Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

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

September 18, 2007

This is a day late, but since the schedule is self-imposed - I have obligated myself to a monthly column equivalent to the old BYTE column, plus the mail, and you get that and more every month - I suppose I'll just have to live with it.

Continuing the discussion of intellectual property:

Subject: Book piracy - stealing from the poor


Over the years, I've enjoyed your comments about the writing life. For those of us who are consumers of the product, it is fascinating to get an occasional look behind the scenes. Now your recent comments about 'scribd' has me thinking more about intellectual property theft and its implications.

One of the lame excuses offered up by software and media pirates is that the theft is justified because "these big companies have plenty of money anyway", and "these big companies are themselves ripping off consumers with overpriced goods". As bogus as that excuse is, it really misses the mark when it comes to writers of fiction. A year or more ago, after reading one of your columns, I looked on the internet for statistics on income for writers. I was amazed to find out that, as of 1995, the mean income for free-lance fiction writers was around $4000/year, and only 16% of full time free lancers made more than $30,000 per year (link).

More recently, I found this bit of insight on another blog.

"You can be a very successful writer-well reviewed, award winning, decent sales-and earn only 30 thou or less a year. The majority of pro writers would be over the moon to be earning that much year in and year out. Money for writers is low and erratic. It's August and I've been paid about $4,000 for my writing this year. I'm owed more but who knows when it will come? That's the writer's life right there. Just like any other freelancer."

Obviously, Billionaire writers like J.K. Rowling are a very rare breed; the field has many wanna-be's, and only a few superstars. So why do so many people keep cranking out books? First, I would presume they love the work and/or the life of a writer. For some (perhaps most?), the hope of someday scoring with a best seller may be the only real financial incentive to keep going. Of course, wide spread book piracy could take away that last financial incentive.

For the sake of the long run, readers should be careful not to bite the hand that supplies them.

CP, Connecticut

I have made a very good living at writing for nearly forty years. The secret of success is to write a best selling novel early in your career. Once you've done that, the rest is just hard work and good management.

Alas I can't tell you much more beyond the advice I give on my web site on how to get my job.

Do note that although few writers make a lot of money, a number of them do manage to live off what they write. Often that has to be supplemented with teaching, coaching writing seminars, going to literary teas and dinners to get a good meal, and being a professional guest of honor at conventions.

Mr. Heinlein warned me early on that we are all professional gamblers, and just because you do well one year doesn't mean you will do well in future - and there's no retirement beyond your savings. One best seller can make a lot of money - but spread out over twenty years a couple of hundred thousand dollars after taxes doesn't make for a life of riotous living.

This is one reason that protecting intellectual property is important. I recently got a hefty royalty check on residual income from Mote in God's Eye and The Gripping Hand, both written some years ago...

Subject: eBook readers vs. Paperbacks

I used to read books on my palm pilot. I carried it in my back pocket. But then I sat on it and cracked the screen. I'm pretty hard on books. I expect to be able to put it in my back pocket and sit down without breaking anything. I also need to be able to stuff it in a briefcase.

DRM is fine - but it needs to account for the fact that we will break and lose the electronic reading device with all our books stored on it. I need to be easily able to reload the books I've already purchased onto a new device.

Jim Coffey

Agreed. I am not at all sure I know how an acceptable DRM would work, but that's an important point.

Robert Bruce Thompson says

However, reading your column made me think about something. Obviously, PNG and I disagree fundamentally about whether a practical and effective DRM system can ever be implemented. But just for the sake of argument, let's assume that PNG is right and that a bullet-proof DRM system is implemented tomorrow and remains uncracked forever.

How does that help Jerry and other novelists? PNG's DRM system can protect only material that has DRM in the first place, right? So what happens when Inferno II hits the bookstores?

Somebody buys one copy, rips out the pages, scans them, and posts them to the Internet. That's bad enough, but what if he OCRs them and posts the text? I'm sure there would be 100 (or 10,000) folks from scribd and similar sites who'd be happy to compare the OCR text against the scans, fix any OCR errors, and put together an unprotected ebook. They'd probably have a co-op, with a formalized check-out system to make sure that every page was assigned to one person (or two, for comparison) and that the work wasn't duplicated. My guess is there'd be an unauthorized ebook out within the first week, if not the first day.

Fighting stuff like this is like trying to hold back the tide. And all of the DRM and similar steps that are being taken to supposedly prevent it actually encourage it. If someone has a choice between paying for a DRM-laden copy of an ebook, versus downloading a free copy with no DRM (and therefore no hassles), which do you think a lot of people are going to choose? The alternative, which I think smart publishers and authors will eventually decide on, is to release your own authorized ebook and not make any serious attempt to prevent people from copying it freely.

Put a headline at the front and back, "If you haven't paid for this book, please click this link to send me $5." That way, most or all of the people who would have been willing to pay are going to pay anyway, and some of those freeloaders will also decide to pay. And having a freely-distributable official copy kind of eliminates the motivation for anyone to create and post unofficial copies.

Robert Bruce Thompson

I don't think anyone believes we can stop all electronic piracy. We can slow it down - and prevent highly capitalized and publicized web sites who use stolen works to generate a lot of web traffic, and thus get high on search engine returns. I can live with Joe Fan scanning in MOTE to share with his friends. What will hurt a lot is if someone is looking for an electronic copy of Mote, and the search engine turns up a pirate site on the first page, and the legal copy way down the list.

I confess I don't know how an acceptable DRM system would work. I do have some confidence in ingenuity on both sides of the issue.

Dear Mr. Pournelle,

I just read your article, "Computing at Chaos Manor." (Part 1 from September). Your reasonable tone and clear statement of the facts was a nice change from the hyperbole that many writers bring to this subject. While I am definitely a member of the computer generation, and have engaged in some "file sharing," I have to agree with your general sentiments in favor of the rights of authors. This is a tough time for many people in creative fields like music and writing, as we struggle to find a livable way forward in the electronic age. I hope cooler heads, such as yours, will prevail.

My main purpose in writing, though, is just to thank you for the amazing novels you have brought to the world. It has been close to 20 years since I read Footfall, but many of the images and concepts are still vivid. Are there any of the newer authors that even come close to the power and skill that you and Mr. Niven brought to science fiction, in your opinion? I feel like much of the hope for the future has been drained from the genre. Reading the news everyday, it's not hard to see why, but it's almost as if no one even dares imagine something better for our species.

Thanks so much for sharing your inventions and ideas. I will be sure to look for your name on the shelves when I go to the bookstore this weekend.

Peace and progress,
Bryan Hitchcock
Sacramento, CA

And thank you for the kind words.

Last week we reported on the failure of Orlando, our laptop, while down in San Diego, and some of the resulting mail problems.

Subject: Failure at the Beach


Once again you have made the case for having an SBS 2003 server at your home. All your mail would have been duplicated on Exchange server, your files would have been backed up on the server, you could have done your mail remotely through Outlook Web Access and you could have remotely accessed all your files until a copy could be made on a new drive.

Dean Peters

I agree it makes a case, but not enough of one: I don't want to run a mail server at home. I am a science fiction writer who does computer columns, not a computer geek. Besides, the people who maintain my mail and web sites would be horrified...

On night skies:

Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey reports

This article from The New Yorker is important for amateur astronomers, a good article...


Bob Thompson adds

Regarding "Not-so-dark skies"

Yeah, those of us on the east coast think ourselves lucky to find a site that's Bortle 3 or even Bortle 4, and that often requires a 50 to 100 mile drive.

When I started as an amateur astronomer in the early and mid-60's, I did a lot of my observing from the backyard of our home. We lived in a city of about 40,000 people, and my backyard was about Bortle 3 (although the Bortle Scale hadn't been invented at the time). M 31 (the Great Andromeda Galaxy) was an easy naked-eye object, and even M 33 (the Pinwheel Galaxy in Triangulum) was naked-eye when it was high.

Our astronomy club had an observing site about 10 miles outside town that was Bortle 1 or maybe 1.5. It was so dark that you literally couldn't see your hand in front of your face, and you had to be careful about walking into people and equipment. Nowadays, at our best regular observing site, which is an hour drive from Winston-Salem, the light dome from Mt. Airy, NC, 25 miles to the south, rises to about 30 degrees elevation, and you can sometimes literally read a newspaper headline by the light from general light pollution.

Light pollution has stolen the night sky from our children.

I live in Los Angeles. We have to drive out into the Mojave to get dark skies and that doesn't always work: to get really dark skies we go north to the Priest Valley.

Many years ago, when the Mojave was very dark, the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society took an overnight out to the desert. Jack Harness, a lifelong LA resident, looked up at the night sky and swooned. He was found hours later lying on his sleeping bag looking up and muttering "Stars!"

The present catches up to the past of the future

I recall these characters appearing in works by Niven and Walter Jon Williams, and I'm sure that they're not unique:

Popular Science: Happiness is a Warm Electrode

"At [Malone's] signal, two volts of electricity, enough to power a wristwatch, course through the wires and radiate outward from the tip a few millimeters in every direction. Millions of neurons bask in the electricity, and the effect is fairly immediate. Hire feels warm at first, a bit flushed.

"And then it happens. The room looks brighter to [Hire]. The faces, the big, circular lights overhead, the ceilingthey all seem clearer. Malone asks her how she feels. "I'm really happy," she replies, clearly surprised. "I feel like I could get up and do all sorts of things." But even more telling than her words is the look on her face. For the first time in 20 years, with a halo bolted to her head and two freshly drilled holes in her skull, Hire smiles."

One does wonder: will they outlaw wireheading now that it's happening?

The other night I left Alexis, my communications computer, with a pdf document on screen. It's a complex and long document - a guide to where to go for quests and fast leveling in World of Warcraft if you must know - but I didn't expect any problems.

I returned in the morning to find the screen locked. The Windows XP message was on the screen but not moving. Moving the mouse, striking keys, attempting control-alt-delete did nothing. Eventually there was nothing for it but to do a hardware reset.

The machine came up just fine. I reported this over at my web site http://www.jerrypournelle.com/ and got considerable mail.

Subject: Yes, Acrobat Reader is indeed evil!

Hi Jerry, yes, I have also had Acrobat Reader lock up systems. My wife's XP laptop got wedged so hard yesterday while viewing a pdf file within firefox with Acrobat that she finally made me go find an alternative for her to use. I found Foxit Reader, which is small, fast and free. Looks like, just like Adobe, they only charge for their pdf authoring tools. It's product page is at: this link. Of course you need to adjust your firefox/IE settings to use it for viewing PDF files by default in your browser. As you say, Recommended!

-David Mercer Tucson, AZ

I have had several recommendations for Foxit.

I've never had a system lockup but had plenty of problems with it hanging the web browser.

The first thing I do is uninstall all the other versions. We'll have computers will 3 completely different versions and numerous point upgrades all installed. Often the latest version will need to be reinstalled after this process.

In one computer if Acrobat is already running in the background then clicking on an online PDF file works fine. If not then IE hangs. On another computer Acrobat will only work if you right-click on the link and open it in a new window. Just clicking on it will cause a IE hang. All of the rest of the machines work fine. All of them have identical configurations. Well, initially at least.

On my personal machine I seem to have fewer problems with an older full Acrobat version. I get error messages every time I open anything but after clicking through the popup it always opens just fine. But due to this being a single datum I have no idea if the full version is any more stable than the reader.

Gene Horr

What I did was uninstall all versions of Acrobat reader, then download the latest and greatest 8.x version. I have since left that document up on the screen when I went to bed, and I have had no problems at all since.

In a June Mailbag, Marty Winston said:

On identity theft:

A friend who is a detective at a nearby large suburban police department tells me that he spends most of his time on identity theft cases, but they're still mostly low tech (as in, an extra print of the credit card gets bought out the back door of the restaurant).

Our local (population 6,000; 2,000 homes) rural township had to designate an officer as a detective and add an unmarked car in order to pursue (mostly identity theft, more low tech than high) investigations outside its borders.

But checking your credit reports too often can have a negative effect; many bureaus ding your score every time there's an inquiry.

Marty Winston

Our security expert Rick Hellewell comments:

A June letter says "But checking your credit reports too often can have a negative effect; many bureaus ding your score every time there's an inquiry."

I am not sure this is entirely correct, but I can't find a reference to verify. My recollection is that only a company querying your credit report for the purpose of granting credit may cause a 'ding' if there are too many requests. An individual requesting their own credit report does not cause a 'ding'. In fact, in the US, consumers are entitled to one free credit report per year per credit reporting agency. And the correct (and only) place to get that free report is www.annualcreditreport.com. Be wary of any other site/company advertising 'free' credit reports. They are only 'free' if you pay a charge, which is often obscured in the fine print of the site.

I recommend going to the above site once every four months, requesting your free report from each of the three credit reporting agencies in turn. And remember that your spouse may have a separate credit history, so request that also.

It is a bit of work to request and analyze your credit report (and make any needed corrections). There are lots of companies that will help you out...for a fee. One has to determine the value of their time in relation to the services that are provided by those companies.

Regards, Rick Hellewell

I can't find a definitive source either, but everything I can find suggests that Mr. Hellewell is correct.