoughtful answer.
I've neved much liked agents. Keith and I always played hardball
with them, and the agents we dealt with (who will remain nameless,
as much as I'd like to have throttled some of them) were very good
at promising us one thing and delivering another. They were also
expensive in the extreme, and we told them to go home and get real
as often as we dickered with them. And when agents approached me
to represent my own work, I showed them my previous book contracts
and asked them if they could double my previous advance and get
me another 2-3 royalty points. They blanched, and implied that I
might not be worth that much in a very competitive market. Translation:
That would be real work! I've done well dealing direct with
publishers, and haven't had to fork over 15% of the take in perpetuity
to an agency that makes two phone calls and hands me an indifferent
contract that I have to pass by my lawyer anyway.
Besides, when I was trying to sell The Cunning Blood and
could really have used an agent, no agent would even talk to me.
So...what are agents good for again?
I lay that out for the sake of disclosure: I have biases. (Ok,
grudges.) But let's look closely at what agents really do, especially
in recent years: They allow publishers to outsource some of the
book acquisition function and make the authors pay for it.
Acquisition is the toughest part of the publishing task that publishers
truly control. (Sales is the toughest, but especially for small
publishers, it's far more a matter of cash-on-the-line than any
exercise of skill.) Acquisitions editors need broad knowledge of
the subject matter as well as a thick web of contacts among authors.
In a sense, an acquisitions editor is a sales rep who sells competent
authors on the idea of publishing with the editor's imprint. They
also weed out less competent authors, and develop the skill of weighing
an author's abilities as a writer against that author's knowledge
of the subject matter. Sometimes a guy who writes like a frog thinks
like an Einstein, and you have to kiss a few frogs to find out where
the Einsteins are. That's just part of the job.
(Once again, this is in technical nonfiction. I have no experience
publishing fiction, but I suspect if you substitute "popularity"
for "knowledge" you have the same basic equations.)
My point is that the difference between an agent and an acquisitions
editor is simply who writes the paychecks. A publisher that makes
heavy use of agents can eliminate one or more expensive acquisitions
jobs, and get the same benefit of having those jobs, but at the
Now let's move to the ebook world I'm trying to build here. There's
a large problem of quality control that I will take up again later
on in this series. Agents have traditionally played part of that
role, and something like an agent could play it again. Imagine an
agent who sets up an agency that offers authors a package deal:
For 10% of your take, we'll provide you with a Gumball Machine for
your ebooks on our hosting service, and we'll get you the best links
on the best Gumball Newsstands (GNs) that we can, for the most favorable
split. An agent with an impressive stable of authors is in a position
to get a better deal from GN operators. Remember from previous entries
that GN's are paid for referring sales to a Gumball Machine through
a system like Amazon Associates, where each sale the Gumball Machine
finalizes kicks back a percentage to the originating GN. That percentage
is something that GN operators negotiate with authorsor perhaps
agents. If a GN operator trusts an agent to deliver authors that
sell books, the operator may be willing to take a lower kickback
percentage and make it up in volume, having "acquired"
a slate of good authors with very little time and personal effort.
In short, agents may provide something like the book acquisitions
function to harried GN operators, who want to catalog the best authors
and books but may not have time to do the winnowing themselves.
The big unknown is how much benefit such an agent will really offer
to authors, and we won't know until the system is in place and people
have some time to try various things. My best guess is that agents
won't have a role until the system moves out of the geek space and
goes mainstream, and that'll be a few years yet.
Next time we'll speak more of quality control, and of reputation.
11, 2006: Recombinant Publishing
One reason I'm a lot more willing than some to see "self-publishing"
tried in the ebook world is that I've seen a fair amount of self-publishing,
some of which worked very well. Back when I lived in Scottsdale
I belonged to the Arizona Book Publishing Association for almost
ten years, was on the board for several, and was president for two.
I'd say about 75% of the membership were individuals (sometimes
married couples) self-publishing things that they had written. About
5% were conventional book publishers, like Coriolis and later Paraglyph
Press. The remaining 20% were publishing services organizations:
Cover and layout designers, copy editors, developmental editors,
indexers, Web designers, PR services, short-run printers, a couple
of agents, and so on. All the little pieces of publishing were represented,
and at the monthly meetings a great deal of business was conducted
as individuals combined all the little pieces in various ways to
make books happen. I watched artists sell covers to authors, authors
contract for indexes, and every so often an author contract with
a small firm to basically take a manuscriupt, clean it up, lay it
out, put a cover on it, and shop for print services.
Some authors could do most everything themselves. A few could do
nothing but write. (No small number couldn't even do that.) Most
fell in the middle somewhere. I watched, fascinated, as a process
I might call "recombinant publishing" occurred: People
were buying skills they didn't have themselves as their various
projects required, and ultimately produced the books they had in
mind, with great economy of effort and money. Almost nobody bought
anything they didn't need. (Some, admittedly, needed more than they
were willing to buy.) The books that came out of this process were
sometimes a little odd, and were often highly regional in naturebut
I was amazed at how good many of them were. A lot of them, furthermore,
appeared to be making at least a little money.
One reason for that (surprising) success is that there were a lot
of different business models in play. Several members were public
speakers who sold their books at their presentations. One couple
published books of "cowboy poetry" that they sold at rodeos
and in western shops. One guy was a guru in self-hypnosis and sold
his books direct through his Web site, drumming up business by tirelessly
hanging out on self-hypnosis newsgroups and forums. Only a handful
got their books into Borders, but as I learned, there are other
places that sell books: Hiking shops, gift shops, antique shops,
and more. A surprising number sold their books at tables at home
and garden shows, flea markets, and other informal events around
the Valley of the Sun.
The Arizona self-publishing scene was as successful as it was because
it was flexible. The people who created their books adapted
to conditions as required, and somehow got their books into print
and into the hands of the people who needed them. Contrast this
to the infuriating rigidity of the mainstream print book industry,
where two chains control the vast majority of all sales, and big
presses buy their way into prominent positions in both the media
and the retail channel using cash that small presses don't have.
The gradual emergence of ebooks over the next five or eight years
is our best opportunity to change that. Without having to cope with
pallet loads of physical books, ebook authors can engage in a little
recombinant publishing themselves. If publishers are primarily ways
to take a bag of words and make a coherent, attractive book out
of it, well, that process can be outsourced, incrementally and only
as required. The tools are getting better all the time. (See the
Scribus project for an open-source
desktop publishing application that I think has a lot of promise.)
My pitch (which I've been fleshing out for the last few entries
here) is for a suite of standard tools to make ebook creation, sale,
and discovery simple and cheap. The Ebook Gumball Machine and the
Ebook Gumball Newsstand are two of them, but there may be a few
more. A free, multi-format reader would be fantastic, though unlikely
due to the proprietary nature of some of the DRM machinery inherent
in some formats. The ideal to which we should aspire is strong standardization
and interoperability among all the components. There may not be
only a single business model for selling ebooks. There may be a
multitude of them, with Gumball Machines and Gumball Newsstands
combining in different ways, and creating partnerships with existing
Web mechanisms like search engines and print shops capable of creating
single printed copies of ebooks at low cost.
Some authors may go it alone. Others may team up into peer co-ops,
while others (lacking publishing skills or the ability to generate
awareness on their own) may partner with Gumball Newsstand operators,
who may begin to look a little like traditional publishers. Every
variation will be tried. The ones that work will survive. And the
more ways there are to create, promote, and sell ebooks, the better
off the world will be.
More next entry, which may not be tomorrowI'm taking a couple
of days off.
10, 2006: Odd Lots
- We woke up this morning with the temp at 33° and an inch
of sloppy snow on the ground. QBit, who hasn't had any snow to
eat for almost two months, spent the first part of his morning
joyously scarfing up all the snow he could hold from the back
deck. Each of Carol's daffodils had a little white cap, almost
like an Amish woman's. And it's mid-May. Surreal.
- Some time yesterday I checked my AdSense account and found that
I was already over $3 for the day, where I'm often lucky to bank
15 cents. Something was going on. And sure enough, Tim Goss dropped
me a note to point out that I
had been cited on the Make blog, and then by
Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing. I typically get about 600 unique
visits per day to my site. Yesterday I hit 2,200, and as of 9
this morning I'm already at 1,600. Although an article I wrote
was Slashdotted once, it wasn't hosted on my site. This is as
big a spike as duntemann.com has ever seen. And the page in question?
radio gallery, which I hardly consider the stuff of legend.
Crazy worldbut you knew that.
- Is it possible to buy Windows XP Tablet PC edition in a box?
I have an odd concept for a PC using a touchscreen that swings
out over your chair on a linkage, like the kind dentists use to
point that tooth-centric kleig light down your throat.
I even know where to get the touchscreen LCD display, but
without Tablet Edition it wouldn't be nearly as effective.
- Jim Strickland pointed me to an
excellent discussion of the confounding economics of mass-market
print paperback publishing. The writer, an editor at the romances
division of Tor, clearly knows what she's talking about, though
I would emphasize more than she does that future book sales figures
are guessesoften wild, sometimes fantastical guessesand
it's very rare that reality maps neatly onto your spreadsheet
- I will be continuing my discussion of remaking the ebook publishing
business model tomorrow.
9, 2006: Redistributing the Publishing Function
Let's stop for a moment and recap what we're doing in this series:
Redistributing the various tasks of print publishing so that publishing
can work for non-print books and shorter items like stories and
essays. I've been in nonfiction print publishing since 1985, first
in magazines and later in books. I have no experience publishing
fiction, and while I'm guessing that most of the list below applies
to fiction as well (with a couple of wrinkles for fiction in the
mass-market paperback format) I can say with great certainty that
the following is a summary of what nonfiction print book publishers
- They acquire books. This sometimes means just taking what an
author offers, but often (especially in the computer press) means
having book ideas in-house and then finding authors to implement
them. I took Assembly Language Step By Step to its publisher,
which accepted it basically as offered. On the other hand, Paraglyph
Press had the idea for the Degunking series, and we went out and
found authors to write Degunking books to our templates.
- They front a certain amount of money to the author on acceptance
of a book concept. The advance against royalties is a sort of
"minimum wage" to keep authors solvent. In modern publishing,
90% of books never "earn out" their advances, and so
the advance is all the money the author ever gets.
- Once advances are earned out, publishers pay authors a royalty
that is a set percentage of "net revenue," which means
money left per book sale after everybody else has taken their
cuts. Both the percentage of the net, and the net itself (compared
to the cover price of the book) have been shrinking steadily in
the last ten or fifteen years.
- They clean up author text. This involves editing of the text
to make it more professional-sounding and readable, and sometimes
more aggressive development of the concept behind the book to
make it more complete, coherent and on-target.
- They lay out the book in a readable design, choosing and arranging
fonts, icons, chapter and section openers and headings, and things
- They manufacture the book, and store it in some kind of warehouse.
Warehousing is often done (especially for smaller publishers)
as part of an agreement with a book distributor. Manufacturing
the book involves some tricky analysis to determine how many books
should be printed, which is a black art if it is an art at alland
not simply guessing with a smiley face painted on it.
- They market the book to retailers. This is done through a sales
force, either on staff (for larger publishers) or under contract,
often in connection with distribution services.
- They promote the book to the general public, or (more often)
to reviewers. Less and less of this is being done, especially
by smaller publishers. Large publishers allocate their promotional
budgets in a very lopsided manner, favoring those books they suspect
will become bestsellers. Most books get little promotion of any
kind, apart from review copies sent to a standard list of reviewers.
- Most people outside the publishing business find this a little
bizarre, but book retailers have the right to return undamaged
trade books to publishers for a full refund, at any time. Books
are thus sold in a manner that smells more more like consignment
than conventional retailing. Publishers must be able to front
payments triggered by these returns and also handle the returned
books, which are either recycled or sold to discount retailers
("remainder houses") that sell them at a small fraction
of cover price. (The "near $2 pile.")
This is what we have to rethink and redistribute in the creation
of a publishing/business model for ebooks. Let's see what we can
The big problem with this redistributed model of ebook publishing
is that it hands a great deal of work back to the author, who (if
he or she has other responsibilities) may be hard pressed to produce
much new material. Like everything else, there are solutions, some
of which I'll take up in tomorrow's entry.
- Numbers 6 and 9 simply go away. We're not grinding up trees
- #1 (coming up with a book) is now sole province of the author.
- Advances (#2) are probably history. This is unfortunate, but
I have hopes that when authors pocket more of the sales of their
books, they will be able to float future projects on the cash
flow of present projects. My experience in recent years is that
relatively few nonfiction authors write full time anyway. (I don't
know how it is in fiction but I suspect it is the same.)
- Royalties (#3) morph into the ongoing sales mechanism built
into the Gumball Machine. (See my entry for May
7, 2006.) This will be helpful: Royalties are typically paid
by print publishers only twice a year, but the Gumball Machine
generates money every time a book is sold.
- #7 is an odd case. The retailer function is now split between
sales and discovery, where the author handles sales and the Gumball
Newsstand handles discovery. Successful Gumball Newsstand operators
will probably be selective, and so getting a Newsstand operator
to list a book may require some persuasion, or at least an advance
copy of the book. This responsibility passes back to the author.
- #8 (promoting the book the public) also returns to the author.
Hanging out in forums, speaking at trade shows and other gatherings,
and getting reviews and interviews, all returns to the author.
Most authors do this now, to a greater or lesser extent. Successful
authors can farm this function out. More on this tomorrow.
- #4 and (especially) #5 are vital, but they are also eminently
outsourceable. Editing, indexing, and layout are very standard
and widely distributed skills that can be easily hired from individuals
and small shops. I'll have more to say on this tomorrow.
8, 2006: The Gumball Newsstand
(Continuing yesterday's entry about problems standing in the way
of a viable ebook market:) "Discovery" is marketing jargon
for the process of becoming aware of a product. Big-ticket items
(cars) or items with massive horizontal markets (Coke, Domino's
Pizza) are discovered mostly through ads and commercials. Products
with smaller markets make discovery tougher. (Music is an interesting
special case that I won't talk about it here.) Discovery in the
print book world happens in a number of ways:
- Reviews. The NYTRB, Oprah, and most special interest
publications publish book reviews, and they drive a great many
sales. Mention in top blogs does the same thing, if not on quite
so large a scale; when
Glenn Reynolds mentioned The Cunning Blood on Instanpundit,
the book shot up from #300,000+ on Amazon to #2500.
- Personal recommendation. People recommend books to me
all the time, and in most cases the recs are golden. Some of my
favorite nonfiction titles (The Little Ice Age, Guns,
Germs, and Steel, and The Great Influenza, among others)
were all recommended to me by friends. Some recs were in person,
- "It was there so I bought it." A great many
books are sold simply because they're on a bookstore shelf (or
a garage sale pile) when people are passing by, not looking so
much for a particular book as for a book on a topic of interest,
or just a book to kill time in an airport or on the beach.
There are other, flukier ways to discover books (browsing other
people's stacks is one way I sometimes find otherwise obscure but
interesting titles, which I then order online) but the three above
are the biggies.
So. Can we translate any or all of these discovery mechanisms to
a purely digital ebook industry? A more interesting question is,
Why hasn't it been done already? In a sense, it has. Look at Amazon.
It includes a mechanism for user reviews and user topic classification,
for recommendation ("People who bought this title also bought...")
and serendipity browsing. The big difference, of course, is that
Amazon moves physical products, which need to be received, stored,
protected, tracked, packed, and shipped. In the world of physical
products, the much-maligned middleman is essential. For ebooks,
there's no need for a middleman, and the massive infrastructure
behind Amazon's friendly screens just goes away. Ebooks can move
directly from author to purchaser. (See yesterday's entry.) What
we need, in a sense, is an Amazon that doesn't sell anything, but
simply allows people to search for, review, recommend, and discuss
I call this the Gumball Newsstand. It's a server-side app focused
on ebooks. It gets ebook purchasers in touch with the ebooks they
want, and then hands off the sale to the authors, each of whom is
operating his or her own Ebook Gumball Machine. (See yesterday's
entry.) The purchaser buys ebooks from the authors. In my early
vision, the Gumball Newsstand has forums, topic browsing, reviews,
and a stack rank. It's a Web database app, and because it doesn't
have to actually sell things (even bags of bits) it can be a great
deal simpler than a massive online retail operation.
It also doesn't have to cover every single ebook ever published.
My suspicion is that Gumball Newsstands would be fielded by enthusiasts
or interest groups to focus on topics: History, cookbooks, romances,
SF/Fantasy, mysteries, computer books, and so on. There's no need
for one king-of-the-hill site like Amazon, because there's no economy
of scale to be gained in putting everything under one roof. The
whole damned Gumball Newsstand is just a slice of a hard disk on
a server rack somewhere. Because a given Newsstand would be topic-focused,
it would require less bandwidth and be less trouble to operate.
Newsstands would compete, just as topic portals do today. A Gumball
Newsstand operator could exercise any desired level of editorial
control over reviews and recommendations. If a Newsstand gains a
reputation for having better, more articulate and on-target reviews
than its competitors, it will get more traffic and in doing so generate
Revenue, yes. Even though Gumball Newsstands won't need forklifts
or warehouses, there are still some (modest) costs in terms of hosting
and bandwidth. Ads are the first and most obvious revenue generator,
but authors could also pay Newsstands per sale. Even though the
per-sale fee would have to be quite small for ebooks at the $5 level
or under, this doesn't even require micropayments per se: The Gumball
Machine could include its own affiliates program, like Amazon Associates.
Any time any Newsstand (or any third party that understands the
protocol) refers a clickthrough that results in a sale, the Gumball
Machine adds an agreed-upon sum (15-25 cents?) to the originator's
affiliate account, and pays when the total accumulates past some
viable threshold where transaction fees (currently 30 cents on PayPal,
plus 2.9% of the total) don't consume too much of the take.
Somebody could conceivably create a sort of universal Newsstand
(Gumballazon?) for ebooks by creating a master index of Gumball
Newsstands, listed by topics. Users could rate Newsstands and thus
stack-rank them by popularity, which would encourage Newsstand operators
to moderate and improve the quality of the reviews and the pertinence
of the recommendations.
There are bits and pieces of Gumball Newsstands lying on the ground
all over the place. Forums, review sites (Epinions,
for example) and topic portals are everywhere, and have been for
years. Bloggers routinely review books and then pass on the sales
to Amazon, with a kickback through Amazon Associates. If a standard
ebook Gumball Machine existed, I think it would be no great stretch
to funnel sales to tens of thousands of Gumball Machines through
a standard Gumball Newsstand. It's pure chicken-and-egg here: Realistically,
we need both to have either, and so we haven't pulled the system
I predict it would take about a year for a smallish open-source
group to create a system like this in PHP. Anybody interested? There
are worse things to do in life than invent a major part of the future,
Tomorrow: Outsourcing the (remaining) publishing tasks.
7, 2006: The Urgent Need for an Ebook Gumball Machine
David Beers pointed me to a very long but extremely cogent blog
entry from Michael Mace on the ebook conundrum. He says a lot
of what I've been saying for years now, and if you're interested
in the ebook business at all, you will go out and read that
entry, plus the others he's written on the topic earlier. Please.
Michael is pessimistic on our ability to develop a viable ebook
market, largely because of the reader problem. Having a handheld
reader people can read for hours on end is important, but we're
further along in that regard than Michael seems willing to admit.
A Tablet PC convertible (like my X41) is quite comfortable with
the right software, and if you're home and sitting in your easy
chair, you can plug it into its charger. I do it all the time. In
fact, I recently read Colin Wilson's biggest book (A Criminal
History of Mankind) in ebook form entirely on the X41. 700
pages! It bothered me not at all, and I think I sat reading
on the X41 for as long as I typically do reading a print book. (It
took me a number of evenings to go through it.) Tablet Convertibles
make good ebook readers, and they're also general purpose laptops.
They're still considered premium hardware, though, and mine cost
I think the critical path to a viable ebook market is not the reader
(we're almost there) but a way to publish, distribute, and discover
ebook content that is owned and controlled by individual authors.
What we need is an ebook gumball machine; that is, a server product
that accepts payment from end users and dispenses files, while exposing
as little technological complexity as possible. Drop in the money,
and out pops an ebook. It needs to be that simple. I have
been poking at general-purpose shopping carts for years, and I have
yet to see one that I would grant the least respect. Besides, the
shopping carts you can download or buy are general-purpose shopping
carts, most of them unspeakable spit-and-baling-wire lashups in
one scripting language or another. We need something highly specific
to ebooks, something that can be installed at the Web hosting level
by hosting services for their customers, and then configured by
anyone with a little PC sense. Programming and Unix-level server-side
smarts cannot be required, or nobody will use it but the people
who don't need it.
It's a perfect opportunity for added value in Web hosting plans.
I'm impressed by what GoDaddy has done in the Web hosting business.
You can get a
single-domain hosting account for $3.59 a month that almost
anyone can set up and use. You don't have to screw with Unix permissions
and things like that. Server-side apps like calendars, blogs, and
photo galleries often come preinstalled, and only require entering
values into dialogs for configuration.
So imagine a server-side app that comes standard with an "author"
hosting plan. It would work like this:
- The author fires up a Web browser and enters username and password
for the Gumball Machine configuration page on his/her domain.
- The author fills in a (largish) dialog, entering the site name,
his/her bio and other information, and chooses a standard template
(i.e., a skin) for the way the Gumball Machine looks to end users.
- The author enters PayPal (or other payment service) information,
allowing the Gumball Machine to charge users for files delivered.
- The author enters title, price (which can be "free"
if desired) and descriptive info for each ebook he or she will
be offering. Cover graphics should be optional, but if cover art
exists, it should be selected and uploaded like photos are in
server-side photo software like Gallery. If the ebook has been
reviewed anywhere, links to those reviews should be entered as
- The author uploads the ebook file in as many different formats
as he or she is capable of generating. Formats, alas, are still
an issue, and I don't see a standard format beating all others
in the near future. That makes it best to cover as many bases
as possible with as many formats as possible: PDF, MobyPocket,
MSReader, and so on.
- The author clicks the Publish button for each ebook in turn,
and the Gumball Machine immediately makes that ebook available
to all comers over the Web.
This is not rocket surgery. This doesn't even require "Web
2.0." Look at the Gallery
photo server, which I
use. It has a very nice user interface, works beautifully, and
is free and open source. If Gallery can happen, so can the Ebook
There are two other pieces that would make a great deal of difference:
An authoring system, and a discovery system. Authoring technology
is a messy business for several reasons, and I'll return to it at
some point. Authors almost by definition understand word processing
these days, and any authoring system must piggyback on an author's
chosen word processor. But discovery is crucial, and something almost
no one talks about with respect to ebooks. I'll address ebook discovery
tomorrow (or soon after), in connection with what I call the Gumball
6, 2006: Odd Lots
- Although I reported earlier that Analog had reviewed
Blood in their June, 2006 print issue, it wasn't until
a week or so ago that they had posted the review online. See it
- Michael Covington sent me yet more evidence that high-end audiophiles
have way more money than knowledge of where good audio comes from.
cost upwards of $10 each for your typical .01 bypass; get up to
5 uF and you're over $100. It must be worth it, though. Auricap
leads are (of course) Auric wire, which "is made of soft
high purity stranded copper; each strand individually polished
for better electron flow." Hey, Mr. Barnum!
very cool Difference Engine, built fairly closely to Babbage's
plans and made with Meccano parts. Thanks to George Ott for the
pointer. There's no reason at all why this beast couldn't be run
by a steam engine.
- The Wall Street Journal ran a short article in this morning's
issue telling readers how they can buy an entire oak cask of Scots
whisky direct from the distillery for about $1500 and put it in
their basements, tapping off the booze as required. A cask contains
the equivalent of about 200 bottles, egad. So whaddaya do if you
decide, partway through the cask, that you're really really
tired of whisky?
- The 'S' key is right next to the 'D' key. So please be more
careful than these
- I got a spam recently with the subject line: "Deerges Baesd
On Yuor Kgwonlee" The line's true meaning may be obvious
to some (or so the spammers hope) but the unintentional back-channel
message does not inspire confidence in their degrees. And hey,
wouldn't "Kgwonlee" be a great name for an alien?
- Here's a
perfect example of a bunch of people without enough to do.
I like that color, and actually looked at a polo shirt like that
at Sears once, only to think, "Cripes, people will think
I work at Best Buy."
5, 2006: Early Reactions to the Samsung Q1 UMPC
Wall Street Journal published Walter Mossberg's review of
Q1, the first Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC) to actually hit the streets.
In a word (or three): He hated it. The interesting part is that
most of what he hated were not implementation flaws, but shortcomings
of the platform itself. Note to newcomers: The UMPC is a hardware
reference platform ("Origami")
developed by Microsoft as a kind of mini-tablet PC, specifically
to run XP Tablet Edition and (one would assume) a future tablet
version of Vista.
The Q1 is quite small: 9" X 5.5" and under an inch thick,
with a color display measuring 7" diagonal and 800 X 400 resolution.
The Origami spec tells us it will run "all day" on a charge,
but Mossberg found that the Q1 conked in two hours. That's barely
long enough to watch a short movie on puddle-jumper airplane. Forget
Lord of the Rings on the Chicago-to-LA run.
Battery life (and price, which he also griped about) are implementation
issues. But the worst of it are problems that come of making computers
small. I/O (keyboards, displays) have size limitations based on
the scale of the human organism. The Q1 has no keyboard, because
keyboards that small are excruciating. If a small display is to
work, it has to be higher resolution than 800 X 400. Readability
is only partly a function of physical size. Resolution plays a key
role, especially as physical size goes down. A technology like ClearType
might help a little, but there's no fuzziness like small
fuzziness. There's no optical drive, and only two USB ports.
review landed in my inbox this morning. This one has a decent
video of the gadget, and will give you a much better feel for its
size than photos on a white background. I still don't have a good
feel for the "dial keyboard," which is a display overlay
in two semicircles, designed for "thumb typing" a la
Blackberry. Nor was there any indication of how well the gadget
functions as an ebook reader, which is my major personal interest
in the UMPC form factor.
There are engineering problems with making anything small, but
most of what's wrong with UMPC is its human factor failures, primarily
for data entry. And that's the #1 engineering challenge in portable
computing today: Making a usable keyboard for small devices. IBM
used to have a brilliant little notebook (the Thinkpad
701; back in the 486 era) with a "butterfly" keyboard
that somehow expanded to greater than the width of the computer
itself. They canned the concept because people were picking up the
computer by the ends of the expanded keyboard, and breaking the
keyboard. (I was told this by an IBM engineer at a trade show in
the late 1990s.) That sounds to me like an structural/materials
engineering problem, and with better engineering I could see a keyboard
like that unfolding from the other half of the clamshell that the
Q1 doesn't have. It would then become a kind of "nanotebook,"
topologically congruent to a subnotebook, only smallerand
that, if done well, could be useful indeed. Neither handwriting
recognition nor voice recognition are any substitute (yet) for a
keyboard, assuming any significant amount of text has to be entered.
(And voice recognition is a non-starter outside the privacy of my
With higher resolution displays and a better keyboard, the UMPC could
be a killer format. Leave the keyboard folded up and it's an ebook/media
player. Bring out the keyboard and it's a nanotebook for ordinary
office computing. Sooner or later somebody will do the engineering
and we'll have it, but it may be a few years yet.
4, 2006: The Slipperiness of What Might Have Been
Hollywood is circulating a new study (which they sponsored, through
LEK Consulting) indicating that the film industry is losing even
more money to piracy by far than we understood before. It was in
today's Wall Street Journal, and although I don't see much
online yet, the story should appear in coming days. The gist of
it is that the largest Hollywood studios are claiming that they
lost 1.3 billion dollars to movie pirates in 2005, which
is more more than any previous estimates.
Industry specifics aside, I have a conceptual problem with studies
like that: How can we tell how much money we don't make?
That a certain amount of money is lost to various kinds of piracy
in many industries is clear. However, is that amount in any real
sense measurable? There are many well-known fallacies in such calculations,
like considering every sale of a pirate copy a lost sale of a legitimate
copy. Some percentage of people who buy (or download) pirated copies
of something would have purchased legitimate copies. That percentage
could well be anywhere from 0 to 100%. The studios lean toward 100%
(it makes their losses more staggering) and file sharing devotees
lean toward zero, to dodge responsibility. The answer (obviously)
is somewhere in the middle. How do we go about finding the answer?
It's almost like trying to work out an alternate history. In another
universe, where P2P networks don't exist, the studios would have
made a different amount of money, but I'll be damned if I can get
a grip on how to do the math. Statisticians try to "hold constant"
or otherwise account for other variables, but I'm not sure that
can be done in situations as complex as this, where so many things
come to bear on the collective decision-making of notoriously irrational
human beings. I go to fewer movies than I used to both because they
cost more, and because fewer movies appear that appeal to me. Is
this a broad trend, or is it just me? If you ask a group of people,
will they tell the truth? Do they even know the basis of their own
decisions? Will they simply tell you what they figure you want to
Finally, the biggie: How useful are any such estimates, as guides
for taking action? The study in question will doubtless be hauled
out by Hollywood to bludgeon Congress into basically shutting down
the Internet as we know it. (Of course, dropping hundreds of millions
of dollars into politician pockets at the same time makes the bludgeoning
go down a lot easier.) Many firms have done the same sort of alternate-history
estimates, and driven themselves nuts (and sometimes to bankrupty)
trying to guess how things would have gone last year with fewer (or
dumber) competitors, a different regulatory climate, a broader (or
narrower) product line, lower interest rates, and so on. My own position
has hardened in recent years to the following: Such things are
unknowable. History runs only once. One can guess, put one's finger
to the wind, and perhaps think wishfully, but trying to quantify things
that didn't happen is futile, and when done on such a large scale
as the studios are doing, can only mean that they're using an imaginary
past to construct a future more to their liking. It's time to call
BS on all such studies, and insist that planning (and especially legislating)
be done on the basis of what can be objectively known.
3, 2006: Tombstone Perks
One of the advantages of using a
large "tombstone" monitor (which is what I call my
two new Samsung LCD displays running in portrait mode) is that vertical
space is no longer in such short supply. The two that I now have
(an older 213T and a newer 214T) both run at 1200 X 1600, which
leaves me enough vertical space to do a lot of interesting things
I just couldn't manage before. One is to see both a Delphi form
under development and a fair amount of code, all at the same time,
without having to punch F12 to get the form to pop up from under
the code window.
But the one that surprised me most by its usefulness is being able
to expand the Windows task bar to three lines. On a busy day I might
have most of a dozen apps active (this machine has a lot of memory,
and acts like it) but on a single-line task bar, the icons compress
horizontally to the point that their text disappears and I can't
tell which is which. When I have five or six Word documents open
at once, that means I have to remember which taskbar button is for
which document, which is annoying.
A typical taskbar arrangement for me can be seen above. (Click
on the image for a full-size bitmap.) The apps could do a better
job displaying their buttonsespecially by not redundantly
stating their names textually beside their iconsbut at least
I can now tell which button goes with which document. (For many
things it doesn't matter; I only have one newsreader or mail client
open at once, for example.)
The Samsung 214T is a fantastic display, much faster on refresh than
the 213T (though I wouldn't try playing Quake on it) and so razor
sharp that working at 1200 X 1600 doesn't bother my eyesI just
pulled the monitor a little closer to me and the eyestrain factor
went away. Document guy that I am, I really enjoy the tombstone life.
If you need a monitor, get yourself one of the new pivoting Samsungs
and see if portrait mode doesn't provide you with some unexpected
perks as well.
2, 2006: Delphi Exception Abuse
As much as I love Delphi, there are things about it that drive
me absolutely batshit. I ran across another one today, though it's
not for the first time, just the first time in a number of years.
In Delphi, there's a very handy library function called StrToDate(StringContainingADate).
If you pass the function a date in string form in the parameter,
it will vet the date for you and return a TDateTime value
equivalent to that date as the function result. Unfortunately, if
the string contains nonsense or a malformed date, StrToDate
raises an exception.
That is exception abuse, pure and simple.
Exceptions are a relatively sophisticated mechanism that allows
a piece of code to recover from many kinds of code failures, especially
failures that leave several values in uncertain states, or (especially)
where the code has to check status on a database or a network connection
or something and attempt to recover. Using Delphi's exception mechanism
to tell you that a date is malformed is idiotic. The date is either
good or it isn't (the exception tells you nothing about why
the date failed to pass muster) and whether it's good or not doesn't
change anything else in the program. A Boolean flag passed back
somehow would make coding date coversions a whole lot simpler. I
would rather see the function defined like this:
FUNCTION StrToDate(InputString : String; VAR Date : TDateTime)
This way, if you call the function and it returns False,
you don't use the value in Date. Simple. No need for TRY..EXCEPT
and all the kafeuthering that Delphi launches into when somebody
raises an exception.
Handling exceptions while you're working in Delphi's IDE is awkward
in a number of ways, so I would prefer to see exceptions used only
when they make overwhelming sense. This is not one of those times.
A secondary issue regarding date conversion is the use of a predefined
global variable called DateSeparator to tell you what character
is acceptable as a separator in date strings. I don't like global
variables very muchall the books I learned Pascal from spoke
of them as one would speak of a tropical diseaseand I don't
see why a global variable is the best way to tell a library routine
what stupid separator you consider valid. The better way would be
to pass a character set variable or literal to the conversion routine,
where the set would include any characters you consider valid as
separators, for example: ['/','-','.']
That way, you don't have to run the conversion routine three times,
after changing that damfool global to each of the permitted separators.
I guess I'm just venting here; Delphi is what it is, and since I'm
behind on the project already, I don't think I'll be writing a StrToDate
function of my own. I look at the code I had to use to make this stuff
work and think, Eeee-yuk! I try to make my Pascal as pretty
as possible, but in this case, when the standard libraries are that
ugly, there's very little to be done other than throw a bag over it
and hope nobody else ever has to look at it.
1, 2006: The Flip Side of May Day
Busy today here, but I need to poop a little bit on the increasingly
stylish celebration of May
Day. Claims that May Day is about the workers is nonsense, of
course. May Day is the anointed holiday of violent totalitarian
political systems, on both the left and the right fringes of political
thought. Back in the 20th Century (a phrase that still rings oddly
in my ears) the largest celebrants of May Day were the Stalinist
Soviets, the Nazis, and the Communist Chinese. Such swell folks
to remember! The red displayed on May Day banners really represents
the blood of over 100 million people (most of them workers) who
died under the heel of this kind of government. The US did well
to separate May Day from Labor Day, but people seem to be forgetting
what came out of the early 20th Century May Day movement: massive
political murder, the scale of which had never been seen before
on Earth. There's no getting around it: If you're celebrating May
Day, you're also celebrating Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.