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November 6, 2007

The User's Column, November 2007
Column 328, part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Daylight Savings Time is over for the year. It was retained an extra week, with what benefits no one is quite sure: the statistics are conflicted. How much gasoline is used driving kids to school because it's too dark for them to walk? I know that happened back in World War II, when most kids walked to school if there was enough light. After DST, there were many more cars on the roads, despite gasoline rationing. In my Studio City neighborhood most of the kids are driven to school in big SUV's in the morning and picked up again in the afternoon, and the few that do walk to school are generally accompanied by a mom or a nanny (or in a few cases both), so I doubt that Daylight Savings Time had much of an impact at all.

Ed Markey (D. Mass.) and Fred Upton (R. Mich.) promised us that DST would save America 100,000 barrels of oil a day, and the news media repeated that figure a lot, but I haven't seen any actual numbers on which it was based - and in any case the data, such as they are, come from the 1970's and the Nixon Oil Crisis (I remember the long lines to buy gasoline at the horrid price of over a dollar a gallon)!

And studies in Australia, where some states did DST and some didn't, showed that additional early morning electricity use was greater than the evening savings. On the other hand, Australia doesn't get as cold and dark as Massachusetts and Michigan, so perhaps the data aren't entirely comparable.

If anyone has some genuine data on the value of DST I'd like to see it. My suspicion is that someone is making money off it, and we're all paying without getting any benefit, but then I'm a cynic. As for me, if I had my druthers I'd invest half the cost of the Gulf War into building nuclear power plants and better ways to use electricity for transportation. Then we wouldn't need Daylight Savings Time.

The Writers Strike

Twenty years ago when the Writers Guild of America went on strike, there wasn't any Internet. The big issue back then was residuals: not how much would be paid for a script in the various stages leading to production and the initial showing, but how much would be paid to the writers when the production was put into reruns; and if the show were sold as a video tape, how much of the proceeds would go to the talents who caused it to exist. It was an important issue but no one understood the details very well. On the other hand, few understand Hollywood economics in the first place.

Hollywood has always had a peculiar accounting system. Most people would think that if a movie cost, say, $25 million to make and another $20 million to copy, promote, and distribute, then if it takes in $90 million, there must be about $45 million profit. In Hollywood accounting, that movie wouldn't have any profits at all. The $45 million it took in over and above the direct costs of production and distribution would be more than absorbed in the studio overhead charges. There are also fees paid to certain early investors that might look like profits to you and me, but not to the studio accountants. The bottom line here is that almost no movies make a profit, and anyone who is entitled to profit shares will seldom get a dime from them. The system has been challenged often, but generally without success.

Because of the notorious Hollywood accounting system, neither writers nor actors wanted their residuals based on profits. On the other hand, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the simple formula we use in determining printed book royalties - namely, somewhere around 10% of the cover price of the book - wouldn't work either. The studios explained that they didn't know enough about the costs of producing and distributing video tapes. Eventually back in 1988 the Guild settled for 4 cents per tape sold. At the time that seemed reasonable given the costs of tape production and distribution. Also, since no one understood video disks, the same numbers were applied to those, including DVD's.

That four cents turned out to be a bit low, and one of the reasons for today's strike is to adjust that number. Were that the only disagreement, though, it's highly unlikely there would be a strike. Hollywood is a rather comfortable (if frantic) place, and strikes really hurt everyone. I would guess that a good 40% of my neighbors in Studio City are directly affected by a writers strike. It's gloomy here.

Sharing the Pie

Hollywood writers are not in the same situation as book writers. With books there are really only two parties, the writer and the publisher. Editors are paid by the publisher. So are production people including illustrators and map makers and indexers. Writers pay their own research expenses, but publishers may pay for the author death marches known as book signing tours. Celebratory lunches involving authors, editors, and possibly publishers are paid by publishers.

There is a long history of book publishing, and royalties are supposed to reflect the costs of a well studied industry. The theory is that when all is over, the author and the publisher will make about the same profit from a book. This is often not true in practice, but it's not a terrible first approximation.

The Hollywood writer is in a different situation. Although there would be no movie (or TV show) without the writer, there are many others who can make that statement. Clearly the actors and director are equally necessary. Production costs are much higher for a movie than a book, as are distribution costs. Everyone demands a share: writers, actors, directors, production staff, artists and specialists, sound editors and foley artists, they all want and are entitled to some of the proceeds. Some are paid a salary to do a job of work, and aren't entitled to any additional payment. Others participated in the creation of this work and are, or think they should be, paid for every subsequent showing. This is why, I am told, the writers can't simply demand a royalty based on a percentage of the sale price of a DVD, or the ticket price of the movie. If the producers give in to the writers, there are hundreds of others waiting for a share. The one thing all Hollywood investors agree on is that there shall never be payments based directly on receipts. All receipts must vanish into the maw of Hollywood accounting. That principle must forever stand.

Do understand that while to the public movies are made as works of art (or at least craft), to Hollywood the entire Industry is merely a way of making a high return on investments, preferably investments of other people's money. The artists - the term used by producers is 'the talents' - may think the goal is entertainment or even art, but the producers at the top levels know better.

If all this weren't complicated enough, comes now the Internet and web publishing. The web is voracious: it can absorb all the entertainment the industry can produce and still want more. At the same time, the technology drives the price of access to that entertainment down toward zero - so much so that some movies and TV episodes are shown for "promotion": and on those, the producers say, the talents who make the shows possible aren't entitled to anything at all. And, of course, Hollywood's creative accounting gets into defining what is "promotion." To take a simple example: suppose a popular TV episode is shown without commercials as a lead-in to attract viewers to the following show which is sold to the gills? How do you apportion revenue to the talents, including writers and actors, in the two different shows?

And believe me, it gets more complicated than that.

Digital Rights Matter

Digital rights are the real stakes in this strike, and what happens here will affect all of us: writers, artists, performers.

In the past, a great part of the income of a successful author came from mass market (paperback) book rights. Once a book has its run as a hardbound book, it will seldom appear again in a hardbound edition. On the other hand, it may be reissued many times in paperback: The Mote In God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, has been reissued well over a score of times, always in paperback. Mote has earned each of us a few thousand dollars every year since it was published. Lucifer's Hammer, also by Niven and Pournelle, was a runaway best seller in both hardbound and paper, but it has never had a second hardbound edition. There have been more than twenty paperback editions.

In other words, most authors make their living off paperback sales - and the paperback book industry is in terrible trouble. At the moment, authors make more profits from paperback books than publishers. Something has to change.

Electronic Books

Electronic book sales have been between small and insignificant, but that is changing. Baen Books has recently bought the ebook rights to several of my older works, paying a decent advance. We're all anxiously awaiting the results. Meanwhile, Baen has built a pretty good market in ebooks and is hoping to expand it. Some other publishers are taking note. We have every year expected the next year to be the year of the ebook, and every year we have been wrong; but it does appear that ebook sales are rising now.

I have often said, and say again: there will come a time when technology will catch up with the book business. There will come a time when everyone will be carrying an instrument on which one can read a book with about as good an experience as you would have reading a paperback. The instrument will be your telephone and telep0hone book, as well as GPS locator, email access, video and still camera, notebook, and music delivery system. Nearly everyone will have one. Downloading a new book will be painless and cheap.

When that day comes, the paperback book market will implode. Paperback books will no longer be the "mass market" delivery system for entertainment books such as detective stories and science fiction. When that day comes, the entire financial compensation system for authors will change with it.

And that's why I, for one, am paying very close attention to the Writers Guild strike. They know what digital rights are worth. Pretty soon, every author will.

What Comes Next?

Once mass market comes to mean distribution of books through electronic means to be read on electronic equipment, will it be long before the nature of the book changes?

One obvious change is in book navigation. The annotated Table of Contents has often been more useful than an index; with electronically produced books, not only can we have both, but both can have hyperlinks to the text. Look up all instances of the word Hobson in a book, and see not merely the pages, but the paragraphs, and a touch of the stylus takes you there.

Another is in illustrations. Maps, diagrams, technical diagrams of weapons, charts, tables of organization; cast of characters; animated movie clips. It costs no more to include these than the text. How long will it be before readers first prefer, then demand, augmented books?

I could continue, but surely the point is clear? I have never had much use for classes in creative writing. When I am asked to lecture to such a class, I inevitably talk shop about the business of being a writer. I have distilled what I know about learning to write into an essay on how to get my job (available on my web site, http://www.jerrypournelle.com/slowchange/myjob.html) and if I think of anything else, I'll put it in there. I don't think people can be taught to write except in a very limited sense. They have to learn for themselves. I do think future writers may have to learn other skills. The obvious one is learning the techniques of Podcasting, both audio and video. Courses in using digital drawing tools would help, too.

It's a brave new world out there.

Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa


It probably won't be the game of the month, because it's not quite my cup of tea; but we'll see. Richard Garriott, son of Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott (I have the elder Garriott's autograph on a Skylab picture on my wall) but probably better known as a game designer under the pseudonym Lord British, has designed what amounts to a first person shooter to be played on line in company with others. It is formally a Massively Multi Player On Line Role Playing Game (MMORPG) with a science fiction theme, but the action and pace is more like a cross between Doom and Diablo.

It also has a story. Indeed, I find the backstory more interesting than the game, and one reason I have been playing it is simple curiosity. As to the game itself, it's fun enough, but there are some real problems. First, it really is more like a first person shooter than anything else. It's certainly not a role playing game. For example, in a role playing game if you want to loot a corpse you do just that, and the game shows an animation of your character kneeling for a moment. It is one of the conventions of role playing games. In Tabula Rasa, the conventions are generally drawn from shooters like Doom. Just run over the corpse. Items will magically appear in your backpack. There's no attempt at realism.

One communicates with non-player characters by getting close to them and pressing the "T" key. This starts a more or less conventional dialogue in which the NPC tells you of a quest, or gives you some information. All pretty standard for the genre: now comes blowing up turrets and pill boxes. These have a convenient "detonator receptor" point, and if you run up to it and talk (press T) to the right place, it will explode. So does your willing suspension of disbelief.

The interface is unlike most online role playing games. One moves by pressing the w key, but one turns by using the mouse. There is no mouse pointer: you aim and turn by aiming your character. You fire by pressing the left mouse key. You cast spells (use powers) by selecting the power, then pressing the right mouse button.

One can get used to this after a while. I also got used to the graphics, which are pretty good. What I couldn't get used to was the lag. Tabula Rasa, as of this writing, is very crowded, and as a result the action is jerky. Enemies vanish to reappear elsewhere. Other enemies are right there next to you, but when you shoot at them nothing happens. Try casting a spell, and you will get the message "You cannot see the enemy," meaning that your local computer and the game server have two different ideas about where you and your enemy are. As a result you can be killed by a critter you can see - it's right there pounding on you - but which the computer thinks you can't see and thus can't kill.

I suppose the technical glitches will be fixed. I am pretty sure that the slowdowns and lag are due to their getting far more players than they thought they would, and no doubt they'll invest in more server resources - indeed, they'll have to if the game is going to survive.

When the glitches are fixed I'll try it again. I'm not enormously fond of shooters, but I did rather like Diablo, and Tabula Rasa promises to be more fun and with a better story line. I never really felt as if I were role playing, but a couple of times I got close to that: a wave of enemies was charging me, and a group of other players came to my aid. We set up a defense line and stopped the enemy in his tracks. And that was fun.