Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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The Mailbag

Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

September 10, 2007

We spent the weekend at the beach house, and Friday night I finished the rewrite of Inferno II. Saturday I went over it, made a few changes, and that's it. Of course we then had an adventure. That will be in the column.

Last weeks' column was about digital rights and their defense. We got a lot of mail about that. I've selected some of it to go here. There's more over at my web site.

I am pleased to say that the President of SFWA is making a strong statement in support of authors' rights and SFWA actions. Stay tuned.

Dear Jerry,

"But for the future, paperback book sales are collapsing for everyone"

In my own insignificant case this is causing me to relook at a model I'd previously thought I 'graduated' from. This is the individual author selling a 'book' solely through his own website, and which isn't even ISBN registered. Amazon's present "Sell Yours" model requires an exact match, including ISBN number. Getting my work listed on Amazon may have an appearance of serious commercial, but I want to share the results.

"and the scribd affair shows that it's possible that eBook sales won't amount to a hill of beans -- after all, many of the offerings of scribd were copies of once legitimately sold eBooks, so there's not much question of quality. I repeat: if it becomes the standard practice for people to go to pirate sites for copies of eBooks, then a large part of a writer's potential revenue is gone, and much of the incentive for publishers to bring out legitimate copies is gone."

The Creative Commons is starting to look like other socialist properties; when it belongs to everyone, no one has an incentive to maintain or improve it.

Anecdotal reports of music industry revenues declining *because* of strong anti-piracy enforcement should be treated cautiously. There are other economic factors at work squeezing young people, who are the major buyers of CDs. It's arguable CD revenues would have fallen *more* without the strong enforcement. Software has had to fight a long war against Warez sites.

The problem remains of developing a transaction system that can give the self-employed writer a reasonable return for invested effort, and a continuing share of the profits made from a work. It's early to say that is dead. It may not be too early to say the traditional royalty model of compensation is moribund, though. What Eric Flint is describing is an early flood marketing approach; get it before the used book inventories can fill up. This seems to be the approach to the Harry Potter franchise, too. An approach only .01% of authors will ever benefit from given the dependency on massive pre-publication publicity.

And even now you can see competing retailers in the Amazon network covertly discounting off cover price by listing a work as 'slightly used - excellent'.

You once wrote about filling one's 'trunk' with a million words during apprenticeship. It appears the trunks are now going online, for free.

Best Wishes,


Perhaps. I wouldn't despair. The important thing is that search engines don't turn up pirate sites as their first choice. If publishers offer eBooks at reasonable prices and without onerous DRM packages (I understand that some say DRM can't be anything but onerous, and perhaps that's true); and if legitimate copies are what's found in search engines, then publishing may not change so much. For the moment, mass market paperback income has been significant - at least half my lifetime income - and if that goes away, something has to take its place if writers are going to earn a decent living.

One thing I have learned. It's possible to make a retirement income with subscriptions and sales from your web site. I know, because I do that. But then I am old enough to retire although I haven't retired and don't intend to. Moreover, most authors don't live entirely on their writing income. Many are academics or have other day jobs. The mid-list writer who did a book every couple of years, and who didn't have many readers (but the ones he or she had really liked the stuff) was a staple of the profession for a long time. Many lived in genteel poverty and eked out their income by being guests of honor at conventions, and going to literary teas for caloric intake.

Those writers have suffered badly in the past few years; living off their own web sites may well bring that practice back. We can hope because the world was a better place for having people like Nathaniel West in it.

Hi Jerry,

Regarding DRM:

I do say that [DRM] won't go away. [...] if DRM makes life difficult for paying customers, that's not good.

I realize that you don't want to go round in circle regarding DRM, but don't you see the contradiction here ? DRM by definition is about making (some) things harder than they would be without it (mostly various forms of interoperability). A product with DRM is *always* going to provide a worse customer experience for some subset of customers than the same product without the DRM. And it's always a better business plan to give your customers what they want.

If a business could save money by adding DRM to a product (thus making it cheaper), then maybe it could survive, but the fact is that DRM-laden products will always be more expensive and less functional. That's a recipe for failure in the marketplace.


An interesting analysis. But any DRM that works will probably be implemented in hardware and be nearly invisible. Indeed, it will have to be nearly invisible to be acceptable.

Subject: On Intellectual Property

I am sure that no sane and reasonable person would deny the right of an author, or any other creative person, to be compensated fairly for his works. The problem, as I see it, is that the term "intellectual property" has become something of a dirty word due to widespread abuses by various corporations. For example, due to companies such as Disney going to the government periodically to buy copyright extension laws, the term of copyright has become absurdly long. There is no reason why the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Doc Smith, and John W. Campbell, Jr., for example, should not be in the public domain by now.

Examples of IP abuse abound in many areas of creative endeavor. Protection of intellectual property is used as an excuse for DRM schemes, which then allows DVDs to disable your fast forward control so you have to sit through advertising, or impose region coding to prevent you from buying movies from another country at a lower price. Worse, these schemes have extended to Sony's infamous root kit and the invasive technology used by Microsoft to provide them free access to your computer and allow them to disable it whenever they please. I have no doubt that someone will eventually find a way to bypass all of this nonsense, but it shouldn't have been necessary to do so in the first place.

There is more at stake than simply getting books for free, though anything that would encourage impoverished people to read is a good thing. If I just want to read a story, I personally find a book more convenient than reading the work on a computer. However, when I want to look up passages dealing with, say, a particular technology or alien species and write up a set of notes, having a copy on the computer allows me to perform searches quickly and easily. This is why I like to be able to download copies of books from sites such as Project Gutenberg.

There must be some sort of reasonable middle ground that would be fair to producer and consumer alike, but with politics and powerful special interest involved, the only hope that I see for progress is for the creators of books, music, art, and so on to sell their works directly to the public under their own licenses and put the abusive middlemen out of business.

As for the plight of SF authors in particular, you have the fans on your side. This is unlike the situation in the music world, where the seller is seen as the enemy. Fans often have the chance to meet authors and talk to them, and tend to see authors as friends. So they are likely to be willing to provide support. Were you to ask your readers to write a letter or send email to a particular address in order to request that material be removed from a web site, I am sure they would be happy to do so.

Best wishes,


We do hope that readers see us as the good guys...

Greetings sir.

Given all back and forth about your books being widely available online in pirated digital form, I thought I'd see how quickly I could locate and download "Lucifer's Hammer." The answer: within seconds.

So I downloaded it, checked to make sure the file was, indeed, what it claimed - and then went off to Barnes and Noble to buy another copy of the paperback. I'll pass the paperback copy along to a likely young reader who's primed for it just as I was at his age.

For what it's worth, the OCRd copy in a simple RTF format wasn't nearly as enjoyable for me as the smooth paper pages. Until your projected reader shows up without all the Microsoft-style crippling DRM "features," I'm going to stick with the paper versions.


Tim Elliott

Indeed. Thanks for the support. It's not fatal if eBook copies are available now; as I've said, the financial impact at the moment is just about zip. When better readers come out - particularly when it's a not unpleasant experience to read a novel on your cell phone - that will change. When that day comes we will have great need of organizations to defend authors rights. And alas, the day is not all that far off.

Subject: The Future of Paperbacks and Publishing

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

I'm not a professional writer, but I have occasionally thought about what publishing will one day look like for some time now. I've been reading your stuff in various places and formats for over twenty years, so it might be you who originally put the issue in my head.

As a reader, I some day ideally want a reading device that is as convenient to carry around and read as a paperback, but that has enough storage capacity to hold every book I will ever own so that they are all readily accessible. The books should be searchable, and I should be able to do things like easily look up the definition of words I do not know. Just like the books I purchase today, I should have lifetime rights to one copy of the work, and there should be no difficulty transferring my library to successor reading devices. None of this should be difficult; we are almost there already.

As you have noted, ease of copying makes digitally stored texts dangerous for authors. I don't know, but I have the thought that things might not be as bad as they seem. If I understand what you have written on your site, I gather that the typical author currently earns eighty cents per copy on a paperback book. The editors, publishers, distributors, and materials all need to be paid for, too.

Consider, though, that electronic publishing doesn't need publishers, distributors, or materials. That leaves only the writers and, ideally, editors needing to be paid, plus a site to host the text. If the price of a digital book is set to, say, three dollars, wouldn't all of the relevant players be better off than they currently are under paperback sales? Am I missing something? (That is a non-rhetorical question. I might very well be missing something.)

I envision a website where readers can go to try books. Perhaps the first 25% is available for free. If they like the book, they can pay three dollars and get a non-copy-protected version of the whole thing. Of course, pirated copies are going to be available, but how many people are going to rip off someone for three bucks? I believe the current problem with e-texts is that they are overpriced. It is a lot more tempting to look for a pirated copy of something selling for $20 than it is for $3.

That presupposes that it is easy to pay the three dollars. I believe Amazon or someone will soon solve that problem.

For what it is worth, I recently stumbled upon a Web-based serial from a young author who is trying to make a go of Internet publishing before the infrastructure is in place for easily getting paid, so she is using the voluntary contribution model. A few cartoonists are managing to make a living that way, but I know of no prose writers.

I find her experiment especially interesting, because in my estimation, she writes with professional-level skill. There are many amateur Web authors, but only a few who write things that I would guess are commercially publishable. So I think if anyone has a shot at being the first Web fictioneer to make a living at it, this author does.

She is writing a serial called Tales of MU. In a review I wrote, I described it as a fantasy bildungsroman. The main character is a college freshman attending a public university. In her universe, magic works, but most of our technology doesn't, and all the various fantasy races and mythological beings are real. It's not a startlingly original premise, but the writing is so clear and humorous that I found the serial addictive. I discovered it Labor Day morning and more-or-less spent all day reading it. There are some adult situations, but they aren't especially graphic. Nevertheless, the story isn't suitable for children. If you want to check it out when you again have time for pleasure reading, the site is here: http://www.talesofmu.com/

I'm looking forward to Inferno II. Inferno is probably my third favorite Niven and Pournelle novel, after The Mote in God's Eye and Footfall. I wouldn't have guessed it was possible to make Mussolini a sympathetic character.

--Cedric Morrison

I expect to see good readers soon; and many experiments. Publishing has been around a long time. But a good eBook reader is inevitable, and I think sooner rather than later.

On XP Password cracking:

Windows which you can get from here: http://www.ubcd4win.com/

All you need is a legit XP CD and the free UBCD4WIN Software from the site and you can create a bootable CD that lets you boot either into the Windows environment on the CD itself and use the password "changer" there or boot into the menu and choose the command line version of the password "changer" there. The command line version is a Linux program.

Either one works great and there is no need for "rainbows", magic incantations or time spent waiting and hoping. You either clear the password or you change it to what you want it to be. Now this does only work with local user accounts NOT domain accounts. But if you're an admin for a domain account you don't need to ever crack someone's domain account password. You just use your admin privileges to change their password. And yes, the password changing programs on the UBCD4WIN work with Vista local accounts also. I tried it about three weeks ago. But with Vista clearing the password works better than changing it. You can then go into Vista after you have cleared it and assign a new one.


Continuing a discussion:

Subject: Does Anyone Like Vista?


I'm running 64bit Vista Ultimate on a self designed and assembled machine. Granted I researched the parts list quite thoroughly before setting this up as my main machine - but the fact remains: This OS is the strongest, most secure, least trouble free, fun, solid - the list can go on - that I have ever seen. I maintain XP Pro on my VAIO laptop and OS/2 Warp (eComStation 1.2) on another networked P4 machine. My wife is linked to the same network on my old Main machine - also with XP Pro.

I'll be more than happy to supply system specs to anyone that might be interested. Important to note that X-Fi Sound,, Epson Scanner, Hp Printer, SATA, SCSI, Super Micro MB, 8mg RAM, GeForce 7950X2 and more...... all work faultlessly within this 64 bit Dual 3.73ghz Xeon system. I think Microsoft may have done a disservice to the computing public at large by creating and OS that demands the most advanced hardware to run effectively. Anything less than Ultimate 64 bit - to me appears to be an exercise in futility - Better to stick with XP Pro and sign on with Stardocks developers for bells and whistles that can make XP 32bit sing nearly as loud if not more so - than Vista 32 bit.

Mark Reifenberg

So here's at least one who likes Vista. A lot.

Subject: A view from the peanut gallery

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

I read today's mailbag and thought I few comments from non-experts might be useful. I'm not exactly a non-expert but I'm far from the front lines.

On Vista:

I resisted XP because of the product activation. MS became the richest company in the world without copy protection, there is no reason a few pirated copies will hurt more than help them. If a tech comes across a computer that needs a reinstall of XP, the owner cannot find or did not get an install disk for the computer AND there is a valid sticker on the case indicating it came with this edition of XP then I don't think it is inappropriate for the tech to install XP Pro on the machine. Stern warnings need to be given about allowing the WGA virus on the machine. This is a case where MS got all of the money they were due. My experience is that machines that shipped before XP aren't powerful enough to run it. I know I am ignoring the case of a machine with XP Home installed that is upgraded to XP Pro; I don't have a good answer for that one. I did run across a company that had done that wide spread; my job was to make them legal. MS got their money. I used a full XP license instead of an upgrade license so I would argue that MS even got interest.

So what does this have to do with Vista? Vista carries my XP concerns to a new level. It's kernel is fundamentally designed to protect interests other than mine. There are things I like about Vista: backups are VM files, can finally partition a disk smaller without 3rd party tool, and a journalling file system that I can do rollbacks. Cool stuff. But is it worth the price?

On XP security:

Jim Coffey's advice on administrator accounts is good... if your machine is on a domain. None administrator accounts on an XP machine that is not on a domain are pretty close to useless! Are attempting to set up some XP machines at a small church this summer for kids to use and trying to set up accounts for them without administrator privilege was a disaster. I couldn't configure them in any way; including the IE home page. I even tried giving them administrator privilege, doing the desired setup then removing the privilege. It reverted to it's useless state. I considered putting a domain controller in there and joining them to a domain but 1) no money to pay for it and 2) can't leave it running because the AC doesn't run all the time so the computer might be off for months at a time which is very bad.

on iPhones:

I recommend a good bluetooth headset -- no "no chin hits" problem this way. I have a really nice Plantronics unit. It does have 2 problems: 1) it is so comfortable that I forget I have it on and 2) take a bath with it and it is ruined!

Also, I would like to recommend a piece of hardware. A LinkSys WRV200 wireless router. I just bought one and it is fantastic and priced less than $100. It is a VPN router with a decent firewall and DHCP. The built in switch can be configured using a VLAN. The wireless part can be configured with up to 4 SSID's with their own encryption. One security feature I love; you cannot access the unit's HTTP using a wireless connection. Negatives: I cannot set up separate address pools for the wired and wireless or even the different VLANs. Also, there is a setting to block Wireless connections from accessing each other but it is a global setting that applies to all SSID connections. FInally, it is wireless G, although, it is a MIMO wireless for extended range.

Greg Brewer

I have both Belkin and Plantronics Bluetooth units. They're comfortable, but I never took one into the shower. Wow.

A late entrant in the backup comments...

On the Mac, I have a dual strategy... occasional cloning of the entire drive to an external hard drive with SuperDuper, and then constant backups of changed files to another computer with CrashPlan.

SuperDuper is what you need in case of a catastrophic disk failure... you simply boot the Mac with the Option key held down to boot from the external drive, and keep working from a clone of your drive at last backup. Fix the dead drive at leisure. I try to run this twice a week... it takes about an hour for a 100GB drive, so I run it over lunch. I'm paranoid, so I have two external drives that I keep current.

Crashplan (cross-platform, Mac and Windows) solves two needs: (1) You haven't done your SuperDuper backup recently enough, or (2) you have accidentally deleted a file and then run your backup (so the file is missing on both disks). Crashplan runs in the background; every few minutes, it copies changed files to another machine. That can be another Mac/Windows machine on your Chaos Manor network, or at Niven's house, or on the company's (paid) server. So if a meteor hits my house, wiping out my Mac and my backup external drive, I still have my data files available on the Crashplan server at my office.

Crashplan clients cost money, the server is free, so you can run as many copies of that as you like on multiple machines.

There are a zillion backup solutions out there, but these two work well for me. My wife's MacBook drive died a messy death a few weeks back, and between the two programs, she didn't lose any work at all. Wonderful!