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Computing At Chaos Manor:
April 7, 2009

The User's Column, April, 2009
Column 345
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2009 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

April First came and went without major incidents. There had been numerous rumors of Conficker activities. Conficker is a worm that has infected millions of computers, and those who analyze such things had concluded that the Conficker masters - no one knows who they are - were going to send new instructions to their millions of zombies distributed all over the world. Since a Conficker-infested computer will do anything its masters tell it to, that could have caused quite a problem. Sites could have been attacked, or the Internet flooded with spam, and we can all think of worse alternatives. Fortunately none of that happened.

That's good, but Conficker remains.

Conficker is a nasty worm, and if you are infected by it, you must be extremely careful. Do not - I repeat, do not - Google Conficker and then go to some site advertising a Conficker test or removal program. The chances are pretty good that you'll be going to a place that intends you no good and may be putting malware on your system. Some actually send you Conficker. If you want to deal with Conficker, go only to a really trustworthy place, such as Microsoft or Symantec, and be darned certain that you are in fact going to the place you think you are. There are lots of ways to fool people into going to sites they hadn't intended.

The first rule on dealing with Conficker is "Don't Panic." If your Windows system is up to date, you have no problems. For more on all this, see the advice I put up at the last of March, and be sure to read the advice from Rick Hellewell, security specialist, which you'll find there.

As to what happened on April First, here is Rick Hellewell's report:

Noticing that the Internet is still working after the big 'Conficker attack on 4/1/09. But there are lots of computers with the Conficker malware, as shown by this map from the Conficker Working Group.

That group also has a quick test for checking if you are infected is this Conficker "Eye Chart", which uses graphic images from web sites that are blocked by Conficker. A good quick test to see if you are infected with Conficker.

Conficker is still a threat, since there is no limit to what a bot-controlled computer could be told to do. The map shows that it is still widespread. But the attention of the anti-malware community will minimize its impact, I think. Or at least the details of the next attack will be known.

...Rick Hellewell

If you run the eye chart test and think you are infected, make certain that you don't panic and make things worse. Leo Laporte has more advice on the show notes from his 4 April radio program.


Without a great deal of fanfare Microsoft has announced the end of Encarta, the company's electronic encyclopedia. It's still available on DVD (or multiple CD's) for a while, and if you're home schooling or thinking of doing that, it would be worth tracking down a copy. Encarta wasn't the most authoritative encyclopedia - most agree that would be Britannica - but it's still one of the coolest.

The original Encarta (1993) was a CD-ROM version of the Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia. Some readers will remember when "look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls" was a catch phrase on Laugh-In and other comedy TV shows. The encyclopedia used to be sold in grocery stores and supermarkets, usually by having a big sale on a single volume. Microsoft renamed their version "Encarta" for aesthetic and marketing reasons. Funk and Wagnalls survived in print until about 2000, and a ghost of it exists in electronic form as a scholarly reference, but it mostly survived in Encarta.

Microsoft took the encyclopedia business pretty seriously. Microsoft had originally approached Britannica, but Britannica was reluctant, fearing that a CD-ROM edition would harm the sales of the print edition. Although Britannica was generally regarded as the most prestigious encyclopedia for both clarity and accuracy, in 1994 a well regarded review ranked Colliers Encyclopedia as better. Microsoft subsequently bought Colliers and incorporated that into Encarta, and continued to work on improving the product.

Meanwhile, Britannica fell into financial troubles and was sold at well below book value to a Swiss financier. Unlike nearly all its former competitors, Britannica continues in print, media, and on-line versions.

Beyond the CD-ROM Revolution

When CD-ROM first came out it was an easy prediction that expensive reference works like the Britannica would soon be in trouble. At the first CD-ROM conference - in Seattle's Olympic Hotel, hosted by Microsoft and Bill Gates - I was interviewed by Min Yee, the conference chairman, and said, rather off-handedly, "CD-ROM will change the world." Microsoft used that quote as a marketing blurb.

At the time I was thinking of scholarly publications, which were very expensive and in financial trouble. It was pretty clear that CD-ROM technology would change all that. CD-ROMs could also make primary data available to academic institutions everywhere: as I pointed out, images of the Dead Sea Scrolls plus everything ever written about them could fit on one or two CD's, and be duplicated for practically nothing: the postage costs would be higher than the printing costs. Thus every college and university in the world could have the primary data on many subjects, and scholars wouldn't have to go spend years at one particular place to work on their specialties.

At the time a CD-ROM reader cost over $500, but it was pretty clear that Moore's Law would soon bring that down to consumer product prices, and CD-ROM would be the key to an information revolution that put just about everything ever written into the hands of anyone who wanted it. It was also clear that the technology would improve, packing more and more information into smaller spaces, and of course that has happened. Another easy prediction was that the Internet backbone connecting academic and military institutions would complement this information revolution.

One of the first people to see the importance of this information revolution was Gary Kildall, who brought out Groliers Encyclopedia on CD-ROM. It was quite successful, and, now under Scholastic's ownership, continues to sell both in media and on-line.

About the same time, Microsoft brought out Microsoft Bookshelf, a single CD-ROM that contained Roget's Thesaurus, The American Heritage Dictionary, Bartlett's Quotations, the World Almanac, the Chicago Manual of Style, and a bunch of other goodies. It was soon integrated with Word, and that greatly boosted Word sales. After all, most professional writers used all those books - I certainly had every one of them on a shelf very close to my keyboard, except that instead of the Chicago Manual of Style I had Skillin and Gay's Words Into Type, which I think far superior. (Incidentally, when I first began writing for a living, Robert Heinlein gave me a copy of Skillin and Gay, and told me to read it at least once a year. I did that for several years, and it was very good advice.)

Bookshelf soon replaced most printed copies of its included reference works. I still have the original books, but I confess I haven't opened my paper copy of Bartlett's in years; it's just too easy to look it up electronically. At one time I kept a copy of Bookshelf on a hard drive, where I could access it from within Microsoft Word. I gave that up a couple of years ago; nowadays it's all on line, or built into Word. Microsoft gave up Bookshelf in 2000, when they folded most of its features into Encarta. Like printed encyclopedias, many of the old standard reference books have gone out of print. Amazon still has Skillin and Gay, though.


Encyclopedias are expensive. The old Britannica was enormous - as I recall, the one we had when I was growing up was 24 volumes plus the Yearbooks. While I suppose they could have been produced in less elegant editions, few ever were, and those weren't very successful.

They had to be elegant because one of the major selling points for getting encyclopedias into people's homes was snob appeal. When I was an undergraduate I tried being a door to door Britannica salesman; part of our sales pitch was a free and rather handsome book case offered on condition that it and the books would be displayed in the living room. Ostensibly this was for the publisher's benefit, but the sales managers understood that since we were working in lower middle class neighborhoods the snob appeal factor was important. My father, who was a career sales manager, said I didn't have enough larceny in my heart to be a good salesman. Perhaps he was right because I certainly wasn't a successful Britannica salesman. In any event, the production costs of good encyclopedias was high.

CD-ROM changed that, of course. The story is told that in the Stalin era, owners of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia were sent revision pages and a razor blade to deal with the article on Trotsky. CD-ROM made it much easier and cheaper to publish revisions and additions to reference works. Now that everything is on line, such revisions can be made without our knowledge, but that's another story.

What CD-ROM couldn't change was the cost of intellectual maintenance. The knowledge base changes fast. This is obvious enough when one looks at science and technology, but things change in all fields. In the social sciences there are revolutions every few years as one or another theory gains prominence or political correctness. Offhand remarks once universally accepted are now considered deadly insults. Words once in common use are now seen as insensitive and offensive. Installing the revisions in media and on-line editions is cheaper now, but rewriting those articles is more expensive every year. Getting them vetted by experts and achieving a consensus is expensive.

So long as the competition was another publishing company, this was endurable. Encyclopedia sales revenues weren't wonderful, but there was enough revenue to support the industry.

The Crash

Enter the World Wide Web, and Wikipedia, and the bottom fell out. While some people will pay for what they can get for free - my thanks to all of you who subscribe and renew your subscriptions - there weren't enough to support the very expensive maintenance of the encyclopedias. Some remain, notably Britannica, but it's getting tougher all the time.

You can get print edition encyclopedias, but new editions are rare and probably doomed. On line and media access is just so much easier and faster, and I suppose that's a good thing, although you do lose something. I can remember as a child going to the Britannica to look up something, and emerging hours later having read a dozen different articles about stuff I never intended to look up. Sometimes I had forgotten why I went there in the first place. I suppose that didn't happen to everyone, but it sure did with me, and contributed significantly to my education, particularly when we were out in Capleville and my school had two grades to a room.

Wikipedia changes that; there are links embedded in Wikipedia articles, and one can follow them quite easily - assuming a fast enough system and Internet connection - but that's a directed walk, not the self-guided tours I used to go on. Directed may be better, but surely that depends on the director and what axes the director wants to grind. It hardly matters. For most people, the first place they tend to look is Wikipedia. Why not? It's often more extensive than the traditional encyclopedia articles, and it's very likely to be more up to date. It's also free.

It's great to have free information. Ironically, some of the material I'm drawing on for this column comes from Wikipedia articles on Britannica, Funk and Wagnall, Collier, and even Encarta; I can learn more about their history from Wikipedia than I can from the publications themselves. Wikipedia can afford longer articles on Britannica than Britannica can.

The Cost of Free

Wikipedia can afford longer articles because it doesn't pay for them. Anyone with an interest in the subject can edit and add to articles found on Wikipedia, and sometimes this makes for some very interesting results, as for example when people who were present at an event add details to the history, or real experts explain a mathematical function. Of course it can result in a great deal of nonsense, too. Some of the nonsense is intentional misdirection. Some is arrogant ignorance. Sometimes urban myths are inserted as if true - everyone knows they are true - and their truth is later "confirmed" by their presence in a Wikipedia article.

The danger of inaccuracy has led some teachers to forbid using Wikipedia as a source for school papers. Others insist on confirmations from sources believed more reliable. In theory Wikipedia policy is that factual statements should reference a source, but that's not always enforced.

The problem is finding more reliable sources. After all, no encyclopedia has ever been 100% reliable about everything. Britannica went to great lengths to avoid error and has been surprisingly successful, but even they had to admit they were sometimes wrong. As knowledge expands, the effort required to include everything known in one publication becomes greater and greater. That's expensive, so even if it were possible it seems unlikely. The end of the great encyclopedia movement that began in the Enlightenment seems to be near.


Encyclopedias are not the only reference works that civilizations require. Reference works, such as the Chemical Rubber Handbook - formally the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, published by the CRC Press division of the Chemical Rubber Company - will be necessary. This ten pound monster contains just about every formula and value and constant known to man at the time of its publication, and at one time it was known to every science major in any English speaking university. Little of that data changes over time, so maybe that's not a problem.

It's hard to foresee where knowledge bases are going. They're expensive to maintain, yet without them how can we be certain of anything? Who do we trust to certify that what we think we know is true?

It's a matter of some importance. Take Human Caused Global Warming as an example. Some articles on the subject are written as if there is a complete and general consensus: the Earth is warming, and human activities which produce CO2 is the cause, and if we do not spend a very great deal of money to curb human CO2 production, terrible things will happen. Many of those articles barely acknowledge that there is a large and respectable group of scientific dissenters to that hypothesis; some highly regarded scientists consider the hypothesis absurd and most efforts to curb CO2 a needless fraud. With trillions of dollars at stake, coming to some conclusion - that the hypothesis is true, that it is false, or that we don't know and had better spend a lot on finding out - is a matter of considerable importance. The problem is, who will decide when a conclusion has been reached?

Of course this goes far beyond the subject of the closing of Encarta and probable demise of other encyclopedias in the near future.

Intellectual Property

The Framers of the US Constitution did not like monopolies. In England and other places kings had the right to grant monopolies on all kinds of crafts and industries. In France there was a salt monopoly. George III gave monopolies on things like matches to court favorites. When the Constitution was drawn up, all that power was denied to the Congress as well as the President.

There was an exception. The Congress was given the power "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." Congress used that power to create the Copyright and Patent offices, but until well into the 20th Century the main concern was limiting the power, particularly the length of time that a monopoly would last. Over time, though, copyright length rose from 14 years, to 28 years renewable, to life plus fifty years, and finally life plus 70 years.

I began writing in the 28 years renewable in the 28th year era, and I wasn't particularly anxious to change it. The notion of renewal in the 28th year was that if an author or author's estate didn't care enough about the copyright to renew it, then it ought to fall into the public domain. This scheme effectively eliminated orphaned works, while providing 56 years of protection to authors. I wrote my first books in 1968, and they'd still be protected now. I'd be satisfied with that.

The only hitch was that it didn't conform to the International Copyright Convention, which specified life plus fifty years. The Berne Convention was essentially written by Victor Hugo, who insisted on life plus fifty years, and who had an abhorrence of paperwork in general and renewal requirements in particular. The US had little choice once we decided to join the International Copyright Convention, and thus the 1975 Copyright Act specified life plus fifty; the addition of another 20 years in the US was added subsequently at the behest of lobby efforts.

The result of these lengthy copyright terms has been the creation of a great number of "orphan" works: books and articles that are still under copyright, but no one, most particularly including the copyright owner, knows who owns that copyright. Anyone who wants to publish those older stories or articles or essays finds himself in a bind: there probably won't be much income from publishing it, and the search for the copyright owner would probably cost more time and money than any expected return. Anthologists have fought this problem for years.

Google has set itself the goal of making available on the Internet everything ever published by anyone. This wasn't a dream: they made their start on just about every book in US libraries. Google's solution to the copyright problem was to ignore it: they made deals with libraries, bought scanning equipment, hired people to scan in everything they found, and had at it. They were well on their way before the implications sank in.

Some authors and publishers objected. Google was scanning copyrighted works with not even a pretence of permission from anyone. Lawsuits were brought. Most of those suits were consolidated into one master class action suit with the plaintiff side largely controlled by the officers and paid staff of the Authors Guild. Google and the class action lawyers then reached a settlement of the suit. Under the settlement, authors and publishers get some money, but only if they agree to the settlement and furnish a bunch of information about what works are covered.

The actual settlement runs 134 mind-numbing pages. I suppose someone has read it; I certainly haven't. It creates a bureaucracy, and there are complex rules for claiming money. Authors have until May 5, 2009 to opt out of the settlement; if they haven't opted out by then, they'll have to bring their own lawsuit against Google. Good luck with that. Authors don't have to opt in, but those who want to share in the distribution have until January, 2010, to submit a whole bunch of information. The whole thing is the very bureaucratic nightmare that caused Victor Hugo to insist on a simple formula without renewals.

The current agreement covers only books, so I am not greatly concerned - just about all my books are in print, so the publishers will take care of things; but I make no doubt it won't be long before they start scanning magazines and that will open new cans of worms.

In my case there are hundreds of old Galaxy and Analog columns. I presume that many of my stories that appeared in the magazines including serialized novels may be involved. The whole thing will be a mess, and looking up all that stuff and registering it with the new entity the agreement creates is likely to be time consuming and bring in darned little money. Fortunately I don't have to worry about that yet. I do have until May 5 to figure out what to do about the agreement and books. Doing nothing is the same as accepting the agreement, and gives me until January to put in claims.

Not everyone agrees with the settlement. A good summary on that is in this New York Times article. The article also raises a troubling question: does this give Google a monopoly on all those orphan works? Is it legal to make this drastic a change in copyright law by agreement between two groups of lawyers and no consultation with Congress?

Does It Matter?

There's another question: does much of this matter? Given the advance of technology, will copyrights have much meaning any longer? Not just long term copyright, either: I note that one can already download an incomplete copy of the as yet unreleased X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie (link) if you know where to look; and there were Internet copies, in English and translations, of the last Harry Potter book before that book was shipping in any language.

For the moment, the copyright system is still working. Sort of. Sometimes. If you don't believe it, try using a picture of Albert Einstein to promote your commercial product. You will soon get a letter from Bill Gates' "other company" Corbis demanding that you cease and desist unless you buy a license, and the licensing is at the discretion of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJ). When Einstein died in 1955 his estate went to HUJ. They chose the Roger Richman Agency of Beverly Hills to represent them, and in 2005 Corbis bought the Richman Agency. Apple found this out back when they were running those "Think Different" ads featuring Einstein; and they paid. (For more details, see this link)

On the other hand, with a little effort I can find every work ever written by hundreds of dead authors available free on the Internet. Unfortunately, their heirs - widows and orphans - don't have Richman-Corbis to represent them, and while they can make use of the rather cumbersome provisions of the DMCA to get their works taken off the site - off some sites subject to US jurisdiction anyway - they aren't going to get any compensation. Some major authors with powerful legal representation have managed to get some money from pirate web sites, but it has been a pretty costly affair, generally giving more psychic than financial compensation.

So far this hasn't killed the publishing industry. The publishing industry isn't thriving, but then no one else is. Books continue to sell. There hasn't been much revenue from eBooks, but paperback books don't seem to have been harmed much by the availability of eBooks - neither legitimately sold eBooks or pirated eBooks. Book stores are closing right and left, but a few are thriving. The same is true of the movie and music industries: things change, but the industries go on despite fairly widespread piracy. Of course I know a lot more about the book business than music or movies.

Clearly bookstores will change along with the publishing business. Everyone watches the onrushing technology gains with fear and awe and maybe a little anticipation. Machines that can print a book on demand in under ten minutes already exist; so far both the machines and the product cost too much, but that's bound to change. Of course by that time eBook readers like Kindle and the Sony Book Reader - and netbooks and iPhones and visual cell phones - may be ubiquitous. More and more people read books on carryable electronic devices. When most books are eBooks, and all the eBooks are available from pirate sites, what will happen to the publishing industry and author incomes? Will some authors end up writing largely for subscribers while others seek wealthy patrons as was the practice in England in the 18th Century?

Patent Trolls

Enforcement of copyright and trademark is tricky and takes close attention. Monster Cable, for instance, claims it had no choice but to threaten Monster Mini Golf, lest the Monster trade mark be lost. Monster Cable tried to take on the Disney Corporation over the movie Monsters, Inc., but lost that case. (For the monster story see http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123869022704882969.html ) Monster Cable's antics remind some of the Captain Marvel episode in which the evil Dr. Sivanna copyrights the letter "e". The story may or may not have been related to National's suit alleging that Fawcett's Captain Marvel was a copyright infringement of National's Superman. National eventually won that, and pretty well killed off the Big Red Cheese. I always liked Captain Marvel better than Superman, too.

Note that once again, the precedents tend to be set by clashes between large organizations, and the law suits are expensive. It's even worse with patents. Patents are notoriously only a license to sue, and if you don't have the resources to pursue a lawsuit, your ownership of a patent isn't worth much.

Enter the patent troll. The usual notion of a patent troll is a firm of lawyers who acquire as many patents as possible, do nothing to develop them - thus doing nothing to promote progress of science and industry - and wait for some other company to develop the same technology and employ it; whereupon they sue for patent infringement. In some cases this has resulted in shutting down the new company, thus accomplishing almost exactly the opposite of what the Framers intended when they inserted the monopoly clause into the Constitution.

How many patent trolls of this variety exist can be debated endlessly. There certainly have been a few such cases. Most people interested in the subject have their favorite examples.

There's another side of the story. Take for example the traditional inventor working in a garage or basement. He - or she - comes up with a new idea in, say, computer communications, and goes to the considerable trouble of obtaining a patent. Part of the patent process is disclosing the idea, of course; it can no longer be kept as a trade secret. No one needs to reverse engineer the idea from an application, because it's all explained in the patent. Now assume a large computer company comes out with a device that does the same thing, and does some of it in the same way as described by the patent. When the inventor complains, the complaint is ignored. Patent lawsuits are expensive. When the inventor realizes the costs involved, he gives up.

Comes now a new kind of patent troll, who offers to buy - at nominal cost - a share in the patent, possibly a majority share. The troll will pay for the lawsuit, and a portion of the settlement will go to the inventor.

From the inventors' point of view this is a blessing, and this kind of patent troll makes the system work. Alas the same principles bring us Richman-Corbis deciding who can and who cannot use Einstein's image for coffee mugs and tee shirts for seventy years after he died, and Superman able to kill off Captain Marvel. We also have Google winning a monopoly on abandoned copyrights, not through legislative action but through negotiation between a handful of lawyers and the officers of the Authors Guild; and of course we have the massive lawsuits against grandmothers whose grandchildren have downloaded pirated movies.

Clearly the intellectual property system needs rethinking in our era of rapid technological advances. We are barely into the Digital Millennium and most of our laws on the subject are obsolete. Of course that's easy to say; coming up with new laws that will actually promote progress in science and the useful arts is a bit more difficult. At the moment no one seriously seems to be trying.

Notebook 3 for Mac

Think of Notebook 3 as a Mac version of the old Windows Tornado Notes which, jazzed up and given new powers as Info Select, still has a following. I used Info Select for a long time, and only stopped when the publishers got concerned about multiple copies and made file sharing difficult. Notebook has been a popular freeform Mac data organization tool for a long time. The new version adds more features. The key thing about Notebook 3 is that you can add just about any data in any format into a notebook file, and any readable data you add is instantly indexed and becomes searchable. You can also put in all kinds of meta-notes to aid in the indexing and retrieval. This gives the program considerable power.

Notebook 3 also makes use of OS X's handwriting recognition program, so that if you have a tablet for your Mac you can just write in notes. I don't have a tablet, so I have no idea of how well this works, but I am tempted to find one to test it with. I have used Microsoft Office OneNote with a TabletPC for years, and I liked that a lot back when I was doing a lot of research. I'm about to start a new book that takes a lot of research effort, and I'll need a Mac program to organize all that material. Notebook 3 is a candidate.

Freeform data bases tend to be personal. The only way you'll be able to tell if you like that kind of program is to try one and see if you keep using it. Fortunately, Circus Ponies provides a free 30 day trial, which may be enough to let you decide, and for that matter the program isn't expensive. If you think you need to be better organized you ought to try it.

Bob Thompson also recommends trying Tiddlywiki for data organization. We'll have more on that another time, but you might want to have a look. Let me know what you think of it.

Winding Down

The movie of the month is Monsters vs. Aliens. Note that the Monsters in this movie are not Disney Monsters; this is from Dreamworks, not Pixar, and while MvA's BOB has a superficial resemblance to the Billy Crystal character from Monsters, Inc. they don't have much in common. Dreamworks has its own stable of monsters, and unlike Pixar monsters, these don't live behind closet doors or another dimension. They're right here in the USA, and the reason you don't know about them is part of the plot of this movie.

The plot is silly, of course, and includes huge measures of incompetence, particularly on the part of the aliens. Of course the aliens in Independence Day had the same problem, and it wasn't animated. After all, one doesn't go to an animated movie about aliens vs. monsters to see well constructed plots. We went because we expected to have fun with it, and we did. The animation is excellent, and it doesn't take all that much willing suspension of disbelief to get absorbed into the movie. Reese Witherspoon does a marvelous job as Susan, and Hugh Laurie AKA Dr. House is a near perfect mad scientist who has partly transformed himself into a cockroach. I don't think this movie will be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, but I'm glad I went. Recommended.

The book of the month is Rafael Sabatini's Bellarion. Many of Sabatini's works are now public domain, and available free on the Internet for Kindle or iPhone. Bellarion is out of print but remains in copyright, so I had to buy a used copy through Amazon. The reason I wanted it is that I'm writing some scenes set in a society very like Renaissance Venice, and Bellarion is set in 15th Century Italy. Many - in fact nearly all - the characters in the novel, and most of the plot, were quite real. Bellarion himself is not, but much of his career parallels that of Sir John Hawkwood, who was. If you enjoyed any of Sabatini's other romantic novels, such as Scaramouche or Captain Blood, you'll like this one. Those not familiar with the genre might find some of the prose overblown and the conventions of romantic novels of the time rather odd, but read on; you'll soon be sucked in, or at least I was. I'd intended to read this to get a feel for the society of the time, but I found myself enjoying the book quite a lot.

The computer book of the month is How To Be A Geek Goddess: Practical Advice for Using Computers With Style by Christina Tynan-Wood, No Starch Press 2009. As you surmise from the title, this is not intended to be a book for geeks, male or female; it's clearly intended for women. On the other hand, guys who don't understand women and their attitudes on technology might find this a good read, and might learn something about their girl friends while reading it.

How to Be a Geek Goddess is well written, easy to read, and a surprisingly complete introduction for beginners on getting some work done. Christina Tynan-Wood is a Windows user, but her section on choosing Windows vs. Mac is well done. Her chapter on computer security should be required reading for any of your less geeky friends. This is about the best introductory book on using small computers I've seen yet. Give a copy to your girl friend (or someone you wish would be your girl friend for that matter). Recommended.

If you have a serious interest in learning what used to be called College Physics, Heather Lang's Head First Physics from O'Reilly may be useful. I say may be, because you'll either like the breezy "with it" style or you won't, and if you don't care for that you probably will not do any of the work required to learn the subject. If you are interested in learning college physics - I'll explain that term shortly - and you like the chatty style, the book is pretty complete, and quite accurate.

As I said, I don't much care for the style, but that could just be me. There is a whole series of these Head First books, including Algebra and Statistics. This book claims to use "the latest research in cognitive science and learning theory to craft a multi-sensory learning experience." It may well do that, and if you have an interest in physics this may be the way to go. It's also worth a try for those who have to get through physics and are not making any sense of the standard textbooks. A new approach may help, and it doesn't cost much.

This book has no calculus - indeed there's not even an index entry for calculus. Calculus used to be the distinction between "college" and "university" physics in academic terminology. Of course the difference between "advanced placement" high school physics and "college" physics isn't really very large, and this book starts off at a low enough level that anyone contemplating AP high school physics will find it valuable. The book also explains many of the concepts of algebra, and there's a lot of math in here. There has to be, because explaining many of the concepts of physics without calculus requires work; once one learns the fundamentals of calculus, a lot of physics actually becomes easier to understand. That said, it does no harm to learn physics without calculus, then see how calculus simplifies some problems.

This book, plus some determination and a bit of hard work, will certainly teach classical college mechanics, and probably leave you with a pretty good understanding not only of the subject but the way physicists approach problems. Physics is the classic tool for showing that the real world is mathematical - or at least that mathematics does a pretty good job of describing the real world and making much of it predictable. That realization changed the world.

Head First Physics doesn't touch electricity. You'll need a different book for that. On the other hand, learning mechanics first has always been the traditional way to learn physics.

Incidentally, the easiest way to learn calculus is from Silvanus P. Thompson's Calculus Made Easy. There is a 1998 edition with revisions by Martin Gardner. First published in 1910 (anonymously, at that), the Prologue ends with the statement "What one fool can do, another can." Calculus Made Easy has sold over a million copies since its first appearance.

Unlike most calculus textbooks, Calculus Made Easy isn't concerned with mathematical elegance, but rather with understanding just what's going on when you do calculus. It's certainly the most popular calculus introduction in history, and with good reason, even though it's seldom used as an actual text. The book has been revised a couple of times, but without essential changes. The latest revision is by Martin Gardner, former Scientific American columnist. Gardner added chapters on functions and limits because Thompson's original work more or less assumed that students already understood those. Otherwise, his revisions have been minimal.

A great many people have learned calculus from this book, often in spite of bad instructions being given in school. I remember my first encounter with Thompson; I found him through a casual mention in Jacques Barzun's Teacher in America. It probably won't have the same effect on others, but Calculus Made Easy changed my attitude toward mathematics, and while I can't say that it made learning calculus easy, it helped make it possible.