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Computing At Chaos Manor:
August 7, 2007

The User's Column, August 2007
Column 325, part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

There is news of considerable interest from Amazon, but I am not sure what it means. Perhaps if you read the announcement for yourself, and you can tell me; there's a lot of dense verbiage in there.

It looks as if Amazon is reviving the old DEC Labs concept of Millicent, which was supposed to be a way to set up rules for selling access to web pages for prices ranging from many dollars to fractions of a cent per page viewed. Under Millicent you could set up subscriber areas with defined access times (hours, days, weeks, forever) and these might vary from subscriber to subscriber. You could also charge for access to particular documents.

John Dvorak and I conceived a kind of Siskel and Ebert reviews magazine (Discontinuity; we did a few weeks' worth), in which we would rate hardware and software weekly in an on-line format similar to their movie ratings, complete with snarky exchanges of views when we disagreed. We thought we would charge a dime for access to each week's new pages, making the whole thing free after a couple of months. It looked as if this might produce considerable revenue without our having to resort to advertising.

Advertising is always a problem when you're doing reviews. If you insist that you will not accept ads from anyone you don't approve of - i.e. the very appearance of an ad is an endorsement - the sales problems become intense. If you advertise products you don't approve of there are contradictions - and again even greater sales problems. In all cases there is considerable sales effort needed, and neither John nor I think of ourselves as all that proficient as salesmen; and of course there is always the suspicion that advertisements affect editorial judgment.

When BYTE was owned by McGraw Hill the separation of sales and editorial was absolute; it was a firing offense for a BYTE salesperson to suggest how a review should go, or even what products to review. In all my years at BYTE I never had a single hint of which products to review, nor of which companies to go easy on. Sometimes a salesperson whom I knew well would ask me to come to a company's party at COMDEX or other trade shows, but that was rare, and there was never any hint that I had any obligation to go, or to review anything the company made.

Achieving that kind of separation of advertisement from editorial objectivity would be nearly impossible with a part time operation as we conceived Discontinuity to be. On the other hand, if we could charge a dime an issue, the potential revenue was very high and the production costs quite low.

Alas, Millicent didn't fly. DEC couldn't find a banker willing to host the operation (although there was a brief time when it worked in Europe). Since that time there has never been a serious attempt to collect small fees per page on a web site.

This Amazon announcement makes me think Millicent may come back. If so, the implications for publishing of all kinds are enormous. Periodical works and reviews instantly come to mind, but there's also fiction. Some blogs are sufficiently popular that a penny a day per viewer can add up to huge sums. Even here a dime a week per unique site visitor would yield more than enough without my having to bug readers about subscriptions.

The Changing World of Publishing

As I've told you before, the publishing world is changing rapidly. Profits from mass market paperback publishing are plunging, and many publishers wonder if it's not time to get out. Paperback books cost more all the time, and the sell through - the percentage of books shipped to distributors that are actually sold - is falling, now hovering at an average of about 50%. Some sources give even lower averages; and certainly if the average is 50%, and 85% is considered high, many books must have sell through in the 20's and lower.

Paperback books that don't sell are not returned. Only the covers are returned; the rest of the book is pulped. Some disreputable bookstores will shop off the disfigured books to used book jobbers, which is why if you see a paperback without a front cover, it's probably theft from both author and publisher.

The reason paperbacks are pulped rather than returned is complicated. If you want to know more, see this SFWA Bulletin article.

The Death Spiral

Printing and shipping books only to have them destroyed is expensive. This has created the "author's death spiral". Say the publisher ships 50,000 copies of an author's book, and the sell through is 60%. This is pretty good, but some publishers will decide that if the author only sells 30,000, why ship so many? They ship 40,000 of his next book. That also gets 60% sell through. Then next time ship only 30,000. And the next time - well, that author isn't selling very well. Let's try a new author.

Fortunately that hasn't happened to me, but it has happened to some surprisingly good writers, a few of whom have taken to writing under pen names. Sometimes several pen names.

Meanwhile, paperback book publishing itself is undergoing a kind of death spiral. There are a lot more paperback books being published; they divide into best sellers and the rest. The best sellers sell a lot of copies, but competition among book chains has driven them to offer ridiculous discounts so that there isn't a lot of profit on those sales. The hope is to get people into the stores where they will buy some book they hadn't intended to buy: preferably a hard bound, but perhaps a non-discounted paperback. Meanwhile, every time a Big Bookstore opens, a Mall Bookstore closes; and the difference between the two is that a customer in a Big Bookstore went in to buy a book. In a Mall a clever display may sell a book to a customer who came to visit Crate and Barrel.

So What Comes Next?

I've said this before, but it bears repeating. The reason electronic books don't sell very well now is not that we don't have good enough readers. Some of them are excellent, if a bit pricey, and prices of electronics always fall, sometimes startlingly fast. It's because people don't routinely carry an electronic book reader. Thus it's more convenient to carry the book than to worry about another electronic device to lose.

That's changing. The iPhone is just the beginning. It cannot be long before people will routinely carry a device about the size of an iPhone, perhaps a bit larger. It will have a GPS receiver; wireless web browsing; calendar; Yellow Pages for locating your next shopping destination; phone book; digital voice recorder for notes; notepad; and a bunch of other functions, all in one device.

When that happens, people will find it more convenient to carry books on their telephone/pocket computer than to buy and carry yet one more object. And when that comes about, certainly within a decade, the paperback book printed on dead trees will be on the way out.

Long before that happens the whole notion of publishing will change. It's not entirely clear who will sell these books, and how they will be recommended. Reviews will count. Word of mouth will count a lot. When I review a book I routinely provide a link to Amazon that tells Amazon you are getting the book on my recommendation. That doesn't bring me a lot of revenue, but it's enough for a few good dinners each year.

When book sales are primarily electronic, there's little production cost; and the division of revenue will change a lot. It's likely that Amazon's new policy, or something like it, will be a great part of that change.

Of course all this is of a piece with a raging discussion/debate/flame war among my advisors on Digital Rights Management. Is DRM possible? Likely? Possible but evil? Possible and the only way authors can make a living in an electronic media age? Stand by. We'll have those discussions in coming weeks.

On The Road

I'm not precisely on the road. I'm actually down at the beach house, and since we were planning on being here for two weeks I brought a carload of stuff that I wouldn't normally carry on a trip; and of course we leave down here a large ViewSonic VA1930wm screen and Microsoft Wireless Laser Comfortcurve Keyboard and Mouse (link) so I have a pretty good setup.

However, I did bring down three laptop computers, new computer friendly luggage, and other stuff; and my son Alex and daughter in law Dana were down for the weekend with their laptops so we had a chance to test wireless setups.

Let's look at the luggage first.

Briggs and Riley

Number Nine and Eddie Bauer
My usual carry on travel kit: Number Nine roll on, and an Eddie Bauer briefcase with padded place for a TabletPC.

My usual carry-on is an ancient roll-on first given me by Number Nine when that company was a player in computer graphics cards. I have loved that bag ever since: it has handles on both the front and the top, it's made of nearly indestructible ballistic nylon, and it has a gizmo that lets me attach my brief case to it so that I can do the airport gate shuffle without feeling like a beast of burden. (I often wonder if gate assignments are not made in cooperation with some physical fitness program, but I'm probably being paranoid.)

My one complaint about the Number Nine is that in order to carry a computer in it, I had to put the computer in a carry bag, and put that bag inside the roll-on; there just wasn't quite enough padding to let me entrust a computer to the Number Nine without some additional protection. On the other hand, the Number Nine was easily large enough to let me do that. When I went to England for the conference on the future of terrorism, the Apple PowerBook rode in there while LisaBetta the TabletPC stowed in the Eddie Bauer brief case. It all worked just fine.

I have had that Number Nine bag for at least twenty years. I have repaired it, once doing some hand stitching with a sewing awl, and twice by having a luggage repair shop replace its wheels and bottom stand. It has been around the world at least once, and through every kind of customs including the KGB's inspection system. I had never seen a bag that remotely tempted me to switch.

Briggs & Riley Upright Carry-On
The Briggs & Riley with the IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad Z-61t safely stowed in the computer carry compartment.
Briggs & Riley interior
The interior compartment of the Briggs & Riley is spacious and subdivided intelligently.
The Number Nine, full
The Number Nine tends to be filled with Stuff. Fortunately ZipLock bags are cheap.

I told all that to Christine Carney, the Briggs & Riley representative, and she said they had the solution in their newest bag. Consequently when we came down to the beach, in addition to my ancient Number Nine bag, I brought the Briggs & Riley U420-NB4 Upright Carry-On Computer Upright (link), designed for day trips with a computer. It carried the Lenovo 60 TabletPC and its small docking station (containing the DVD drive) along with the power supply. All that fit perfectly into the heavily padded computer section of the carry-on; indeed, there's room in there for just about all the computer accessories you'd like, keeping your electronics neatly separated from the rest of your life.

The main compartment is large enough for a weekend's worth of stuff for any normal person. Since my normal means of travel is with seven elephants, it might not be large enough for me; I carry all kinds of stuff that might come in handy (and often does). As TSA gets more and more aggressive, it has become harder and harder to get everything I want into a carry-on and I may be forced to resort to checked luggage even for short trips; but I would really prefer not to, and the Briggs & Riley is certainly about as large as anything I would attempt to carry onto an airplane.

When my daughter in law, who manages store displays in the West from Denver to Hawaii and thus has to travel a lot, saw the Briggs & Riley she proclaimed B&R the best travel bag maker in the world.

One reason is the guarantee: if anything breaks at any time, they'll repair it free. Getting the bag to their authorized repair center is your problem, but there are plenty of them, and shipping an empty bag by UPS ground isn't prohibitively expensive wherever you are. From everything I have heard, their warranty really is "as simple as that."

There are many nice touches to this bag. The compartment design is well thought out, with one possible exception. In addition to the various compartments in the main and computer section, there's a small compartment on the back of the bag between the handle uprights. I am not sure what I will put in there. The Number Nine bag has a big compartment back there just right for stuffing the newspaper you've been into. It will also hold a book. The B&R bag's back compartment doesn't have room for either a newspaper or a book, and I am not sure where those will go; I am addicted to reading while standing in lines, and it's sometimes awkward to find a way to store my reading matter quickly when I am forced to pay attention to real life again.

On the other hand, I always carry a brief case - in my case an Eddie Bauer I've had for years; it will carry LisaBetta the HP TabletPC and all her accessories in addition to books, pens, pills, keys, notepaper, jeweler's screwdriver kit, computer glasses, magazines, DocuPen scanning wand, BandAids, Sennheiser Noise Cancelling Headset, and the myriad other things I think I can't travel without; and it's not all that hard to stuff a newspaper or book into that, and come to think of it, it's what I usually do. The Number Nine bag's newspaper pocket seems more useful in theory than in practice -at least in my practice.

Like the Number Nine, the Briggs & Riley bag has a gizmo for attaching the brief case to the roll-on, so that the whole mess can be wheeled rapidly through the airports.

Eddie Bauer securely attached to the Briggs & Riley
The Briggs & Riley with Eddie Bauer securely attached.

There's only one problem: the front feet of the bag are about a quarter inch too short. When you load a large computer, such as a Lenovo ThinkPad into the B&R bag's well padded front compartment, it won't be entirely stable on a thick rug. In order to get it to stand up properly under any stress at all, I had to put a CD jewel case under each forward foot, after which it was as stable as a rock.

Two comments on that. First, the padding is good: even if the bag with computer falls face forward, there won't be any damage, even if it's standing on a concrete floor. Second, it's not unstable on a concrete floor, or even on a thin rug. It's only unstable on a thick rug; and of course if it falls face forward on a thick rug the likelihood of damage is essentially zero.

All told this is certainly the best bag I have had since I got the Number Nine (and believe me, I have had a lot of them sent my way). It may even replace my Number Nine. Briggs & Riley have a well deserved reputation, and their new Computer Carry On is a winner. Recommended.

Targus 14" Ultra-Lite Corporate Traveler

This was also my opportunity to try out a new combination laptop bag and brief case, presumably as a replacement for the Eddie Bauer I have carried all these years.

Targus Ultra-Lite
The Targus Ultra-Lite, with the IBM t42p aboard. The front compartment is easy to access and well designed.
Targus Ultra-Lite hitched to the Briggs & Riley
The well equipped traveler, Briggs & Riley roll-on and Targus Notebook briefcase. It all wheels easily enough.

I have to say the Targus Ultra-Lite could do that job. It's not cheap, but then neither was the Eddie Bauer. Like the Eddie Bauer you'll never have to replace it.

I used the Targus for transporting my key machine, Leonardo the IBM ThinkPad T42p. He's never felt safer: the Targus computer container is padded on sides, and at bottom has a highly shock absorbing set of thick pads. I wouldn't care to have this drop off my shoulder from waist height, but if it did I would bet considerable sums that Leonardo would work just fine when I picked him up.

The rest of the bag is equally well designed. There are the usual compartments. One, near the handles, is very secure and could hold keys, passport, and such. There's a newspaper holder thingy.

For a lark I unpacked the Eddie Bauer and stuffed everything in him into the Targus, then added a copy of the last Harry Potter (which I managed to read while I was down here), log book, battery charger, magazines, and a bunch of other stuff I want with me on an airplane. I now had Leonardo in the Targus and the IBM/Lenovo Titanium Z-61t in the Briggs & Riley. The interior of the Briggs & Riley was empty.

Back when I was Science Editor for Galaxy and the National Catholic Press and went to science meetings all over the world, I wore a Cable Car wash and wear suit, khaki in summer and dark wool in winter. I didn't even need a spare shirt: I could wash that out every night and let it drip dry to humidify the room. Of course I didn't have a computer in those days; I had to work on typewriters in the Press Room, and read my story over the phone lines. Things have really changed.

I now have more computing power than existed in the world back when I started this column, and it's all packed safely into something I can carry onto an airplane. The T42p is quite safe in the Targus laptop case, and the Z61t is well protected in the B&R roll-on. There's room in the roll-on for pajamas and a fresh shirt.

The Targus Ultra-Lite is an excellent investment for anyone who regularly uses a laptop. There are cheaper computer cases, but I haven't seen any I like better. Recommended.

Beware of Vista

I have three machines here. Two have XP, and one has Vista. The two XP machines were a bit more difficult to connect to the wireless router we use to connect to the Road Runner cable modem: in particular, you must tell Windows, or the IBM wireless manager, what kind of security protocol is in use, and whether the password is ASCII or hex. If you don't do that, you can spend a while trying to log on. It took about ten minutes to figure all that out and get those machines logged in.

The Vista machine, on the other hand, instantly recognized the protocol and asked for the appropriate password; logging onto the router took almost no time at all.

That was about the only thing that Vista did that was easy. I have a tale of woe that will have to wait until next week; but I can close by saying that I have no reason to believe Vista Business is superior to XP for much you want to do on the road once you get logged onto a secured wireless net. It does that just fine, though.