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The Mailbag

Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2008 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

January 7, 2008

I recently sent a note to all the 2006 subscribers reminding them that it was time to renew, and the response was overwhelming. When I began this, I used Outlook to build the subscription list. That worked well, but there have got to be enough that enrolling and updating subscriptions by hand has become somewhat onerous.

One subscriber sent this letter:

Subject: Neglected Subscriptions

Jerry's readership

I appeal for one of JP's readership to set him up with a subscription system that generates automatic reminders and handles the other routine administration of the subscription system. There is surely someone out there who either already has the necessary code or who could write it in short order. I am the least creative of people, but even I can see that writing novels and and the Review Column takes all JP's capacity and dealing with the considerable burden of the routine administration of the subscription system, or lack of it, rightly has too low a priority to be properly handled.

So come on guys let us sort him out.

John Edwards.

Perhaps someone knows how to do this. I have the current records as an Outlook Contact List, with the year of subscription and status (patron, VIP, friend, regular, etc.) as "categories" items. I have no idea how Outlook stores these files. I gather I can export them into a csv list; indeed I think that's how I got them into the Contact list in the first place. One problem is that some of the details are simply notes in the general notation field, and I don't know whether that exports or not. I suspect not.

I have sometimes thought of trying to construct an Access data base, or build something with Filemaker, but I also discover that it will take a block of time I probably don't have. Thus I spend far more time enduring what I have, but that doesn't require a large block of time NOW. Sigh.

I admit I'd appreciate advice and help.

Continuing the discussion of the necessity of Microsoft Word:

Subject: another good piece on dumping Word

P.S. another one

"Goodbye Cruel Word"



The referenced "Goodbye Cruel Word" story is unconvincing to me. Word works fine for me: the automatic correction (teh becomes the without my having to do anything at all), the spelling and grammar checker, the thesaurus, all work just fine.

The referenced article condemns Word for being too large. I recall back when Word expanded from about 40 megabyte to 300 megabytes; at the time I roundly condemned it as "bloatware" in my BYTE column, earning me a protest from Pam Edstrom. As it happens, that expansion came just as hard drive capacity grew without limit, and ten gigabytes became standard. The larger size of Word allowed the incorporation of a lot of features including the integration of the thesaurus, and I like all of that a lot. I had to eat crow.

The complaints about clutter — information and tool bars and the like — being a distraction from what one is writing is one I used to have a lot of sympathy for, and indeed I wrote something of the sort twenty years ago; but in fact it's not really distracting, and the complaint comes from someone who wants a continuous display of word count.

I don't find Word evil, and indeed one reason I didn't convert to a Mac when the Macs first came out was that MacWrite was ghastly compared with Word. Of course there is now Word for the Mac, which is another story.

Subject: Word alternatives on the Mac

Hi Jerry,

Another brief report on my switch to the Mac. This one is precipitated by this story in the NYT.

The author talks about leaving Word behind, which is something I am in the midst of after finishing a recent paper with a colleague who is still on Word for Windows.

After wrestling through the normal issues doing so, to include sending the draft back and forth working within Windows (I seriously doubt there is a single copy of Word or Windows out there, even within the same version or revision that is the same!) I am seriously investigating alternatives.

Since I love Apple's Keynote I bought the update to iWork 08. The new Apple Spreadsheet, Numbers, is a stunning piece of work. More on that another time. The big surprise is their improvements to Pages, the word processor. It is now a simple clean word processor (all the page layout is still there, but hidden) ala the MacWrite of old. I am no end of pleased. I just finished another 9 page paper with it and the process was painless and I have yet to really sit down and learn it. However, there may be a new kid on the block.

In the NYT article the author raves about Scrivener, a program aimed at novelists, which I looked at a while back.

It doesn't meet my needs as a working engineer, but it got me going on seeking a Word alternative. Further down in the article she strikes gold however, with a program called WriteRoom.

Full screen, no distractions, green on black (shades of the Pournelle mode in Word!) and plain text. Lovely! This one I will play with some more.

You will have a blast when you dive into the Mac more and all the wonderful tools available for it.

All the best,


As I have promised in the past, sometime this year I will acquire a new Mac and use it exclusively for a month or so. When I do, I may well discover that I like all those new tools, but the first thing I will install on the new Mac will be Word. Then we'll see.

While we're on the subject of Macs, Phil Tharp reported previously that he had problems with Parallels and switch to VMWare for running Windows programs on the Mac. I recently asked him if had any updates.

Re: vmware fusion on mac


I have not tried parallels since. Vmware has been working very well. Going the vmware route has the advantage of Windows compatibility. I know Parallels has a Windows product, but it has nowhere near the market penetration.

On a separate note, I dropped my iphone and broke the silent/ring switch. Now it is truly silent, no vibrate, no ring - otherwise it still works. Went to the Apple Store in Palo Alto to get replaced. I was told it would cost $250.00 and that I would have to wait for a "Genius" to check it out before I would be privileged to spend $250.00 for a replacement one. Or I could have an appointment on Monday. I was not amused. I may go back to my Blackberry for a while.

Phil Tharp

I have plenty of problems with the dreaded Vista, which I'll report in the column. This reader has a different problem:

Subject: Delayed Write error -- WinXP


I just installed Windows XP on a personal system for the very first time on the new year, having been a Win2K holdout for these many long years.

Lo and behold, after a clean install of WinXP SP2, what should greet my eyes as the first serious sign of trouble?

The dreaded "Delayed Write Error".

I recall your frustration with this inexplicable problem and wonder if you'd ever found relief?

I had this occur occasionally under Win2K, but at the time couldn't exclude the USB variables. It would come and go, and I'd play around with the swap file settings, run CHKDSK, etc. & etc. but never isolated the cause. I just lived with it.

This time, with WinXP SP2, I've not had occasion to invoke any USB devices. Score one for the team, as this was a usual suspect according to Microsoft's KB articles.

So I hit MSFT's Knowledge Base again and came across the following:

"Error message that you may receive when you save or move documents in Windows XP: "Delayed Write Failed"


I note that the last review occurred on November 12, 2007...

Something new caught my eye: a WORKAROUND


To work around this issue, increase the value for the page table entries. To do this, follow these steps.

Important This section, method, or task contains steps that tell you how to modify the registry. However, serious problems might occur if you modify the registry incorrectly. Therefore, make sure that you follow these steps carefully. For added protection, back up the registry before you modify it. Then, you can restore the registry if a problem occurs. For more information about how to back up and restore the registry, click the following article number to view the article in the Microsoft Knowledge Base: 322756 (http://support.microsoft.com/kb/322756/) How to back up and restore the registry in Windows XP and Windows Vista

1. Click Start, click Run, type regedit, and then click OK.

2. Locate the following registry key: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Session Manager\Memory Management

3. In the details pane, right-click the SystemPages value, and then click Modify.

4. In the Value data box, type the following value, and then click OK: FFFFFFFF

5. Exit Registry Editor.

Note The FFFFFFFF value is okay to use. However, a value that is more than the default value but less than the maximum value may provide better results."

I haven't yet tried the WORKAROUND because the first course of treatment is disabling the write-cache on the all hard drives. I did do that this morning and haven't had any trouble, but who knows if the error may yet rear its head again?

I'm passing this along as an interim report and query into your solution, if any; because if I don't my own memory will fail. I don't recall seeing the WORKAROUND's reg fix mentioned before.



I have had those Delayed Write Errors when trying to copy files to an external drive connected by USB. There were enough of them that I no longer use USB drives for backup. All my backup drives are now either internal or connected by Ethernet. Thus I haven't tried the WORKAROUND because I haven't needed it.

I find that Norton Backup and Restore works well with Windows XP, and I have used it with a USB external drive; I was skittish the entire time that it was writing the files, but it did work. Because of that Delayed Write Error, I wouldn't rely on that as a system.

Last week we mentioned pewter; this sparked a discussion. First Eph Konigsberg, who is well known as a designer and maker of physiological transducers as well as an old friend:

Subject: Pewter

Hello Again:

There are two main types of Pewter. The more common one, that looks grayish, is made of tin and lead. A higher quality, that looks more silvery, is made of tin and antimony, and is sometimes referred to as Brittania metal. It is also more expensive, much nicer in apperance, and worth it. Note: we use antimony in our esophageal pH monitor probes, which are approved by the FDA.



Whoops! I forgot to mention, tin and copper makes bronze, not pewter. Copper and zinc make brass unless you use less zinc, in which you make an alloy that looks very much like gold, and is used by jewellers. Called "pinchbeck" after a 17th century (?) English jeweller.


Of course tin and copper makes bronze, and how I managed to say different is beyond me. I've written enough about the Bronze Age...

There was also discussion of the dangers of mercury. Preface: when I was in high school we had several quarts of mercury in the chemistry lab, and the Science Club students were allowed to experiment with it, which we did. We made mercury amalgam "dimes" from pennies, poured the stuff out and watched it bead, etc. In those days, occasional exposure to mercury was no big deal. Now that's not longer true.

I also said last week that we have long known that breaking a fluorescent bulb is a Big Deal (at least it was in my house). Robert Bruce Thompson says

It isn't, really. Metallic mercury is essentially inert. The danger arises from mercury vapor and (even worse) soluble mercury compounds. But if you run the numbers on the amount of mercury present in a bulb and the volume of the space where the spill occurs, you'll find that the amount of mercury vapor in the air is below allowable thresholds, even assuming that all of the mercury ends up in the air (most of it remains on the glass fragments) and that the thresholds are reasonable (arguably, they're too low by at least one order of magnitude and possibly more.)

My first rule if I broke a bulb that contained mercury would be: DON'T TELL ANYONE. If you do, some bureaucrat is likely to insist on a formal cleanup. Instead, get as much of the visible mercury (if indeed there is any visible) blotted up (an eyedropper is a useful device) and dispose of it properly. If you have some sulfur (available at garden stores), you can scatter it as you would baking soda to absorb an ordinary spill. You can also take advantage of the fact that mercury readily forms alloys (amalgams) by sprinkling zinc powder. Air the room out well, and everything will be fine.

Robert Bruce Thompson

Which is probably good advice. Calling Hazmat for a broken fluorescent bulb can be expensive.

Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey adds

When I saw "WND" first, I thought you were referring to some acronym that meant "Lightbulbs of Mass Destruction". I figured it out, of course, but had a good laugh for a moment.

I don't remember the same hysteria over small amounts of mercury that we see today. A thermometer broke when I was in grammar school. A kid was cut on the broken glass (because he was being stupid with the thermometer, and broke it against his arm). The big deal was the cut, not the mercury.

Last year in DC, well... this stuff happened.

Brian Bilbrey

Sure. We had bowls of mercury to play with in high school physics. Used to turn pennies into silver... Bob Thompson adds a serious warning:

The current state of affairs is that very few people understand anything about science, so nearly everyone is easy prey for the fear-mongering environmentalists. Elemental mercury should be treated with respect, but not fear.

By the time I was 14 years old, I was making Daguerreotypes in my basement darkroom. Developing a Daguerreotype requires mercury vapor in large amounts. (You actually heat a bowl of mercury inside the developing cabinet.) When I finished developing a plate, I simply opened the window and pointed a fan to blow over the development cabinet. I probably put at least an ounce or two of mercury into the air over the years. I remember checking outside the window periodically to see if the shrubbery had grown three heads or something, but it was unaffected. I also made heavy use of stuff like chromium(VI) compounds, potassium cyanide, etc. Many of my friends did the same. We're all in our mid-50's now, and all remarkably healthy.

All of that said, there is at least one mercury compound that scares me silly. Dimethyl mercury. Literally one drop on a gloved hand kills, as Karen Wetterhahn found out.

Robert Bruce Thompson

Bob is currently working on a book on home chemistry experiments, now that the famous Gilbert Chemistry Sets my generation grew up on are either gone or crippled. I'll let you know when it's done.

Regarding a previous discussion of silly regulations:

"It could also act as a disincentive to people wanting to travel, and we are sure that is not what the Government intends."

On the contrary, I'm sure that is -precisely- what they intend:

[ Daily Mail link ]

Roland Dobbins

One does wonder: if we wanted to discourage travel, what might TSA do that it isn't already doing? Do we all feel safer already? One would think that modern technology could do a lot better job.

Last time there was a vigorous discussion of ebooks and rights. It continued all this week in my advisors' group, and became heated, which I regret.

Readers also commented on ebooks:

Subject: Ebooks and tooting your and Baen's horn


Every time I see material about ebooks and DRM I would like to see I link to http://www.baen.com, the place that SELLS your and others ebooks DRM free. I actually would like to see ebooks called baens, as Jim really started the commercial DRM free publishing business.

Happy New Year!

John Monahan

I completely agree! And I have just arranged for the two War Worlds novels, Blood Feuds and Blood Vengeance, to be published as Baen ebooks.

Mike Glyer, an old friend and well known science fiction fanzine publisher, appears as a character in Fallen Angels. He has this to say:

Subject: The mailbag

Hi Jerry,

Just read the mailbag -- what a very interesting debate between the advisors.

Looking back over the electronic rights discussion, one thing that arrests my attention as one of your readers and a reader of sf generally is the possibility that writers' livelihoods will be undercut. I wonder how many people in the sf field support themselves primarily by writing? Considering sf writers as a whole, do you think the proportion of them who make their living as writers has changed since 30 years ago?

I've been wondering whether the failure of all writers to join ranks on this is not merely because reasonable people can disagree, but that not very many either currently do, or even aspire to, support themselves by writing. Thus, their ox is not being gored. There is no reality check, like being unable to pay the rent.

I remember a panel of writers at a convention about 10 years ago being posed the question of why they write sf. One answered, "As a contribution to culture," and her explanation took awhile to decipher but meant essentially the same as "I like to play the game." To write, get published, be part of the literary dialog of the time. Getting paid was more an indication of having risen to a certain level than a necessary return on the investment of time.

That approach to writing has always been around (what fan doesn't want to sell one story and be a "pro"?). What's new is the hostility to protecting artists' rights. That seems a creation of the internet age. If it happened to be true that an increasing percentage of published writers sees getting paid as nothing more than a validation of their literary competence, that also may help explain why so many advocate what seems to me a self-destructive value system.

Not that I assert it as a complete explanation -- but for example Scalzi revealed on his website he made over $60K from writing ficton in 2006, after making less than $15,000 total over the previous six years. (He also writes nonfiction but either didn't say how much he made from that or I didn't look hard enough to find out.)

--Mike Glyer

I am in the middle of debates on this matter in writers' organizations, and I think I'll sit back and watch for a while. Glyer is usually worth listening to.

Part of the answer to the intellectual property question

Hi Jerry,

Part of the answer (in my ever-so-humble opinion) is to "take the copy out of copyright", if I can borrow the title of a paper I once read. The right of "reproduction" was added to the bundle of rights granted to copyright holders at a time when it was a good indication of intent to publish or distribute. If somebody had spent thousands of dollars on a printing press, chances were very good that they were going to be publishing or distributing books. These days, people make copies effortlessly. It's often harder to not make copies than it is to make them (caching, buffering, etc). Hardly any of those copies are ever going to be distributed. Hardly any of them have any impact on the creator's ability to earn a living.

Taking the "right to reproduce a work" away from rightsholders would allow Rich to copy his CD to his MP3 player and still allow you to get unauthorized copies of your books taken down from websites. It would drastically simplify Copyright Acts everywhere (no more need for exceptions to the right to make a copy). I think it would bring copyright closer to both what people feel is reasonable and to its original purpose, and hence encourage people to respect it more.

It's such a shame that they chose "copy" right rather than "manuscript" right all those years ago. Certainly makes this idea harder to argue.

Chris Brand

It's not hard to find agreement as to how things SHOULD be. I don't worry about the copy you make for yourself, or the one you make and give to a friend. I do get concerned when you make 1,000 copies and sell them. Indeed, I get concerned when you make 1,000 copies and give them to your closest friends. Most people agree: reasonable copying doesn't disturb the intent of the copyright laws, which is to allow authors to make enough money that they have an incentive to do their best work.

If all creative work is free, then it will all be lowest common denominator. If all I can get for a story is what I will get the first few months it is out, then it's like journalism. I do well out of journalism; but journalistic works are not the same as, say, Lucifer's Hammer, which took 3 years to write. Hammer earned out a very large advance and makes money to this day; it was worth it, and as a result Niven and I wrote Footfall. Inferno earned out, and we have written Inferno II, another work that took more than a year of hard work to produce the first draft, and another half year of revision.

If all creative work becomes free, then authors who seek to do serious hard work will have to seek grants, or get academic appointments, or seek a wealthy patron to support them while they do all that work. You may guess the quality of work that will produce — actually you don't have to guess. We know what academic writers produce.

Again I have no final solutions; but as machines like Kindle improve and become popular, ebooks are going to cut into mass paperback sales, and authors who rely on mass paperback will be in trouble unless they can get money from ebooks.

Peter Glaskowsky thinks technology will solve the problem. I hope so, but my experience with Digital Rights Management has not been positive. Perhaps as technology improves. We'll see.