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Computing At Chaos Manor:
February 8, 2009

The User's Column, February 2010
Column 355
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2010 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


Microsoft is sitting this one out as Google and Amazon war over publishing practices and publishing rights. At one point Amazon tried to intimidate publishing giant Macmillan, going so far as to take off the Amazon web site all the "buy" links to new books from Macmillan and its subsidiaries. Those include Tor books, and for a while you couldn't buy any new copies of my Tor books, including the Niven and Pournelle Escape from Hell, from Amazon. This happened without notice, then two days later changed back, also without notice: except that it didn't for everything. As an example, you can't order a print copy of Escape from Hell, but you can order a Kindle copy at $9.99, which is about the same as the used print copy they offer, the difference being that I get a royalty on the Kindle copy but nothing on a used copy. Why there are no new print copies isn't clear to me; they're still in book stores. However, Tor is bringing out the paperback sometime this Spring, so perhaps that has something to do with it. I confess I don't know. I don't think they're out of hardback copies at Tor.

My Starswarm, also published by Tor, is available from Amazon, but oddly enough, an Amazon search on the title takes me to an "out of print in hardbound" page. I can get from there to the paperback edition but I have to try; it's not automatic. Apparently when Amazon did the restoration after the takedowns it wasn't done smoothly. (If you want Starswarm, which is a pretty good "Heinlein style juvenile" as Algis Budrys called it, you can find it in bookstores or at this Amazon link.)

Other authors have had similar problems. The war was between Amazon and Macmillan, and no one asked the authors for their opinions. As to the war over pricing: Amazon wants to set prices at $9.99 and lower for most eBooks. Publishers don't. They want flexibility, with higher pricing when the book first comes out, then gradual lowering. That's how print book pricing goes, and that's what the publishers want to keep.

It's easy to see why, or at least to think you see why, but it all turns out to be more complex than it looks. On the surface it's simple enough. A major trade hardbound book sells for about $25 to $30. The publisher sells this book to distributors at a 50% discount, so a new novel, say The Big Schlupp, (Charnel House, 2010, $29.95) sells to the distributor at $14.975 (and yes, that half cent is carried in the transaction). From this not-quite $15 Charnel House has to pay Joanne Author 10% of the cover price or $2.99 (and yes, the half cent is most often conveniently forgotten). The rest of the $11.985 goes to pay for the cost of printing the books, some part of the shipping costs, publicity and public relations including general author expenses for book tours, everything else spent on this particular book, and the general publishing overhead: heat and light, editorial salaries, art director, book designers, sales force, executive salaries, and if anything is left over, profit for the shareholders.

Note that the author got an advance as part of the acquisition process. Some of the advance was paid on signing, some on delivery of the manuscript, and some on publication, and the author gets to keep that money whether the book sells well enough to "earn out" (generate enough royalties to pay the publisher back for the advance) or not.

Generally, if the book sells well enough to earn out everyone makes money. If it doesn't, then the unearned advances and other production expenses paid become part of publishing overhead. Publishing overhead is an expense. Profits are what's left in the bank after all those overhead expenses are paid. Needless to say there's considerable bookkeeping involved here, some rather tricky, but we needn't get into that. The point to make clear is that an author's first books seldom earn out, which means that publishers' overhead expenses always include subsidies to new authors and new book projects; and while publishers' overhead looks like a big soft number subject to reduction by smart management, it almost never is.

Back in boom days there were lots - literally dozens - of independent publishers, all of whom seemed to be making money - but not much. They all seemed to have the same profit rate, about 4-5% return on investment, but no more. Back in boom days there were lots of investors hungry for new ways to make 10 to 20% return on investment, and there grew up the myth that the publishing industry could easily double its profit margins. All that was needed was good management. There followed a flurry of consolidations, leveraged buy-outs, mergers, hostile takeovers, and a complete restructuring of the publishing industry. Where the industry had previously been dominated by brilliant eccentrics like Bennett Cerf and Herbert Alexander and George Putnam, it was slowly taken over by financial specialists who repackaged and resold and merged and took over while sending in bean counters to manage their acquisitions. Some eccentric publishers survived but many took early retirement, and the publishing business went crazy. A lot of publishing imprints vanished. When the smoke cleared there were far fewer independent publishers. As of last count there were five or so, all saddled with the huge debts incurred in the acquisition battles.

Meanwhile, the book publishing business continued to make about 4-5% return on investment, and all the bean counting management hadn't been able to get it any higher - while a number had lost their shirts trying. Note that I'm here talking about general publishing. Specialty and textbook publishing has different strategies and entirely different structures as well as profits.

Those familiar with publishing - as opposed to the financial experts who thought they understood it - always knew that it was pretty near impossible to make much more than 4-5% return on investment, and that to get even that much required dedicated people, like well educated ivy-league graduates (traditionally girls from places like Smith and Bryn Mawr and Ladycliff) willing to live four to an apartment in a third story Manhattan walkup and work ten hour days. I exaggerate, but not by much. The book business has largely been run by people who love publishing books. It has never been a way to get rich - publishing is the origin of the story about how to make a small fortune: start with a large fortune and become a publisher.

Of course the financial wizards, being always the smartest people in the room, were certain there was somewhere a way to make big money in publishing. There just had to be. One secret of success in book publishing would be to publish lots of best sellers and few books that don't earn out; just don't buy duds. The problem there is that it's hard to predict which books will sell well and which don't. You have to publish a lot of books about secret societies before something like The Da Vinci Code comes along.

It would be great if you had a way to detect future best sellers, but no one does, so the method is to publish a number of books in the hopes that one of them is a big hit. It all evens out - except that the economics began to change. Best Sellers sold like crazy but didn't make as much money as they used to. The reason for this is the discount competition: some book stores and vendors began to offer enormous discounts on best sellers. When one chain did that the others had to follow, since best-sellers are what get people into the store in the first place. Profits on best-sellers plummeted. The book stores and chains tried to squeeze the distributors for larger discounts on the prices they pay for books, or, in the case of some of the largest chains, negotiate directly with the publishers, leaving out the distributors. That cut profits for everyone.

The distributors, in turn, thought that the problem was that there were too many distributors - there were some 217 not five years ago. Cut down on the number of distributors and you'll have leverage to use against both publishers and book sellers. Another war began, and financial wizards took charge of distribution businesses and began to use boom money to buy other distributors. Soon they were buying each other out in a series of hostile takeovers combined with leveraged buyouts. Once again the bean counters and financial products managers proved unable to manage their new acquisitions, and the distribution system collapsed. There are now about 3.5 distributors if that many (the 0.5 being one that will shortly vanish in bankruptcy). And the attempt to squeeze publishers and book sellers didn't work. There was new competition: Amazon, which never closes, has a huge inventory, and acts as both distributor and book seller, and now has decided to be a publisher as well. You can self-publish through Amazon, and many authors have tried it. Sales have been disappointing for most, but some have struck gold, and it's early times yet.

And while all this was happening we got the eBook. Previous electronic publishing had never been much of a threat to traditional publishing. The physical production costs of CDROM and later DVD were very low, but all the other costs of publishing remained. Getting a new book ready to publish required a larger investment than most expected, and while it took less to publish a classic from public domain, that wasn't free either. And, of course, they weren't books. Reading books on a desktop or even a laptop was neither convenient nor much fun. I recall when CDROM first became popular I eagerly got some of the classics collections containing books I'd always intended to read but never got around to. I think I read three or four novels that way before I gave up. For two of those works I started reading on my PC, then bought the book itself at Pickwick before that venerable Hollywood new/used bookstore became part of a chain. That last experience, eBooks as an inconvenient teaser, is how some editors and publishers see eBooks to this day: a way to get people started on a book so they'll go buy a paper copy, which is why some well known editors have been known to say that piracy never hurts an author and sometimes helps. No one really wanted to read an eBook.

Kindle changed all that. It wasn't that it's so much easier to read - the most readable electronic device I have is LisaBetta the Compac HP TabletPC which lets me set font and size, has a backlit screen so it can be read in the dark, and being a computer can allow moving illustrations (either illustrations or diagrams or maps) if the publisher cares to provide them. LisaBetta does have the problem of battery life - it's a laptop, after all - but as a reading experience it's better than Kindle. Still, while there are better ways to read an eBook than with a Kindle, the Kindle presentation is good enough, and many readers found they preferred the Kindle to an actual book. (Note I said 'many', being deliberately ambiguous. I don't know how many. Surely it's not most.)

The attraction of Kindle is that it's convenient, of a convenient size to carry, and has a convenient battery life. Of course so does the Sony Reader and other such, but Kindle adds a final convenience, a forever subscription to a wireless service that delivers books on demand. You can buy a new book, or you can email yourself a book; either way it appears on Kindle as if by magic. Amazon was now not only open 24/7, and for a reasonable price at that, but also offered instant delivery.

In fact the Kindle distribution system is now used by people who don't use Kindle: there's a Kindle App for the iPhone as well as for other telephone readers (and for laptops and desktops including TabletPC's for that matter). Kindle showed the way, and now everyone is jumping into the eBook reader game, and we're just getting started. Apple adds color and touchscreen, but loses battery life. You can read Kindle books on the iPad, and one supposes that someone will start producing works that take advantage of the iPad's other capabilities. Barnes and Noble has the Nook. Sony is improving the Reader and has just added wireless capability. There are others. We can count on competition to bring us continuing improvements using current and slightly improved technologies. If eBook reading experiences can be improved, they're going to be improved; but as of now the experience is good enough for a lot of people.

The result is that 4% of publishing revenue in 2009 came from electronic sales. That's not a lot, but it's up from 0% not long ago, and given all the new entrants into the eBook reader market it's sure to rise, probably on a fairly steep curve. That's in general publishing. O'Reilly, the leading computer tech book publisher, reports that eBook revenue is up by 100% while printed book revenues declined "in double digits" in the same period. Other technical publishers are having the same experience. Colleges and universities are experimenting with textbooks in eBook format. There's a ferment out there, and it's all bubbling in directions that drive eBook revenues up. I wouldn't be astonished to find that 20% of publishing revenue comes from eBooks within the next ten years. Actually, I'll be astonished if it's not that high; my guess is that it will be considerably higher.

All of which highlights the Amazon/Macmillan battle. Amazon looks ahead. Always. Remember all those years when everyone laughed and the standing joke was that Amazon would make a profit next year for sure? Then, suddenly, Amazon was the 800 lb. gorilla of the book business, and that was before Kindle.

Amazon doesn't make money from the Kindle; they may even lose a bit on each Kindle sale. No matter, once you've bought the razor you have to buy the blades, and Amazon wants you to have a reader so you'll buy things to read. That includes a lot more than books. Magazines and newspapers are also in play; but for the moment the proven e-market is in books, and Amazon wants to control as much of that as possible.

Amazon wants to keep eBook prices low. That's in part because the general public expects them to be low: everyone knows it costs very little to produce and distribute an eBook compared to printing and shipping a physical book, and psychologically it's hard to shell out as much or more for an electronic copy as for an actual book. There's also the piracy factor: a high priced eBook looks to some like a rip-off, largely because few understand the overhead costs of publishing. It costs nothing to produce an eBook, how dare you charge more for it than you do for a real book? Of course printing costs are a very small part of publishing costs, the books that do sell have to finance the publishing of a lot that don't, and except for printing and shipping the costs of eBooks are as great as for paper, but that's not obvious to everyone; and of course there are always those looking for a good excuse. If getting a legitimate copy of a book is expensive and inconvenient, then you can be sure piracy will flourish. Amazon has already made it convenient to buy eBooks. Now they want to be sure no one thinks of them as expensive.

Macmillan and the publishers, meanwhile, see Amazon as a major distributor, and they don't want the distributors setting the final price of the product. Neither do authors, who generally side with the publishers in this matter.

Macmillan and Amazon went to the mat on this, but when Amazon removed all the links to Macmillan book sales, the result was a firestorm of criticism for Amazon. The Authors Guild denounced Amazon, authors and reviewers began cutting Amazon links, and when push came to shove it was Amazon who blinked. Once again you can buy Macmillan books on Amazon both for the Kindle and on paper, although the paper links aren't fully straightened out as I write this. I'm sure they will be soon, and Amazon will remain the largest distributor/bookseller in the US.

These are but the opening rounds in a very complex game. For the moment the publishers have won, but stand by. Amazon, Google, Publishers, bookstores, and authors are in a competition not one of them understands very well - and we still haven't mixed in "enhanced" eBooks, which is to say electronic books containing everything from a few illustrations to slide shows, moving maps, music, photographs, cut scenes, and who knows what else? This is the first sashay in a very complex dance that may have started as a war, but has to end in a more cooperative manner.

Technology marches on. We are approaching a time when operating systems won't be important because all systems will be able to run all operating systems. The same will be true for eBook reader formats. Eventually there will be software to convert any format to any other. As to Digital Rights Management, as the technology for implementing that develops, so has opposition to the whole concept. I'm not at all sure the last word on that has been said, but for now there's fairly universal rejection of DRM in any form. Baen Books, which probably has paid out more royalties for eBook rights than any other publisher (some would say more than all other publishers combined) has no DRM and no use for it. As each new publisher enters the field the pressure is high to publish without DRM, and if enough do, the concept of DRM for books may die away. When that happens, as a practical matter payment for books becomes voluntary and all publishers will be operating on the "public radio" model. It remains to be seen if publishing can survive that.

A very long time ago I wrote, in A Step Farther Out, that there would come a time when publishing would change. All books would be read in electronic format, and if I want to publish a book I post it on an information exchange - I called them "information utilities". If you want to read my book you do so, and a royalty payment goes from your bank account to mine. I concluded the column with the rhetorical question "So where's the need for that blood-sucking publisher?" Of course I answered that question by saying that the resulting flood of published material would boost some editors and publishers as reliable sources of readable material, and the publisher's function would be to help you choose among a near infinity of choices.

That turned out to be no bad guess about the function of publishers.

We now live in those times. Amazon Publishing offers the "information utility" service I described. Here's a c|net link on the topic. Editor/Publisher services are developing. A number of reasonably successful mid-list authors are now available as consultants on your new book, offering cover design, layout design, copy editing, and line editing for reasonable fees. A new industry is developing even as we watch. Today eBooks have 4 % of all publishing revenue; I'm pretty confident that it will be 20% and more before you know it.

Charnel House - a Note

The name "Charnel House" was first used by Damon Knight in his early SFWA publications on contract analysis as a generic name for publishers - Damon thought most if not all publishers were greedy and lacked scruples. When other authors began to analyze publishing practices the name "Charnel House" became traditional as a means to avoid lawsuits. Of course it was inevitable that someone would use that name for an actual publishing house. Someone did that, and my friends Dean Koontz and Tim Powers have published works with Charnel House. I continue to use the name in the way Damon did, as the generic term for a publisher. Naturally I mean no insult to my own publishers.


Atomic, with the Pioneer R/W DVD on top.
Atomic, with the Pioneer R/W DVD on top.

The newest desktop computer at Chaos Manor is Atomic, a Windows 7 System built on the Intel Atom Motherboard in an Antec ISK 300-65 case. Atom has the Intel motherboard with its onboard sound and video, a WD Scorpio Blue 3200BEVT 320 gb 'laptop' hard drive, 4 GB of Crucial DDRAM (2 sticks of 2 GB), and a USB 2.0 external Pioneer DVR-X122 Read/Write DVD. In the image to your right, Atomic has the Pioneer DVD on top, and the Toaster with the contaminated drive (read on) from Emily on your left.

This Antec case has room for one or two "laptop" drives. If you want to use a "full size" desktop drive, you'll need a different case. Otherwise I can recommend the above parts list. The WD drive is small and quiet. The Crucial Memory just works. Note that I have always recommended that you spend the extra money to get name-brand premium memory. Memory seldom goes wrong, but when it does it can make diagnostics a maddening experience; in my judgment you're better off paying the slightly higher price. Of course the 32-bit Windows 7 installation doesn't see the whole 4 GB of memory, and a single 2GB stick would likely have been good enough, but more memory never hurts.

The Pioneer external DVD read write drive has performed splendidly in both read and read/write mode.

All told, this is one very satisfactory system, and it feels much faster than its 1.66 GHZ clock speed would indicate. I wouldn't recommend building an Atom system for big video editing jobs, and it's not much use for games, but it's as much machine as most of us need for the work we do. It's also small and very quiet. I built Atomic intending to transfer Roberta's stuff to it; but it has proved so handy as a general utility system that I'll probably build her another and keep this as a work system.

The Atom kit Intel sent me didn't have any instructions, or indeed anything but a motherboard and a DVD hand-labeled "drivers." The Antec case came with not much more in the way of instructions. That was no problem. A couple of minutes' work on-line produced the Intel instruction book for the motherboard and a bit more got Antec case instructions. Once I had those it was clear sailing. The only hardware glitch was that the Intel board has a two-pin connection for the on/off light, and the Antec case supplies a 3-socket connector. I fixed that with a pair of nippers, converting the 3-socket connector into two one-socket connectors. Of course I got them in the wrong way first try, but the only consequences of that are that the light doesn't go on when you turn the system on.

Atomic as a lab rat with the case off.
Atomic as a lab rat with the case off.

The bottom line is that this system went together as fast as anything I ever built, with the whole thing going from a box of parts and a boot DVD to a going concern in about four hours, half of that installing the 32-bit Windows 7 operating system. It is also about the cheapest full computer I have ever built. If you need a small, reasonably fast, general purpose computer, consider an Atom.

Atomic is quiet and so far - a full month of use as a general utility system - glitch and trouble free. The only complaints I have are some general whines about the Windows 7 operating system; we'll get to those later. Meanwhile, Atomic has been about the most trouble-free addition to the Chaos Manor computer network I can remember. Intel has a real winner with the Atom.


The newest computer at Chaos Manor is a Lenovo ThinkPad w500 running Windows 7 Professional. This was bought as a replacement for Orlando, the IBM ThinkPad t42p that has been the main laptop here for more than four years.

Alas, I had to replace the t42. Hard use seems to have overtaken Orlando: he still works, but he needs an external screen. I have no idea why. Orlando has been my main fiction writing machine: every day he got carried upstairs to the bare room I call the Monk's Cell, where he got connected to a ViewSonic 19" monitor and a Microsoft Wireless Keyboard and Mouse; I like the Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboards, and I have them on the systems I use most. The ViewSonic 19" monitor runs 1280 x 1024 resolution, and the text looks very good. I've been using Word 2003, and I have done a number of books with that combination, including Escape from Hell. Early last December, though, I carried the t42 upstairs, connected him up, and when I turned him on I had video on the external screen but none on the laptop screen.

Fiddling with various functions and settings did nothing. There was no video on that screen. One ThinkPad-savvy reader suggested I look at the screen in a strong light to see if there were any faint indications of display; if so the backlight had failed. I tried that, but got no result. I downloaded the IBM manuals for the t42 (pdf format), and they were quite complete: they convinced me that taking the machine apart to check the cable connection from the box to the screen required removing the keyboard and that was likely to be beyond my abilities. Orlando worked just fine with an external monitor, and of course most of my machines have an external monitor - just about all desktops do. I could just leave him in place and continue. It's not as if I need to look at the laptop screen while I'm writing.

The problem was that this is the main fiction system, and it made me nervous. I wasn't really concerned about losing text - well, not really concerned - but it still made me uncomfortable. Writers are superstitious, and superstitions don't help our writing. Still, I used Orlando with the ViewSonic external screen for a couple of weeks without a problem. I'd periodically save what I was working on to a thumb drive, and at the end of a writing session I'd use the wireless to save all changed files over to Bette, the general purpose Intel Core 2 Quad 6600 that serves as my communications and general purpose system. Then I got an invitation to a couple of conferences, and I realized I didn't have a functional Windows laptop.

I had a number of choices. I didn't want to send Orlando off to be fixed until I had a working replacement. The obvious replacement choice was the MacBook Pro: install Windows 7 on a dual boot partition - or just swap drives, installing the Intel 160 GB Solid State Drive. Bring that up in Windows 7, and I'd have as good a Windows laptop as anyone could buy. Alternatively, install BootCamp on the MacBook Pro with its existing drive; or install VMware and Windows 7 underneath that.

The problem was that I was moving along on Mamelukes and I didn't want to be distracted by starting a new project involving my writing tools. Yes, of course, the sensible thing to do was do nothing: that is, continue using Orlando in the Monk's Cell, and work on the MacBook Pro as a Chaos Manor Reviews project. The projects didn't have to be related. Alas, writer's superstition continued. I'd set up a successful routine using the t42p, it was working, I was producing words, and I wanted to get back to that routine. At this point enter Mephistopheles in the form of a sale notice from Lenovo. I could get a new Lenovo laptop at a substantial discount if I ordered before the end of the year. The temptation was too much: the idea was that I'd order the new machine and set it up, transfer all of Orlando's work to it, and I'd be back where I was before Orlando's screen died. After all, I was satisfied with the quality of the t42p, I like the ThinkPad keyboard and screen, I'm familiar with the way ThinkPads do things, and while a t42p replacement isn't cheap, I had offers for a paid lecture that would cover it nicely for two days' work, meaning that it would pay for itself with that one trip. So, as 2009 ended, I sent in the order.

Stand and Deliver

Alas, things didn't work quite as well as I had thought. I had supposed that the system would arrive the first week in January. Instead I was notified that while the extra power supply I had ordered would ship then, the system itself wasn't due to ship until January 19. I've subsequently found that direct orders from Lenovo usually take a couple of weeks, and my fond memory of the t42 ThinkPad coming from Georgia a week after I ordered it was a memory of a time past. This would ship from China, and on January 19.

So be it, I thought, and continued to work on Orlando, getting several thousand words of Mamelukes done. Mamelukes, a Janissaries novel, is very good, but the end of the book recedes like dreams: I'm up to about 130,000 words and while the end is sort of in sight, I have lots more to do. Ah, well. It's a good story.

Came January 19 I went to the web page - Lenovo is very good about sending you a link to a web page showing the status of your order - and saw to my horror that it was now showing a 2-20 shipping date! I cursed loudly and telephoned the IBM customer service number. My call was answered by someone calling himself Billy, but who was pretty obviously not in Atlanta but in M'bai or whatever they call Bombay now. I introduced myself as Dr. Pournelle and gave my customer number. He instantly began calling me Jerry as if we were old friends. I complained that I hadn't been warned when I ordered the system that it would not ship until 19 January, but I'd been willing to put up with that - but 20 February wasn't satisfactory. Billy had nothing to say about this other than to call me Jerry several more times and say there was nothing he could do.

I got off that call and complained somewhat bitterly in my View from Chaos Manor. That night I had a look at the shipment web page, and Lo! the shipment date read 20 January. The next day a Lenovo official from Atlanta called to tell me that the system had already shipped. It turned out he had nothing to do with that: the shipment date had been changed from 19 January to 20 January, and the system shipped on 20 January. Alas, someone in Hong Kong had entered the new shipment date as 2-20 rather than 1-20. The following Saturday the system arrived in the United States, and UPS delivered it on Tuesday morning.

I tell this story because apparently my story isn't unusual. The bad news is that it's pretty typical for direct orders from almost any major computer company, and my experience isn't really worse than average. It's a long way from the legendary service of IBM's glory days, but there it is. If you want to get a computer by direct order, as opposed to through a third party vendor, it isn't likely to be quick, and not many report a pleasant experience. In my case it turned out all right.

Rolando, Continued

The rest of the story is all good. Rolando came with 64-bit Windows 7 Professional. I could upgrade that to Windows 7 Ultimate, but I see no point in doing so. It works just fine with the rest of the Chaos Manor systems. The networking, both Ethernet and Wireless, Just Works. Rolando sees all my other machines, shares with those he's supposed to share with, and in general the networking works the way I have been wishing my network would operate since I dumped the domain server and changed to workgroups. Microsoft has finally got networking right with Windows 7; it's about time. I've been waiting for this since 1990.

Everything else Just Works, too, excepting a minor nit detailed below. I installed Office 2007 and FrontPage 2003, set Rolando up in Orlando's place upstairs, and began move stuff over. It all works. It took a day or so to get used to using Word 2007 rather than Word 2003, but I expected that. The real trick to Word 2007 is control-F1. That tames the Word 2007 ribbon something wonderful.

There was a problem with dictionaries. It is my practice to have a specialized dictionary with each major book project, and to save specialized words in that. I don't really want all my machines to understand that Agzaral (the name of a Confederation police inspector in the Janissaries series) is correctly spelled. I save the special dictionary under the name Mamelukes.dic and keep it in the Mamelukes folder along with the actual book draft, cast and character notes, the record file in which I keep a kind of daily diary as I work on a book, and all the other stuff associated with the project. However, when I went to tell Word 2007 on Rolando to use Mamelukes.dic as a special dictionary it told me it couldn't do that, because Word 7 requires a dictionary in Unicode format.

Unicode is a sequel to ASCII that allows characters in many languages including Chinese and Arabic. It turns out that Word has been using Unicode internally for a decade, but until recently it didn't require dictionaries to be saved in that format. Now it does.

Converting dictionaries from the older .dic format, which was ASCII text, to Unicode should be simple. Open the .dic as a text file, and save it as a Unicode file. That's it. Of course it's never that simple. In my case my text files began with several words that begin with an apostrophe -- ' - and when I tried to open the file it crashed Word 2007 but good. The remedy was to open the .dic file with the Norton Editor in Windows Commander (Notepad would have done, of course) and delete the words that begin with ' which is no longer an apostrophe but a single quote. Save it, and then open as text and save as Unicode. Wordpad will also do the job. As to why my particular dictionary decided to crash my Word installation, it turns out that I tried it on a 64-bit machine, and there are still some problems with 64-bit systems and Word. I wouldn't have had the problem on a 32-bit Windows 7. Hurrah. In any event the problem did get solved, and the story has a happy ending.

So do my other stories about the W500. It's fast, it's quiet, it's easy to use, and it just fits nicely into the system here. I love it. Moreover, a number of readers have assured me that the legendarily good warranty service that IBM had for ThinkPad is being continued by Lenovo. I sure hope so. I also hope I never have any reason to use it...

A Few Installation Blues

There are a few installation surprises, all having to do with Windows 7, and a few caused by the change from 32-bit to 64-bit.

First, the 64-bit blues. In 32-bit Windows 7, a number of old DOS programs just work. The two I particularly need on Rolando are ALIEN NAMES and DRAGON. Alien Names is an old DOS program created in ZBASIC by Ralph Roberts in 1983. The interface is primitive, but it works, and it has worked on every version of Windows since I began using Windows. It works on 32-bit Windows 7 just fine. It won't work on 64-bit Windows 7. Fixing that is likely trivial: there are a lot of free programs on the web for randomly generating names with specified consonant/vowel patterns.

Dragon Names is different. This was an early Jim Baen publication, a DOS version of the ancient I Ching. Jim went to a lot of trouble to buy a good I Ching translation, and to build a pleasing interface that would not only generate hexes properly, but give the full output you'd get from consulting a really good version of the oracle. It also allows you to save questions asked and the answers you got. I don't know if that program is available in any other version (or if at all), but in fact I never needed to look for it because the original works just fine and has with every previous version of Windows. I like the extremely simple interface and the simplicity of the text and graphics. The hexagrams look good in ASCII graphics, and I don't know that the experience would be any better for more sophistication. Unfortunately, it will not work in 64-bit Windows 7.

As an aside: I first got interested in the I Ching from a long afternoon with Phil Dick many years ago. Phil was arguably mad. He was also a very good writer, and he had used the I Ching in crafting several of his novels. Later it became a repeated topic during my weekly conversations with Jim Baen, who found it fascinating and was intrigued with how often the answers he got were strangely related to the question asked. I tried using a paper copy in my work, and found it was both interesting and useful. The appropriateness of the answers to the questions asked was interesting and certainly reflected well on the genius of those who designed the system. When Jim published a computer version of the I Ching I got that and I've used it, sometimes frequently and sometimes rarely, ever since. It doesn't generate "answers" but it does offer things to think about, some of them astonishingly relevant to the question asked. It works in the sense that it's useful. I have no idea of "why it works" and I'm not terribly interested in discussing the various theories of connectedness and such. Those interested in this ancient oracle can find dozens of articles on line.

In any event, DOSBOX is one obvious solution to running 16-bit DOS programs in 64-bit Windows 7, and I should get around to installing it. I suppose that will lead to other complications. However, Eric tells me there's a simpler solution: Windows 7 contains an XP virtual machine, and once one learns how to set that up, it will run all the old DOS programs as well as anything XP would run. I'll have that done by the next column; it's about time I learned to get it running, and it will make Rolando everything I need as my travel machine.

Windows 7 64-bit has other annoyances, and I probably ought to collect them all for a topic in a future column. Leo Laporte has taken to advising his listeners to use 32-bit Windows 7 since there's no real need for 64-bit. I can understand his point. On the other hand, 64-bit can access an awful lot of memory, and lots of memory is a Good Thing.

The Worm

I have no idea how it happened. I was in Internet Explorer on Emily, the Intel Extreme system I use for games, web browsing, and general purpose computing, when there appeared a warning that the system was in danger and an offer to do a virus scan. I knew better than to do that, but somehow I managed to click somewhere. I guess that's what happened. I'm not sure. The day before a friend was using that machine to search for something on the web when up popped a porn site, which he exited quickly, and perhaps that click did the job. He didn't know how he got to that site. I wasn't watching, so I don't know. All I know is that the infection got steadily worse. Emily was truly hosed.

I closed all programs and started a Windows Security Essentials deep scan. That took a couple of hours and found nothing. I then tried to go to the ESET site for an off-site scan and found I couldn't get to that site; in fact I wasn't able to get to any site but the one offering the anti-virus program. Emily was well and truly useless.

My solution to the problem was simple. I opened the front of the Antec case and took out the C: hard drive. Then I installed a new Seagate one terabyte drive and installed 32-bit Windows 7 Ultimate from scratch. In other words, I nuked it from orbit. Meanwhile, I took the original disk over to Atomic and connected it up through the USB Toaster drive adapter, went to the ESET scan site, and had that do a disk scan - and discovered to my horror that ESET found nothing wrong either. In fact, nothing I have tried detects anything wrong with that drive.

There wasn't too much on that drive that I need, since Emily is routinely backed up. I have examined as much of my system as I can and I haven't found any contaminations, nor does anything operate in an odd manner. So far as I can tell, my system is safe enough, no other machines are contaminated, and aside from losing a morning in transferring files I haven't lost much.

Some file transfers are very difficult now, due to Windows 7 improved security. In particular I have found it impossible to transfer games. Prior to Windows 7 games like Rome Barbarian Invasion stored the saved games in the folder for that game. Actually I never noticed: the last time I tried to access a saved game on a Windows system was long enough ago that the OS was XP. In any event that has all changed: I can't find the saved games in the former Emily drive (Windows 7) that now resides in the Toaster attached to Atomic. The games folder in Program Files consists of empty folders. I presume everything somehow got moved to a Users section on that disk - and since I am not that user, I don't seem to be able to access them. This is compounded by my reluctance to do much exploring on that drive lest I loose the root kit that lurks somewhere in there.

I can live without the saved games, but it would be interesting to figure out just what happened to them. In any case, I reinstalled Barbarian Invasion from the original disks. I haven't had much time for games, but I did a few startups. I can't find where those saved games are stored either. There must be a way to backup saved games in Window 7, but I can't figure out how to find them. Search from the start button search for *.sav finds no results at all, and since I know there are some .sav files that can't be right. Windows 7 has completely revamped search from what I learned. It's time to look into William Stanek's Windows 7: The Definitive Guide from O'Reilly. Aha. The old search function is now contained in the "Computer" (which used to be "My Computer") window. Try clicking on the C: drive and searching for *.sav and lo! My saved games are at the bottom of a near infinite tree deep down in users; which means I can find them on this system, but since I can't access user data on the original disk over on Atomic, I am not likely to find my older saved games files. So much for that.

I suppose there's a way I can tell Atomic to let me access the data on a drive physically attached to it by a USB cable, but I haven't figured out how to do that. As I said, I am reluctant to do much with that drive because there's a demon hiding in there, and no telling what all he has compromised. I do think Windows has gone too far in imposing security on us. I don't see why I have to be an NCIS-quality hacker to access my own files. I expect that if I attach the Toaster to the new Emily (on which I have the same user name and password) it might let me access the data files in the User folder. On the other hand I don't want that contaminated drive anywhere near a main system. Stalemate.

As to the Worm, I have been searching on line and I find there are stories similar to mine. There are even sites that will instruct us on how to cure the root kit. They may even work. I don't intend to try. I would like to extract a few of the 'User' files from the disk, if I can ever figure out how; after which I am going to reformat it. Disks are cheap now, and it was simpler to start over than to take chances. Or I may keep it in case I find someone who wants to look for the worm that lurks in there. No scanner I have can find it.

I don't have a real moral to this story. I don't know how I get infected. Windows Security Essential was on duty and saw nothing coming, nor was a WSE scan able to detect any problems. I couldn't get to ESET scan when the disk was in use, and a scan of that disk when it was connected as an external drive not in active use detected nothing. Neither has any other external scanner I have tried. This thing is near invisible.

I do advise you that if you have any important data in those strange places Windows 7 creates for you - five to seven levels down in User, so deep that Search won't show you the whole chain - you probably ought to copy them to somewhere else while your system is still working. Windows 7 seems to be fond of virtual storage places, and I for one get lost in trying to track through them. I miss the simple days. The good news is that if you can access the user data you can in fact drill down, down, down through that maze until you find your files. Note that for saved games most of them are in a sub folder under the folder "BI", but the auto-save file is in an entirely different folder off to one side. I don't know what genius designed this filing system, but I don't think he ought to be allowed to work on anything else.

I long ago began keeping all my important files in their own folder. All my Outlook PST files go in a root file folder called Outlook: I don't let Windows hide them down in its hidden area. Same thing for Word Files: I have a big root C:\WORD master folder with project folders for each book, and it has nothing to do with the Windows system. This means I have to set up backup differently from what Windows expects, but it gives me a better feeling.

At some point Windows had better rethink all this madness. Preferably the thinker ought to be someone who actually uses the operating system to do useful work. I note that some of my advisors think I am being unduly harsh on Microsoft here, so I suppose I'll think about it some more.

Long Term Backup Storage

Back in the earlier days of the computer revolution I became enamored of WORM drives. WORM stands for Write Once Read Many, and the medium was a form of glass disk. From everything I can determine those disks are eternal.

Alas, being able to read them isn't eternal. I have several WORM drives, of different makes, and all of them use a SCSI (old SCSI 1 at that) interface. I find that the only machine I have, an ancient Windows 95 system, with a SCSI card isn't working, which is hardly astonishing. Now I need to find some kind of USB to SCSI interface so I can read some of those old optical storage disks. I don't know what data may be on those, but there might be something that I never copied anywhere else. If nothing else there will be some of my old BYTE columns, and early drafts of books. I doubt there's much of importance, but it's now a matter of curiosity, so I'm searching for an easy way to look at them. I probably won't find an easy way, but we'll see. I'll let you know if I solve the problem.

The moral of this story is that the medium may be eternal, but the means to read that medium may vanish long before the medium does. WORM drives got replaced with Magneto-Optical drives, and those are all SCSI too; I have several and can't read their disks until I find a SCSI interface (I really don't want to put a card into one of my systems), but I make no doubt that once I get a working SCSI I'll be able to read the MO disks. That product became common enough to have a standard. WORM didn't, and the drivers for the old WORM readers may never have been written for modern operating system. We'll see. Peter Glaskowsky tells me he keeps an ancient Apple laptop which has a SCSI connector; alas, my PowerBook doesn't have that feature.

For the moment, DVD seems a safe enough way to archive things, but one needs to pay attention to these things.

Winding Down

I've been too busy working on Mamelukes to see any movies or do much with games. I suppose that Rome Barbarian Invasion is as much the game of the month as anything: I do enjoy refighting the Adrianople campaign and saving the Roman Empire.

The book of the month is the late Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire. There's a print edition and a Kindle edition. I have the Kindle edition and it reads just fine. For those not very familiar with Swedish geography I can recommend Google Earth as a companion. That isn't quite as necessary for this book as it was for reading Larsson's previous work The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which also has both Kindle and print editions. I've recommended the Dragon Tattoo book before. I find Larsson a fascinating writer. His viewpoint characters all accept modern European socialism as the natural order of the world, and of course they live in Sweden where there are many residuals of the old Lutheran Protestant Ethic, and those who don't have that ethic find those who do incomprehensible - and vice versa. Both Larsson and his characters appear to be bewildered by the modern world without quite knowing why: as a convinced Marxist Larsson believed things should go differently. Still, the convoluted plots are well crafted, and the books are page turners as well as food for thought.

The computer book of the month is the O'Reilly book Windows 7: The Definitive Guide by Stanek. I expect I've recommended it before. It has been essential to me in my transition to Windows 7. I like most of Windows 7, but some of it takes getting used to, and the more experience you have with ancient Windows arcana the more difficult Windows 7 can be. It's worth learning, but you need a well indexed comprehensive handbook - or at least I did.

The second computer book of the month is older as is the program it's the handbook for: FileMaker Pro 10 The Missing Manual, by Susan Prosser and Geoff Coffey, O'Reilly. I expect most of my readers are familiar with both this book and the FileMaker program; those who aren't probably ought to be. Microsoft Access is a powerful data base program, and it integrates reasonably well with Office, but for the kinds of data bases I like I prefer FileMaker. It's simple to install, runs on both Mac and Windows, and does what most of us expect data base programs to do without fuss and muss. Like most of the Missing Manual books, this one is both an introduction and a handbook, and if you use the program - or are thinking of using the program - you'll want the book. It's also a fairly passable introduction to the whole subject of databases including some non-obvious information on what they're for and some of their limits.

I have many books to review and this is already too long. I will have to do a special Book Review column for Winter, 2010; with luck before the end of this month.