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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

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

January 28, 2008

We continue the discussion of eBook readers with some recent exchanges among the Chaos Manor Advisors. First, Robert Bruce Thompson:

Another eBook reader, this one apparently a prototype from iRiver.

Engadget link

--
Robert Bruce Thompson
thompson@ttgnet.com

Which prompted Captain Morse to say:

Humm....add a phone with a bluetooth interface for a wireless headset to it and I'd buy one.

Ron Morse

Of course that stimulated more discussion. Peter Glaskowsky asked:

You want a phone built into something that large?

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Yeah....actually what I want is to reduce the number of discrete things I carry around.

The bluetooth part is key...as stupid looking as the earpiece things are they work pretty well. And, it would not be as stupid looking as holding a book up to your ear. (Why does Don Adams come to mind, here?)

In effect I guess what I'm asking for is a really slim and just slightly smaller tablet than what I've seen to date. I like the cover idea, too.

Ron Morse

Alex adds:

Considering I hold a piece of toast up to my ear (well, ok, a Blackberry), I sympathize. I suppose I should try becoming emBorgled and wear a BT earpiece, but so far I've resisted. They really do look dorky (and I don't need help there).

--Alex

Peter Glaskowsky rode him down:

> Yeah....actually what I want is to reduce the number of discrete
> things I carry around.

At the expense of making one of them really big, though? This gizmo would be too large to carry in a pocket or belt holster, so you'd be forced to carry it loose or in some kind of man-purse just to make phone calls.

I think I just prefer the idea that the phone should just be a phone, and then other things connect to it via Bluetooth (or whatever).

Carrying a phone then becomes the minimum condition, and you add to it whatever specialty processors, storage, displays, or other I/O devices you might need.

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Which brought in Eric Pobirs:

I like that approach better. Some items I always want with me, while others are less essential. The item that gets priority is the phone and it has to be really good at being a phone before any other applications are considered. I really prefer to keep something like an entertainment device separate. I'd hate to discover I couldn't call for help because I'd lost track of time while playing a game and ran down the battery. (Which is why I also really like having a crank flashlight in the car that can also recharge small devices.)

If an e-book display became my primary reading source, I'd probably want two. One sized for go everywhere portability and another more comfortable size for around the house.

Eric

And Dan Spisak

iRiver had the same ebook prototype at CES last year from what I can remember. That is the thing about iRiver you have to keep in mind, they are not afraid to show off prototypes but its also not any kind of guarantee that they will productize what they show off.

As far as the Bluetooth headset debate goes, the Aliph Jawbone is not bad but it still has major issues with light breezes going over it somehow. My Danish wunderkinds, Nextlink has a new Invisio Q7 BT headset that uses bone-conduction tech that might solve the problem by having the mic inside the ear canal instead of outside of the ear. Of course the headset costs about $200 right now from what I understand.

Dan Spisak

At the point the conversation, although interesting, had drifted a bit off topic; which is probably why no company has come up with the universal system we all want. We'll get back to that in a moment. Now, Robert Bruce Thompson:

>>Carrying a phone then becomes the minimum condition, and you add to it whatever specialty processors, storage, displays, or other I/O devices you might need.<<

That makes sense to me. A small ebook reader is oxymoronic to me. I want a full-size display, ideally one that can display a double-page spread of a standard hardback-size book in landscape mode or, in portrait mode, an oversized single page, such as from one of my trade paperbacks. I want full color, as well. The size of such a reader isn't an issue compared to its usability. It should also run on standard AA or AAA cells, alkaline or NiMH.

As to man purses, I've been carrying a purse since I was in college back in the early to middle 1970's, but I always just called it a purse, without any qualifier. With the purse and my long hair and beard, most people mistook me for a liberal.

--
Robert Bruce Thompson
thompson@ttgnet.com

Which doesn't finish the conversation:

For a real live normal person I would tend to agree...especially the phone becoming the minimal kit and building from there.

But, I find that I always have to carry something around upon which to take notes about the things I talk about on the phone. That means a notebook or pad of some sort, or a voice recorder (my experience is they are both easier to lose and more expensive to replace that a pad) in addition to the phone. Don't forget a pen. And then there's the daytimer (or equivalent) because I have a bad habit of agreeing to do things without checking to see if I've already agreed to do something else at that same time. So I'm looking at a bag or briefcase anyway (and currently use a real nice Eddie Bauer notebook bag that works great whether there is a computer in the bag or not.

IF I carry a laptop it's a MacBookPro that has to go into a bag anyway, but it's pretty heavy and I still have to carry a phone, but I don't carry the computer very often because I tend to not do much work out of the office...just collect stuff to do later.

Sometimes I leave all that stuff home and come back with the oddest collections if little scraps of paper imaginable. So, for me, something like the little iRiver pad, if it had a phone and a bluetooth link, would represent progress.

But all of that is just me. Oh yes. Having a book or two available would be very nice. I typically don't have one of those with me. No room in the bag.

Did I mention a pen?

Ron Morse

And Peter Glaskowsky:

I used to feel the same way, and carried my Newton around whenever it was even remotely possible. But several years ago I moved all my PIM- type functionality to a Treo, keeping the Newton for more extensive note-taking only. When I left Microprocessor Report and got the Treo 650, I was able to give up the Newton entirely. It's true that the Treo's tiny keyboard and small screen limits its effectiveness at note-taking and some other functions, but I've found it's good enough for my needs. Instead of writing a paragraph about something interesting I see at a CES exhibitor booth, for example, I just jot down the name of the company and product I found interesting and remember to look it up again later.

An iPhone would likely do all of the things you mention even more effectively than a Treo, at least once the third-party developers are let loose on the iPhone platform. So for some people, at least, it's still reasonable for the primary device to be small and convenient to carry around.

But if you're the type who takes a Day-Timer into the restaurant, movie theater, bathroom, confessional, etc., a Treo, iPhone, Blackberry, or other small device might not be effective enough, and maybe something like an ebook reader with a cellphone would be the right answer.

> Did I mention a pen?

The Treo 650 stylus has a ballpoint pen built in, so at least I'm covered there...

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Which leaves us where? In my case, I keep coming back to a simple fact: if I am going to carry a briefcase, or a shoulder bag, what I want in it is Lisabetta, my HP Compaq tc1100 TabletPC. She's a bit slow by modern standards, but she works just fine. She runs Skype. She has WiFi and I can usually connect to the Internet at a Barnes and Noble or Starbucks, and almost certainly in any airport lounge.

I can display books in pdf, Word, Microsoft Reader, and other eBook formats, and she's got a bright enough screen that I can read in broad daylight or in the dark. The battery life is about 4 hours if I don't run the WiFi without external power, and the power supply is small and light and plugs into an automobile socket if I need to. Meanwhile, she's a Tablet and a full PC. She has all my email files, and I can put just about every book and article I am working on, along with my web site in FrontPage.

When I was going to computer shows every couple of months I generally carried more than one computer, but I noticed that I mostly used Lisabetta for everything. She has a small but good enough keyboard that I could use for banging out show reports. Now, true enough, I generally carried a heavier duty laptop — the ThinkPad t42p for preference — to set up in my hotel room for serious work (and particularly fiction), but I found by and large that I used Lisabetta far more often, and eventually she was the only machine I took with me when I was flying; and she was very much Good Enough.

Now Lisabetta is a bit out dated. She's slow running Outlook, but plenty fast enough for everything else I do. I have a more "modern" TabletPC, a ThinkPad x60,and that's far "better": more powerful, larger screen, and Vista; but in fact I prefer the Compaq form factor, and I find myself once again carrying Lisabetta; as for instance when I went to the Homeland Security conference. If Lisabetta were a bit lighter, and had longer battery life, she'd be everything I need: I am sure I can teach her to be a general telephone since she certainly can handle Skype. Well, she could use a camera, I suppose, but carrying a pocket camera isn't that much trouble.

I'm not sure where all this is going, but I do think that whatever the compromises we come up with, there's a pocket computer in your future. It will function as your telephone, book reader, data recorder, reference library — but wait! I described all that in The Mote in God's Eye back in 1972. Of course back then I thought it would take a century or more to get it. Now, I expect to see it in my lifetime.


Continuing this theme:

Jerry,

Ebook reader/telephone convergence -- the fly in the ointment:

There's one major showstopper standing in the way of serious use of this kind of combined device -- that's the never-ending cell phone upgrade cycle.

Few people keep the same cell phone for any length of time (speaking as an exception to that rule). If your cell phone is your ebook reader, and the current regimen remains in effect, you will need to "re-buy" your entire library every time you switch to a new cell phone.

This means not only the nontrivial expense of repeatedly purchasing a large library's worth of books, but, the loss of all notes you may have attached to books, bookmark flags, and so forth (not to mention the time and effort needed to find, download, and install each book).

Unless there is something of a common format becomes a standard, and -- more importantly, a change in the current "buy once, use once" policies -- there will be a *huge* disincentive to combining a book reader with a telephone.

If people *are* allowed to move "their" books from one device to the next (and enabled, via software standards), then this will all be moot. But, by and large, it looks like the industry is heavily monkey-trapped into the concept of a book being forever tied to ONE machine.

The other disincentives are merely... what's the opposite of "icing on the cake"?

A real migration to ebooks -- unless things change -- means the end of "can I borrow that when you're done reading it?" -- and the end of the local library's annual used book sale (and for that matter, quite possibly the end of the local library itself).

One possible fix for this mess would be the sale of ebooks on memory cards (which can be so small as to eliminate storage/mailing issues).

Buy the "book" on a card at the airport. Slip it into the slot on the side of your bookreader. In second or two, the LED blinks, and you remove the "book" card. It is now wiped clear, and can be discarded (what use would anyone have for a memory card with two or three MB of storage?) -- or, it can be retained.

IF it is retained, the user can, when finished with the book, slip the card back into the reader, and move the book back *into* the card (and OUT of the reader).

The book card can then be lent out, given away, sold, etc., and the succeeding owners can use it the same way.

This, to me, would seem to be about the only truly non-abusive (of real buyers) DRM. It would allow the "book" to be used AS a book, rather than as a piece of licensed software.

Ron Schwarz

Interesting speculations. I confess my crystal ball has clouded over in the past week, and sometimes I get fairly discouraged: if it's as easy to swap computer books nearly instantly as it is to swap songs and music, we may be looking at some bleak prospects for authors. On the other hand, readers do subscribe to my web site although it's run on the "public radio" model, meaning it's free but we hope you'll support it.


And one more note, which may be frightening:

Subject: cellphone novels

Jerry: Probably not your cup of tea:

Language Log link on Japanese cellphone novels.

Note the alternative distribution scheme, and the popularity.

Chris C

Excerpt:

A million cellphone novels

Back in 2004, when I learned about Senju Mariko, the Japanese violinist and novelist who did all her writing on a cell phone ("More on meiru", 3/9/2004), I thought she was a strange outlier in the world of the Japanese infatuation with texting. But according to today's NYT, the Japanese best-seller list for 2007 was dominated by cellphone novels republished in book form (Norimitsu Onishi, "Broken Hearts, Sore Thumbs: Japan's Best Sellers Go Cellular", 1/20/2008):

Whatever their literary talents, cellphone novelists are racking up the kind of sales that most more experienced, traditional novelists can only dream of.

One such star, a 21-year-old woman named Rin, wrote "If You" over a six-month stretch during her senior year in high school. While commuting to her part-time job or whenever she found a free moment, she tapped out passages on her cellphone and uploaded them on a popular Web site for would-be authors.

After cellphone readers voted her novel No. 1 in one ranking, her story of the tragic love between two childhood friends was turned into a 142-page hardcover book last year. It sold 400,000 copies and became the No. 5 best-selling novel of 2007, according to a closely watched list by Tohan, a major book distributor.

And I am not at all sure what to make of that. I doubt I could compete... I presume there's a place for such things as slash fiction in there, too.

The thought of having to write, in Japanese, on a cell phone interface, is just a bit too much to bear.


I am late getting this mail up, so I have eliminated some topical items, but this one from Peter Glaskowsky seems worth keeping:

I wrote an unusually long post about the MacBook Air for tomorrow morning, and figured I'd pass along the link. This'll work starting at 5:01am PST:

http://blogs.cnet.com/8301-13512_1-9851584-23.html

The main page, as always: http://speedsnfeeds.com

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And Rick Hellewell sent this on the Air

Fellow Daynoter Dan Seto was ready to buy a new laptop. He waited for the Apple offering, and his conclusion is here.

...Rick....

I have mixed emotions about Apple's Air. It may be precisely what we need: see the long discussion above. We'll just have to see. It's certainly a step in the right direction: small, long battery life, fairly rugged. It would certainly do as an eBook reader.


Ethanol and the energy problem is not the sort of topic I generally cover in Chaos Manor Reviews, but it is important. I wasn't surprised to see this from Captain Morse:

GM Buys into better Ethanol

Jerry, you're probably getting buried with people sending you notes about this. Looks like GM thinks there is a better way to Ethanol than burning food, too.

I have absolutely no idea whether the following PR blurb has any relation to reality (especially the cost of production) or the science behind the claims, but thought you might find it interesting.

What follows came from www.autoracing1.com which is a subscription site, but I'm sure the news is getting around.

Ron Morse

Breakthrough Biofuel Fuel Technology Announced

At this year's NAIAS, General Motors is announcing their partnership with Coskata, as they believe in taking the first step toward producing a new biofuel. Called A Next Generation Ethanol Company, they have patented microorganisms and bioreactor designs that produce ethanol for less than a dollar a gallon, about half the cost of producing a gallon of gasoline. Household garbage, old tires, and even plant stalk after harvest all contain carbon which can be turned into fuel for our cars and trucks, cheaply and efficiently. This new technology also reduces CO2 emissions up to 84 percent compared to gasoline. The partnership builds on the automaker's 25 years of biofuel research and approach to providing energy alternatives for automobiles.

Robert Bruce Thompson commented:

You know, I've always wondered why the focus is so strongly on ethanol from corn, when it's about the worst possible choice. The corn growers lobby, I guess.

It's also strange that there are so few initiatives based on methanol, which is cheap and easy to produce from non-food organics, and is extremely efficient in terms of energy inputs/outputs. In quantity, methanol should cost well under $1.00/gallon energy equivalent, depending on the organics used as inputs.

Granted, methanol dissolves aluminum and many plastics used in the fuel systems of current vehicles, which would make retrofitting current vehicles difficult or impossible, but there's no reason that new vehicles couldn't be designed to run on methanol. Most filling stations have a dozen or more pumps anyway, so they could devote at least one to methanol.

If Jerry gets his wish about the US building a whole bunch of nuclear power plants, we might even use the cheap electricity from those to produce methanol by the old method, called destructive distillation. That would allow the organic inputs to be limited to scrap wood, sawdust, and just about any plant waste. We have gigatons of kudzu here in the South, which would work fine and grows anywhere, including on land not suitable for crops. And kudzu grows so fast that it's alleged to have captured and strangled people who weren't walking fast enough.

RBT

I make no secret of my "energy plan": reduce the regulatory barriers to nuclear reactors and move the United States into the same league as Japan and France: over 90% of our electricity to come from nuclear power. Anyone who seriously studies the problem — as opposed to playing political games — will soon realize that nuclear waste is a non-problem. There are a dozen ways to deal with it, the simplest being to encase it in glass blocks — glass is essentially eternal — and drop it in the Mindanao Trench, where it will be subducted into the Earth's interior without further interaction with the environment. Meanwhile, offer large prizes, say $10 billion dollars, to the first American company that can beam down 50 megawatts from space to Earth for 300 days in a single year. We'd soon have space solar power satellites as a major renewable power source.

As to ethanol and hydrogen, both may be useful as power distribution systems, but there are no ethanol, or methanol, or hydrogen wells; they aren't energy sources. And burning food to go joyriding does not seem very ethical to me.


We have a mild dissent from my previous comments:

You said...

"...HD DVD will be left behind. Think Betamax..."

Although the Betamax technology disappeared from the consumer market, even though it was technologically superior to VHS at that time, it survived quite nicely in the professional markets, where Beta [Betacam?] format tapes from Sony and the associated cameras, players, and edit systems have been dominant for years.

Charles Brumbelow

I suppose I actually knew that and forgot it. Perhaps there will remain a niche market for HD DVD, but it's pretty certain that Blu-ray has won this fight.


Readers will recall my long time friend Bob Holmes, a computer and networking consultant. He sends a most unexpected orchid:

Windows Vista: an Orchid along with an Onion

Jerry,

I hate to admit it, but I must give Windows Vista an Orchid. This weekend the Mother Board in my primary system decided that it was time to hang during POST. No beeps no nothing after display the processor type. Removing all ad-in cards and disconnecting all drives the result was the same. The display adapter was obviously working. I was, after all, getting the first half screen of the POST. It didn't seem logical that memory or processor was bad. I didn't think that I would get any display at all if either of those wasn't working. I took out the memory and then there were beep codes and no display.

I went and got a new Mother Board,. not the same model as the one that failed, and proceeded to install it. I had hopes that the system would boot and that I could then install the necessary drivers. The system is dual boot with XP and Vista Home Premium in separate partitions.

The driver update in windows XP was a bit of a pain for everything except audio. Audio has eaten many hours of my time and it still doesn't work. On line activation was required because of the new mother board but went without problem.

Vista was an entirely different story. The driver installation was smooth and only required the insertion of the CD from the new Mother Board for one driver. All other drivers were installed without requiring me to do anything except answer an occasional question and then insert the CD. The sound even works!

On line activation for Vista did not work and I had to call the toll free number. This wasted about 20 minutes of my time. Not too bad a trade off from the several hours I have spent with XP where I still have no sound.

Networking and accessing files on the local hard drive continue to be a frustration with Vista. At time these problems make the system almost unusable.

With Microsoft it always seems to be 1.1 steps forward and 1 step back.

Bob Holmes

I have no doubt at all that Microsoft will get Vista fixed, technically; whether they have the marketing smarts to drop all this bewildering variety of flavors is another matter. Meanwhile, Apple keeps moving forward with new ways to make UNIX usable by non-gurus, and the Linux community keeps creating applications for the rest of us, and the hardware just gets better and better.

It's a competitive OS world out there.


John Monahan recommends a utility:

Subject: A great utility that I have used for years.

http://isorecorder.alexfeinman.com/isorecorder.htm

Welcome to the ISO Recorder download page. ISO Recorder is a tool (power toy) for Windows XP, 2003 and now Windows Vista, that allows (depending on the Windows version) to burn CD and DVD images (DVD support is only available on Windows Vista), copy disks, make images of the existing data CDs and DVDs and create ISO images from a content of a disk folder.

ISO Recorder has been conceived during Windows XP beta program, when Microsoft for the first time started distributing new OS builds as ISO images. Even though the new OS had CD-burning support (by Roxio), it did not have an ability to record an image. ISO Recorder has filled this need and has been one of the popular Windows downloads ever since.

With an advent of Windows XP SP2 and Windows 2003 the version 2 of ISO Recorder has been released, which introduced some new features including ISO image creation and support for non-admin user.

Finally, in Windows Vista it became possible to address another long-standing request and provide DVD burning capability.

Since the very beginning ISO Recorder has been a free tool (for personal use). It is recommended by MSDN download site along with Easy CD and Nero and is used by a number of companies around the world.

John Monahan

I am familiar with the ISO Recorder Power Toy for CD's. Thanks for telling us about the DVD ability in Vista.


And finally, a most unusual offer:

Subject: You are in error

Jerry, I have been reading your column for years, but you are deeply in error about one thing: you DO need an iPhone. You DO need to surf the web during all the interstices of your day: while you wait for some enormous woman to unload her groceries, while you wait for someone to figure out their passcode at the bank. You will be startled, I assure you, at the productivity increase. Try it for a month. If you don't agree, the iPhone is on me.

Joseph L. Anderson

Actually, my life isn't quite like that: I don't spend much time outside my house except on walks (and recently at medical appointments); and I am not sure that time spent gathering information is the main limit on my productivity just now.

Still, I do see your point. I'll have to think about your offer, presuming you meant it.