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February, 2010:

Odd Lots

  • Here’s the best discussion I’ve yet seen on why Flash may never work well–or perhaps at all–on touchscreen devices like the iPad.
  • Most recent laser printers have Ethernet ports, and some older printers (like my Laserjet 2100TN) can accept a JetDirect network adapter. Installing a printer on a network port means you don’t have to worry about whether the machine it’s attached to is turned on. If you’d like to do this but you’re not a network geek, here’s the best XP-based step-by-step on the topic I’ve ever run across. Same tutorial for Windows 2000.
  • Bruce Baker passed me a link to a nice item on the issue of broadening publisher book production to allow all formats to be generated from a single master file. Follow and read the link to The New Sleekness as well. Pablo should take it down a notch; XML is not a markup language; it’s a general mechanism for creating markup languages, and what may happen eventually (perhaps in ten years or so) is a standard book-production markup language derived from XML and built into a new generation of word processors. Still, what nobody in either article mentions is the problem of pages verses reflowable, which is the 9 trillion pound gorilla in the business. If you don’t solve that problem, absolutely nothing else matters. (And it is not as easy to solve as some may claim–I’ve been thinking about it for several years now and see no solution whatsoever on the horizon .)
  • Kompozer 0.8b2 has been released. I just got it installed in a VM and will be poking at it in coming days. According to Kaz, most of the changes are code cleanups, but any progress on the editor is a fine, fine thing.
  • I’ve done model rocketry here and there over the (many) years, and I’ve seen some very odd things lofted on D engines. Back in high school, my friend George built a Harecules Guided Muscle (which was from the Beany & Cecil cartoon show) in the form of a big whittled balsa wood fist on a short, thick body. I’m amazed it flew as well as it did. Well, here’s a fire-’em-together pack of 8 rockets shaped and colored like Crayola crayons. The guy took his time (six years) but he did a great job–and created a spectacular Web page documenting the project.
  • We rarely go to WalMart, but last time we did, I picked up a bottle of Diet Mountain Lightning. It has nothing on Kroger’s Diet Citrus Drop, easily the best of all the Diet Mountain Dew clones I’ve ever had the opportunity to try.

The Pulps Reconsidered, Part 1


How bad were the Golden Age pulps, really? Thirty-odd years ago I had a few SF pulps from the late 1930s, and while I’m not sure where they ended up, I remember the cognitive dissonance that arose from knowing that I should despise them–while in fact enjoying them a lot. Reading them was a little like watching old B-movies like The Crawling Eye: You know damned well they weren’t literature, but somehow they kept your attention and made the time pass..which is exactly what they were created to do.

Few people–especially those under 40–realize just how broad a phenomenon the pulps were, and how small a part of it SF actually was. Beyond SF and fantasy there were sports pulps, many subspecies of crime/detective pulps, adventure pulps, romance pulps, aviation pulps, western pulps, railroad pulps, and doubtless others that I’ve never heard of. The SF pulps were better than I’d been led to believe, and I started wondering recently whether the SF pulps were outliers, or whether the pulps as a phenomenon and even a literary form have been slandered out of proportion by the ultrasophisticated artsy elite.

I bought a couple of railroad pulps pretty much at random on eBay not long back, and have been reading them as time permits. The cover above is from the May 1933 issue of Railroad Stories. I also bought the August 1935 issue and found with a grin that the cover author and the cover artist were the same in both issues: E. S. Dellinger writing the cover stories (both novelettes of about 10,000 words) with Emmett Watson on watercolors. I chose railroad pulps because I like railroads; I’m not sure I could have bulled through a sports pulp or a true crime pulp.

Being a magazine guy myself, at my first flip through the issue I was startled: These books had almost no ads! The back cover and inside covers were full-pagers, and the single-page TOC was set within a 4-page block of fractional ads, generally 1/8 page items hawking hair tonic or remedies for hemmorhoids. And that was it. There were no ads whatsoever set in or between the stories themselves. It’s obvious that they didn’t pay much for the paper (and we know they paid almost nothing for the stories) but I boggle that the 15c for a single issue or $1.50 for a full year carried that much of the operation.

The inside front cover ad seemed odd for a railroad pulp: Dr. Frank B. Robinson pushing his artificial religion Psychiana. On the other hand, readers of Popular Mechanics were never too far from discovering the secrets of the Rosicrucians, and this was clearly their competition.

The TOC divides each issue into three sections: Fiction, nonfiction, and departments. Fiction was less of it than I had thought. A quick tally shows about a third of the editorial to be fiction, and probably half nonfiction. The departments include a joke page, a question-and-answer column about railroad history and tech, news items submitted by readers, short items from readers who worked at railroad jobs, and a scattering of railroad poems.

So…how bad was the writing? What were the stories about? Tune in next time, kids!

EntConnect 2010

I don’t know how many of you remember Midnight Engineering magazine, founded and edited during its life by the other Bill Gates, William E. Gates. From 1990 to 1998, the magazine covered the soft issues of technical entrepreneurship and the challenges faced by “midnight engineers” developing and selling products from their spare rooms. Bill and I were in the magazine startup business at about the same time and spoke often, and I wrote an article or two for the magazine down the years. In 1992 Bill started an idiosyncratic ski party and bull session here in Colorado, which grew into EntConnect, a small but intense skull-session kind of conference held every March near or in Denver.

I moved to Colorado in 2003, and Midnight Engineering alum Jack Krupansky has been bugging me to attend the conference ever since. I don’t know why it’s taken so long, but barring rogue asteroids or invading aliens I will be attending, and presenting a short session on POD publishing. Admitting that I’ve never been to an EntConnect, I can’t tell you much about it from personal experience, but everyone I’ve spoken to who’s ever gone says it’s been a wild time and well worth it. Don’t think Comdex. Think a geeky tech retreat with go-karts, trap shooting, snow skiing, and freewheeling interchange among a modest-sized crowd of very smart people who aren’t famous for taking “no” for an answer. (I’ll post photos and a wrapup here after the conference.)

This year, the conference will be held on March 25-28, 2010, at the Crown Plaza Hotel at 1450 Glenham Place in downtown Denver, just off the 16th Street Mall. The full 2010 conference schedule has not been posted yet, but I’ll be on it, along with Matt Trask on virtual machines and Chris Seto discussing recent innovations in tablet computing. Other stuff will be on the menu as well, but the real win I think is just the face time with other people who think small is better.

Here’s the conference home page. You can jump off to the registration page from there, and when the schedule is firmed up that’s where it’ll be.

Now, I’m not a skier, at least not on frozen water, but there will be a ski outing on Thursday, and lordy-lord, we have snow here to spare. However, I should be there for the rest of it. (How long has it been since I’ve even sat on a go-kart? Only my dear sister knows…)

Sounds like a riot. If you’re within striking distance of Denver, consider joining us!

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Several people have asked why I didn’t post any photos from the big 4-day dog show in Denver, and I must admit (with profound annoyance) that my camera bag vanished sometime on Monday, and both of my digital cameras were in it. That’s a Canon G10 and a Nikon CoolPix S630, and with the biggish SD cards I put in them, it’s close to a $1000 loss. Neither the hotel nor the National Western Complex recovered the bag, so I can only assume it was stolen during the show, and with it went all the photos we took through Sunday night.
  • Slashdot reports that 80% of all software exploits during the fourth quarter of 2009 were malicious PDF documents. I’ve been a Foxit user for some time, but as Foxit becomes more popular, the bad guys will begin exploiting its flaws as well. (There is evidence that this has already happened.) It may be time to test software like Evince and Sumatra, both of which are available for Linux and Windows.
  • As I write this, you have eight hours to bid on the Compaq II machine that Anders Hejlsberg used to develop Turbo Pascal 4.0. The proceeds from the auction go to the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. It’s one of those green-screen luggable that I always admired, but bidding is currently at $2025, yikes. (Thanks to the many who pointed this out, with Larry O’Brien being the first.)
  • Something confirming a phenomenon that I’ve noticed: Food expiration dates are conservative, and most food is good for a reasonable period after they supposedly time out. Still, after expiry, your nose is your stomach’s best friend.
  • For whatever it’s worth, here’s a list of the top-grossing movies of all time, with inflation-adjusted values. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.) Unsurprisingly, Gone With the Wind still beats all comers with a mind-boggling 1.5 billion dollars, the though the original Star Wars is right behind it at $1.3B. What’s worth noting is that all but six films in the top 14 were either Disney animation or special-effects extravaganzas. (It’s all but five if you think the opticals in The Ten Commandments were significant, as I do.) Lesson: We don’t go to the movies to watch unpleasant people screaming at one another.
  • Also from Frank comes a pointer to a short item suggesting that we kiss to enforce reproductive monogamy by developing immunities to one another’s specific viruses. I’m not sure I buy it either, but evolution has done far weirder things than this.

Yapstravaganza: Catchup and Wrapup

Ok. I had hoped to post an update each night we were up in Denver at the dog show, but hotel connectivity is evidently a lot less reliable than most people think. (It went away after the first night and I did not have the time nor the energy to pursue a fix or alternatives.) So much for the Cloud–like I ever believed in reliably pervasive connectivity.

Anyway. We got into the dog show routine fairly quickly, and it was pretty aerobic: Awaken at 5 AM, scramble into clothes, pile dogs into kennels, pile kennels onto the rolly cart, pile grooming bins on top of kennels, top off with the grooming table (one of three; the other two are the scruffy ones that we leave in the cattle pens) and bungie the whole mess together. Then roll the laden cart into the elevator, get it down to parking ramp, pull it all apart, and stuff everything into its appointed place in the 4Runner. Run through the drive-up window at McDonalds, get McMuffins, and eat in the car, with the engine running when it’s less than 20 degrees out. (Which it was on Days 3 and 4.) Fight early rush-hour traffic on I-70 for the six miles to the National Western Complex. Wait in line for a spot at the unloading docks, which are ironically plastered with signs reading ABSOLUTELY NO DOGS ALLOWED. (Dogs are not a good fit at cattle and horse shows.) Haul everything out of the 4Runner and pile it on the rolly cart. Roll the cart in the doors and through the fetid vastness of the cattle pens to the open grooming area we’ve staked out for the local bichon club. Then I get to run back to the car, drive it what seems like three counties east to the big parking lot, and walk back. While Carol gets her gear laid out, I carry each dog to the public potty pens, which are bedroom-sized chicken-wire enclosures ankle deep in fresh wood chips. Unlike the area surrounding the complex, the potty pens are grime-free and won’t make a pure-white dog’s paws turn gray. Even walking them on the cattle pen floors makes short work of a bath and groom job, so we carry them everywhere they have to go. (Walking them on pavement gives them a condition we call “pave paws,” which is an aerospace joke I expect almost none of you to get.)

Finally (and by now it’s maybe 7 and just about sunrise) we get one dog up on each of our three tables and start spiffing them. The other club members arrive about then, but since they have only one dog apiece, there’s less for them to do. I hold the blow dryer while Carol spritzes, combs, brushes, and tips (scissor trims) three bichon haircuts. She’s good; she can chitchat with her friends all through the process, and although it takes about two and a half hours, we generally have the dogs looking about as good as they’re capable of looking well before ring time.

Ring time for bichons is mid-morning, from ten to eleven-thirty. Each class is judged separately: Puppies, Open Dog, Open Bitch, and specialty classes like Bred By and Amateur Owner/Handler. Then the winner from each class re-enters the ring by sex for the Winners competition, which results in a Winners Dog and a Winners Bitch. Finally, Winners Dog and Winners Bitch compete against one another (and against “specials,” which are dogs and bitches who are already champions but are still showing) for Best of Breed. Later in the day, Best of Breed goes up against Best of Breeds for the other breeds in the group (which for bichons is Non-Sporting) for Best of Group. Finally, the Best of Groups compete for Best in Show.

There are not a lot of bichons as a rule, at least not compared to French Bulldogs (39 this weekend!) and Dalmatians. So judging is fairly quick, and may take all of fifteen minutes to go from individual classes to Best of Breed. After Best of Breed is decided, we all go back down to the cattle pens (dogs tucked under arms or riding in baby strollers) and hang out in the grooming area. Senior club members pass along tips for grooming and handling to junior members (like us) and all the local dog gossip trades around. Lunch is had, though the food at the Complex is legendarily awful. (The Denver locals brown-bag it.) After lunch, people shop at the huckster tables upstairs or just hang out. Dog show attendees come down and wander around the grooming area, petting the dogs, taking pictures, and sometimes asking after puppies. By three or three-thirty, Carol and I begin to retrace our morning steps: We throw the dogs into their kennels, throw the kennels onto the rolly cart, pile whatever we need for the evening on top of the cart, and Carol waits by the docks while I fetch the car. In the early evening, Carol washes some or all portions of Certain Dogs Who Can’t Keep Their Noses Off the Floor (nothing like gray-black whiskers on a bichon) and I go fetch Chinese from Panda Express. Come 8:30, we take them to the cleanest patch of grass we can find out beside the hotel, then kiss them good night, jump in the shower, and collapse into bed by 9.

Whew. I’m a congenital insomniac, but at dog shows, I sleep like a rock.

As for how we did, well, not as well as we’d hoped, but not as badly as we (occasionally) feared, especially when the pack was misbehaving, getting filthy when we weren’t looking, or making a racket. Aero took Winners Dog and picked up two points on Saturday. One other male dog withdrew from the show, so we didn’t have a major, alas. On Sunday, something a little odd happened: The judge was one who simply liked large dogs. So Jack beat bantamweight Aero in Open Dog, and then in Winners Dog, Dash beat Jack, largely because Jack was still a little show-shy and wouldn’t keep his tail up. So our rowdy, scruffy, eight-month puppy bested his pack mates to become Winners Dog and win his first two points. Again, we did not have a major, but then we did not think Dash would take Winners Dog, either. As we expected, Dash was beaten for Best of Breed by a past-champion special, but we didn’t think he’d get even that far.

At today’s judging, Aero again took Winners Dog and the two points, giving him four for the weekend. He now has ten out of fifteen, and needs only those five points and one more major win to become a new champion. Carol is delighted. We’re both exhausted. The dogs are glad to be back home and are already fast asleep. Next show? The four-day Bichon Frise National Specialty (which I call Bichonicon) in Indianapolis, over the first full weekend in May. I expect to sleep well there, but still–that’s about as soon as I could handle it!

Yapstravaganza, Day 1

We pulled into the National Western Complex at 8 this morning, with a 4Runner full of dogs and associated paraphernalia. We had staked out a grooming area down in the cattle pens yesterday afternoon, and with machine-gun efficiency Carol got Aero, Jack, and Dash up on their grooming tables and started in on their coats. Jack, as is his habit, threw up in his kennel on the way here from the hotel, so he had to have a session with the no-rinse shampoo. (He’s riding in the front seat with Carol tomorrow. He may still hurl, but Carol will have a towel in her lap and can keep him from walking in it. Barf management is one of the essential skills of the dog show circuit.)

My back has been giving me some grief the last few days, and when I pulled out a Tylenol I fumbled it, and it landed on the floor. Even though I watch MythBusters and am a firm believer in the power of my immune system, this is a cattle show complex and we’re in a cattle pen. They hose it down every so often, but when you walk in the door you know what sorts of animals hang out here most of the time and what they use the floor for. That Tylenol went in the trash. (We have lots more.)

Carol did her magic, and come 10:30 we marched upstairs, Carol holding Jack, and me with Aero and Dash each under an arm. Compared to all the grooming, the showing happens in a flash. Aero and Jack both had first-day syndrome: Overwhelmed by the crush of humanity and caninity, they were edgy and whiny and neither would keep his tail up. And so when the dust settled, another bichon took Best Dog. Aero got second, and Jack third.

This has happened before with Aero. However, by tomorrow he’ll be a lot more at ease in the show environment, and we expect the tail to be back up where it belongs. Furthermore, losing can sometimes be useful: The dog who beat Aero took today’s major, and (as it happened) by doing so became a new champion. That means that he’s out of the running for the next three days of the show, giving Aero and perhaps Jack a shot at the major and three points that will be on the table each of tomorrow, Sunday, and Monday. Aero needs 9 points and a second major, so if he takes Open Dog for the next three days, he’ll be a new champion too.

And the bichon who vanquished Aero in the first round fell in the second, when our friend Mary Provost took Best of Breed with her bitch Cameo Gallerie of Mona Lisa. Mona has all the points she needs to become a champion, and now lacks only a second major. If Aero takes Best Dog tomorrow and Mona beats him for Best of Breed, Mona becomes a new champion–but because she’s of the opposite sex, Aero still gets a major win for having beaten three males. Mona gets a major as well for having beaten four bichons, including Aero.

Dash didn’t do as well. He’s a hunter, and his heart’s in the highlands, a-chasin’ the deer. (When we encounter deer on one of our walks, he looks over his shoulder at me as though to say, “Hey, Boss! I’ll kill ’em if you cook ’em!) He wouldn’t keep his nose off the floor, and the only other puppy entered took Best Puppy Dog.

So it goes; this show is his first, and necessary calibration. Behavior issues are a puppy’s stock in trade, and what he won’t grow out of we’ll deal with using bacon and stern words.

Carol is coming into her own as a bichon groomer, and the guys look fantastic. The dog who beat Aero today is owned by a woman who has been breeding and grooming bichons for over 25 years. Carol will have her day, and Aero will get his championship, if not this show then fairly soon. I’m down here in the cattle pen writing this up and will post it later today. (Cattle pens rarely come with free Wi-Fi.) Carol’s tweaking Dash’s coat under Mary’s expert tutelage, and we’ll all get another chance tomorrow. Stay tuned.


Boy, I’ve never been gladder that I no longer live in Baltimore. Local snow totals there went well over 40 inches, which is pretty scary. Right before we moved to California, we had a freak late-season storm (it was mid-March!) that dumped 24″ or so, and the movers had to dig a path between the van and the front door. We got about 8″ here across the last two days, but it was a slow and steady fall that I blew out of the driveway twice, as our little mini-blower won’t chomp that much snow in one gulp.

The neighborhood is now a winter wonderland, which is great as long as you don’t have to go anywhere. City government is currently throwing a raging tantrum because we told them to stuff it when they demanded a huge tax increase, so they’re not plowing anything, and have turned half our streetlights off. There will be no familiar faces there after November, trust me.

But if you ever wanted to live in a palace on the slopes of a mountain, here’s your chance: A house right around the corner from us and probably 1500′ from my front door went into foreclosure, and you can now get it for $690K, and probably less. It’s a weird house, once the most expensive in the neighborhood (originally listed at $1.2M!!) but whoever built it put all the money into interior touches like marble columns and art niches. (Check out those stairways!) The exterior is plain as can be, and the house does not look anywhere near as large nor as luxurious as it actually is. Great city lights views off the back deck, and you get a free beehive in one of the pines close to the street. We walk the dogs past it almost every day, at least when it’s not a winter wonderland here. The bees are courteous, as bees go.

Dogs, yes. Tomorrow afternoon we take QBit over to Sunrise Kennels and blast north to Denver with the other three, for the Rocky Mountain Cluster Dog Show, a 4-day all-breed yapstravaganza. (QBit is not show-quality, but is still Lord of the Pack.) Carol has shown Aero intermittently over the last two and a half years, but this is the first time we have ever tried to show more than one dog at a show. And we have three. Yes indeedy, Dash makes his debut in the 6-9 mo. Puppy Dog category, with Aero and Jack competing in Open Dog. (“Dog” in dog show jargon specifically means “male dog” and “bitch” is an ordinary word without any negative connotations.) Carol is in the laundry room even as I type, touching up Jack’s hairdo. Aero is next. (Dash’s turn was yesterday.)

The show is actually four consecutive one-day shows, and thus four opportunities to win points, with four “major wins” on the table. Aero has one major win and six points. He needs a second major win and another nine points to be declared a champion. Given that there are at least four points at stake each day, Aero could come home the champ we always knew he could be. In fact, although very unlikely, Jack could do the same thing, even though he has neither points nor major wins to his credit. He would have to grab all points all four days, which would be something of a grand slam for a dog who is about 15% larger than most judges would like him to be. Sure, we’d prefer Aero get the points, but we’re curious to see what Jack can do. He’s always been something of a “practice dog” in the past (I learned to handle in the show ring by showing Jack two years ago, and Carol practices grooming on him) but he’s never looked better and could do well, especially if Aero shies away from the judges, as he often does.

There is always a bichon frise grooming area somewhere in the vast cattle pens of the National Western Complex, and that’s where we’ll be. So if you’re in the Denver area and have some time on your hands, come see us. Watch for the blinding white off the dogs, or the glint off the top of my head. Early is better, and ring time for bichons is 9:30, unless I misrecall.

We still need effective “query by humming,” as the formidable David Stafford once put it. Carol and I don’t watch much TV, and what we watch consists mostly of Weather Channel forecasts. Every so often they’ll play a piece of music I like during a forecast, but they don’t say what it is. There’s supposedly a list online, but January wasn’t added to it until last night. All through January I heard a rousing piece that sounded like John Williams movie music, and vaguely familiar at that. I quickly memorized it, and whistled it for several people, to no avail. Finally, the list went live last night, and I discovered that the mystery song was in fact a John Williams piece, composed for the 1988 Summer Olympics. Amazon sells a DRM-free MP3 for 99c. In less than 90 seconds, I had it on disk and it was coming out my speakers. They had my dollar. Everybody’s happy.

Heh. That ain’t tricky. That’s the way you do it: You sell an unencumbered MP3. No, that ain’t tricky, that’s the way you do it: Get a dollar fer nuthin’; stampin’ bits is free!

Odd Lots

  • Wow! The Authors’ Guild finally had a good idea a couple of weeks ago: Who Moved My Buy Button, a Web site that tracks Amazon’s “Buy” button for any given title. If the Buy button goes away (for example, if the book goes out of stock or if the publisher places it out of print–or if Amazon gets in another cage fight with a major publisher) you get an email to that effect. Don’t miss their “Buttonology” page, which explains how to interpret Buy button disruption by inspection. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • So what exactly is this, anyway? It looks like what used to happen to me when I tried to develop my own film (briefly) in 1966, and found these odd (and similar) little anomalies on my negatives. Dirt, or perhaps the edge of the film contacting the center. Nothing says he wasn’t using a film camera, but film is pretty uncommon these days. If I had to guess (and assuming it isn’t some flaw in the camera optics) I like the idea of a meteor passing through the ionized region of the atmosphere where the aurora display was happening. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • While we’re talking high-energy physics, I’m finding it remarkable how rapidly an apparently dead Sun came back to life, on or about January 1. We now have three significant sunspots on the visible face, including a genuine monster. (Here’s an animated GIF of spot 1045 growing.) This gives us a sunspot number of 71, the likes of which I haven’t seen in three or four years. I’ve been spinning the dials downstairs, and have heard openings on 18 MHz and even 21 MHz. Gonna get those wires shielded before the next solar minimum, fersure.
  • Integrated reader/bookstore systems have made me a little bit nervous ever since the Kindle Orwell debacle last year, and the iPad, if anything, will be even more vulnerable to that sort of remote meddling. It’s not so much malfeasance by the system operators as their vulnerability to government corruption and coercion. Here’s a perspective from a French chap.
  • Still wedged on VMWare Workstation, but Bp. Sam’l Bassett pointed me to a site providing lots of free VirtualBox VMs. The question of how trustworthy such downloadable images are is a good one, but they’re certainly one way to mess with a new OS without having to fuss with hard disk partitioning and installation.
  • I know it’s really her name, and no disrespect is intended, but when I read a headline like: “Costa Rica Elects Chinchilla First Woman President” I don’t see what I’m supposed to see. Journalists used to be taught to avoid gaffes like this, and many other news organizations did. Including her first name would have helped.
  • I kid you not: Pepsico is wrapping up a limited-edition, 8-week-only campaign for Mountain Dew Throwback, which contains Real Sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. I’m a diet soda guy and won’t partake, but that’s a quarter step in the right direction. (My guess: The ridiculous ethanol-as-fuel scam is making corn expensive enough so that HFCS is not the big win that it used to be.)
  • Once again, XKCD scores big–and loud. (SNSFW.) (Thanks to Baron Waste for the link.)

An (Ebook) Fate Worse Than Piracy

I’ve had it in mind for some months now to conduct and publish an interview like this one with a backchannel correspondent of mine who calls himself The Jolly Pirate. That’s unlikely; Jolly didn’t like the idea much, and more to the point, he doesn’t pay much attention to pirated ebooks. He is not an ubercracker from the Scene and doesn’t want to be. He knows where the stuff is and he downloads its. He doesn’t upload at all, except for the uploading inherent in torrent downloading.

His motivation and modus operandi are interesting and I will describe them at greater length someday; from a height I’d describe him as a hoarder who downloads all sorts of things under the assumption that they may eventually be harder to come by. He’s read a few computer books downloaded from Usenet, all of them .chm files, and treats them like a sort of third-party help system for the technologies he’s interested in. The thing that makes me grin a little is this: He says he has over 50,000 ebook files on his hard drive, but he doesn’t own an ebook reader. He doesn’t read for fun and I get the impression that he doesn’t read much at all unless he has to. I asked him why he downloaded all those books, and his answer was simple and obvious: “Because it was easy.” Most of you have seen my entry for December 29, 2009. Jolly downloaded 10,000 ebooks in a couple of hours. That scares some authors and publishers a lot, and I’m still trying to get my head around the question. Tim O’Reilly said somewhere that piracy is like a progressive tax on success, and that’s a useful metaphor. I rarely see my own material in the pirate channels. That is not true of Steven King or Ms. Rowling.

And in truth, something else makes me worry more than piracy. This isn’t an original insight, though I don’t recall where I first read it (anybody?) but a major threat to success in writing today is the competition from books that have already been published. There are only so many hours in a life, and with most any popular print book available used but in good shape on ABEBooks for $5 or less, a given consumer never has to buy a new book at all, especially fiction. It’s less true in nonfiction covering emerging issues and technologies, but for last year’s news and mature technologies it’s operative: All the Windows XP books that the world needs have already been published, and you can get most of them from the penny sellers for the (slightly padded) cost of shipping.

My point: Existing books compete for reader chair-time with new books. An enormous number of books have been published in the past twenty years or so, and that’s not old enough for them to crumble into shreds. (Alas, my ’60s MM paperbacks are doing exactly that, reminding me constantly what “pulp” means.) They’re all still kicking around the used and unused remainder market, and will be for decades to come. All the arguing about ebook pricing that I’ve seen so far seems to ignore the fact that new books of either type compete with used print books, and ubiquitous Web access makes finding precisely what you want almost effortless.

Paying $15 for an ebook is a sort of impatience tax. Wait a few months, and used copies of the hardcover will be on ABEBooks for $5 or (probably) less, including shipping. Good books, too. If Big Media ever truly embraces ebooks, it will be as a means of defeating the Doctrine of First Sale and eliminating the used book market. (The legal issues there are still very much in play. Expect much agitation in coming years for new laws forbidding the resale of “used” electronic files.)

This shines some different light on the difficulties Google has had getting authors to sign on to the Google Books settlement. I’m not sure that all authors and (especially) publishers even want the orphan copyright issue to be settled. If it is, suddenly the Google scanning machine will drop what may eventually be hundreds of thousands of additional ebooks into the marketplace, all of them competing for quality chair time with whatever current authors are writing. That may explain why I’ve had so much trouble getting SF publishers to talk to me. People may not be reading less these days, but they’re certainly reading and re-reading things that already exist. The value of what I write now is correspondingly less.

When a pulp becomes an ebook, it becomes eternal. Don’t tell me about death due to storage or container format obsolescence. I still have SF copy I wrote using CP/M WordStar in 1979 and stored to 8″ floppies, now safely on a USB thumb drive in .rtf format. If USB ever becomes obsolete, all my files will follow me to whatever comes next–and will probably take five seconds or less to transfer.

There will always be a reliable if modest supply of book crazies and loyal fans who will pay top dollar for The Latest. Beyond that, market cruelties come into play that will make it a lot harder to break into the writing business for the forseeable future.

Piracy? What’s that again?