Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
November 20, 2007

The User's Column, November 2007
Column 328, part 3
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Call for Christmas Recommendations

My annual Christmas Shopping Recommendations are coming up. Please send your recommendations for stocking stuffers and major items. Include links to reviews if possible, as well as links to where to obtain the items. And of course say why you think this would make a great gift.

My personal favorite would be a Rocket Racing airplane from the Neiman Marcus Christmas Catalog. A bargain at $2 million, it's made by XCOR in Mojave. Alas, I don't think anyone will buy me one of those...

Amazon Kindle

The big news this week is Kindle, the new book reader from Amazon. There's a demonstration on the Amazon web site, and if you have any interest in the future of mass market books, go look at it. It's not a real picture of the future, because Kindle isn't Good Enough yet; but if you squint a bit and don't focus your eyes too strongly, you will see a vague outline of where the publishing world is going.

Kindle is a hand held reader that works better than most such devices. It will run on batteries for several hours (up to two days it is reported) with the wireless turned on, and up to a week with wireless off. It can be read in bright sunlight. There are several print sizes, and the larger ones look pretty readable. There's a keyboard. It allows paragraph annotations and page marking. It's light in weight, and a handy size easily carried in most shoulder bags if a bit large to hang on your belt.

It will acquire books directly through its wireless connection. Amazon has a long list of books already available, and has announced a publishing scheme to acquire more. There will be a lot more books available in Kindle format.

Those are the good points, and you can see them all in the Amazon demonstration.

Alas, they don't make up for the defects. The Kindle reads only a few formats: Kindle (.awz), text (.txt), and non-DRM Mobi (.mobi, .prc). It will also read mp3 and Audible.com (.aa) sound files. You can pay Amazon a nominal fee to convert .doc, .pdf, and other format files to Kindle but it won't read them natively. This is nuts: no one wants to send important documents off to Amazon to be converted.

MobiPocket DRM'd books are perhaps the most successful ebook format, and Amazon sells MobiPocket ebooks. I've not heard what will happen to those. Will Amazon convert them for Kindle buyers? Otherwise the early adopters who bought DRM'd MobiPocket Books are just out of luck. On the other hand, many ebooks including both free and sold Baen ebooks should be readable on the Kindle without conversion.

Of course, as Robert Bruce Thompson points out, it won't be long before the user community hacks the conversion software, and converters will be offered free all over the net. That means that any pirated book can - and thus will - be converted into Kindle format and made available universally; and since Amazon is charging ten bucks for a new book encumbered with Digital Rights Management software, the incentive to use the pirate services rather than buy the book may well overcome the ethical inhibitions of many.

I can already hear the screams of "Ripoff! Amazon is ripping us off by overcharging! We're justified in whatever we do because Amazon is gouging." I can even predict who will be saying that, but then so can you.

Bob Thompson also says "I wonder what the rationale is for bundling EVDO (and only EVDO) access with the price of the unit. How about just Wi-Fi? How about Wi-Fi, period?"

That concerned Roland Dobbins, particularly after he spoke with Amazon Technical Support who told him that downloading by EVDO to a Kindle was the ONLY way to acquire books for it; but he later found that Amazon knows better even if their techs don't.

You must own a registered Kindle in order to buy a Kindle book from Amazon, and you can't transfer it from one Kindle to another, not even by erasing it from the original Kindle; but you can buy a book over the Internet and upload it to your registered Kindle. You don't have to be in an EVDO area.

How long this DRM will work is an interesting question: since we're dealing with text, I can't imagine that it will take more than a few weeks to crack the whole scheme, starting with the format and then going through the copy protection. I have a lot of confidence in the hacker community.

Who Wants A Kindle?

I can think of a number of people who will find this useful and interesting. People who have to carry a lot of books and journals around may find it a lifesaver. It certainly looks good enough for casual reading on a long trip. It would also be a neat way to carry a pile of travel guides.

I would like to have one, but I am not sure I want to pay $400 for it. Of course I am not the customer Kindle was designed for. If I'm going to carry a shoulder bag - and I think I'd have to in order to carry the Kindle - I will carry a TabletPC and be done with it. I can do everything with a Tablet than you can do with the Kindle, and edit my current manuscripts to boot. On the other hand, there are going to be a LOT of books in Kindle format that may not be available for the Tablet - at least not until the hacker community gets moving.

Kindle is not going to replace a TabletPC for editing, and it doesn't have enough features - at least I don't think it does - to present what I think of as "the new fiction", with maps, plans, illustrations, cut scenes, models, audio clips, and other enhancements. I do not think it will replace paperback publishing. It's overpriced at $400 (a price that is sure to fall, probably sooner than later), and ten dollars is a pretty high price point for books that you can't buy or sell used and can't give to your friends when you're done reading them. The Ladies Mystery Club can't swap the books among themselves - yet. Again, we haven't heard from the hacker community.

On the other hand, there are lots of books at low prices. Burning Tower, by Niven and Pournelle, is $5.59, which is less than the paperback edition. There are a number of mystery novels at lower than paperback prices; and indeed I note that some non-fiction works I am about to order in hardbound are for sale for ten bucks as opposed to the twenty something I'll have to pay. Hmm. Something to think about. If I save ten bucks a book, it would pay for itself in a year or so...

As I write this there are a couple of hundred "reviews" of Kindle on Amazon, and the average is just above 2 stars, which signals serious rejection: but few of those "reviews" are by actual customers who have one, so I've paid little attention to them. We'll learn more when there are more Kindle devices out there.

At least two of my advisors are getting the Kindle, and I'll wait for their reports before I buy one for myself. At $400 it's a bit above my "what the hell" price. It's still a neat idea, and as I said, if you squint a bit, you may see the future when you look at it.

Hacking EVDO

Things will get interesting when (not if) folks figure out how to hack the Kindle sufficiently to turn it into a free EVDO modem for their laptops. It will be interesting to see what, if any, restrictions Sprint have put on the Internet connectivity of the device; since it can browse any Web site, even if Sprint tries to filter the traffic, the more technically astute (i.e., the folks who will figure out how to make use of the Kindle as a USB EVDO modem for free connectivity in the first place) will simply make use of any of the large number of open proxy servers on the Internet in order to tunnel their traffic over TCP/80 within Sprint's network, so that it looks like Web traffic. Are the Sprint techs prepared to monitor this traffic and to start shutting off folks who abuse the service in this fashion? How will Amazon feel about Sprint shutting off Kindle users from purchasing Amazon eBooks online? I foresee interesting times.

Sony Reader

Peter Glaskowsky was down for the auto show, and came by with the Sony Book Reader\ so I got to play with one. Peter's review is at this link.

I had nearly bought one when it first came out. I am glad I didn't. The Sony reader is easy to use, page turning is simple - and some material is easy to read. Alas, much is not. For instance, a normal pdf file comes up in print so small that I can barely read it, and certainly I can't read it comfortably. From everything I have seen, I'd rather spend the extra hundred bucks for the Kindle.

It may be time for me to get some kind of ebook reader, since I'm working with my agent to get everything I've written into electronic publication. We'll see which one: at the moment, from everything I've seen it would be the Kindle, but I'm not in such a great hurry that I'll order one. As I said, $400 is a bit above my "what the hell" level - and I do have a perfectly good TabletPC. Books on that are just gorgeous and I can read them in the dark.

Wave of the Future

Whether or not Kindle is the wave of the future, it is certainly important to it. I have already asked my agent to look into what works we can publish in Kindle format, either through a publisher or doing it myself using the Amazon publishing mechanism. More on this after I know more, but anyone contemplating publishing ought to look into this.

Vista Watch

Dvorak calls it the Vista Death Watch. I won't go that far, but every week I find another Vista annoyance.

This week my Vista system - an Intel Core 2 Duo with lots of memory and nothing weird about it - can't read CDROMs. I have two drives, a more or less generic DVD ROM reader (Drive E:), and a Plextor PX 716A reader/burner (Drive F:). Both read DVD's just fine. For a while both would read CD's but the other day Vista crashed, and when it came back up, it would only see CD's in the Plextor F: drive. Inserting a CD in the E: drive did nothing at all. Then Vista crashed again, and now neither drive will see CD's.

I have tried searching online for updated drivers. None. I have tried uninstalling each drive in Device Manager, then letting Vista find them again. It finds them all right, and I can play DVD's.

I made the hideous mistake of buying the Special Edition of Die Another Day, and I have yet to watch the movie: I get previews and specials and teasers and God knows what else, but I have yet to find the movie: before all the garbage on that disk comes up, I have lost all interest. I'm ready to go out to find a pirate edition of Die Another Day so I can watch the movie itself. I didn't pay for compulsory ads and features, I wanted to see the movie. Fat chance. If I sound like one of those people who justify piracy, I admit that when I pay money for a product and it makes me jump through hoops before I can use it, I get that way. When publishers began inserting cigarette ads into paperback novels, every writer in the country rose up in protest. The author associations managed to persuade publishers it wasn't a good idea. Now if there were some way to do that to MPAA.

Anyway, I can play DVD's on my Vista machine, but I cannot make it believe that it knows how to access CD's. If anyone knows, I'd appreciate some help. Otherwise, I guess I just have to dump Vista and install XP on this system.

Outlook Annoyances

My Outlook PST files get very large. I run Outlook on a dual processor system under XP, and when those pst files get very large Outlook gets very slow.

I've been reorganizing the pst files. The other day I decided to move an enormous chunk from one PST file to another. It took a long time - 13 minutes - and when it appeared to be finished, there was no cursor. I clicked here and there, and hit return, and behold the Blue Screen of Death. The error message was Machine_check_exception. I had no choice but to shut down with the big red switch.

Here are my notes:

Outlook does it again.  I hate Outlook

Moving large number of files into Archives. 13 minutes. 
Seems to be done - but no cursor, and attempts to get 
going again get that error. Shut down with hardware. 

Windows XP comes up all right.  Now to open Outlook 2003

It seems to come up all right. Open Outlook.

An error message appears; it seems to cover another 
message? Screen won't show it all. This on fast dual 
core machinery.

That is one hog of a program. Invoke ctl=alt-delete

We are at the blue screen again. Now I worry.

Back up. Ctl-alt-del works

Outlook wants to start in safe mode. Let it.

It seems to be starting up.  I do not know what safe 
mode does. It does appear to be working.

Compact archive folders. Works.  Delete the deleted 
items. Works. Compacting, works. Takes a long time on 
current pst but you expect that.

Came up in safe mode just fine. Works just fine. 
Compacted everything. Exited. I'll VOPT the disk when 
the copying is done.

Interpreting: after the second blue screen of death, I brought up the system and copied all the PST files over to another machine. Then I invoked Outlook again, and when it wanted to come up in safe mode - I had never even heard that Outlook has a safe mode - I let it do that. While it was in safe mode I went to File/Data File Management, and on each of the files shown (about ten; I have a lot of PST files) I opened the settings button and invoked Compact Now. It took a while with some of them; others compacted instantly.

Once that was done, I exited Outlook, and brought it back up: it came up in "normal" mode. I went through doing Compact Now with all my files just in case (instant in all cases, so it wasn't needed), then exited Outlook one more time. I then restarted the machine, and when it came up, I used VOPT.

Long time readers will know about VOPT, which is the disk defragging program I have used for twenty years without problems. The disk was pretty fragmented: I suspect that Outlook does things that way. When VOPT was done I brought up Outlook again.

It works fine now, and has for more than a week.

The moral of this story is that you should keep your PST files small, and do that often rather than moving huge chunks in one whack; but if you do it wrong, all will be well if you don't panic.