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August, 2011:

Odd Lots

  • Does anybody here use true peer-to-peer chat? I don’t use chat much, and when I do it’s with a very small number of people, typically one-to-one. By peer-to-peer I mean via direct connect from one IP to another, without intermediation at the server level, as with things like Trillian, Skype, Jabber, etc. I know that WASTE does this, though I’ve never tried it. What else might work? I don’t want to mount a new server if I can avoid it.
  • New research suggests that low-salt diets increase insulin resistance–and thus propel otherwise healthy people toward diabetes. (Via Fat Head.)
  • More on Amazon’s rumored Android tablet. Print Replica (as I discussed in yesterday’s entry) has almost nothing to do with it.
  • Note well: Sony’s new tablet is not really sideload-able, since the device cannot render content directly from an inserted SD card. You have to copy all material from the card to internal storage. Also, the weird cross-section makes it almost inescapably a landscape machine. No thanks.
  • Interesting short piece on the other Delphi–as in, Oracle of.
  • For those who asked: The 400W power supply I just bought for my Core 2 Quad is the Antec Neo Eco 400C. So far…love it!
  • Having sold out all the TouchPads there were at fire-sale prices, HP now intends to…make some more. Something flaky here: Lose a little money on each sale, and make it up in volume? Doesn’t add up…unless it was a slick and risky attempt to build a demand base.
  • Didn’t know this before: Setting a .jpg to quality setting 7 in Photoshop degrades the image’s quality. Stay at 6–or bump to 8.
  • How about Han Solo Carbonite Slab ice cubes? Brilliant gimmick, though I wonder (given that the product is marked as “unavailable”) if they’re really out of stock or just didn’t close the deal with Lucasfilm.

Amazon’s Print Replica

A few days ago, Mike Ward tipped me off to a new ebook format coming from Amazon: Print Replica. The new format is a lot like PDF, in that it presents a fixed page layout that cannot be reflowed, only panned and zoomed. A lot of people have been scratching their heads over it, but some things were almost immediately obvious to me:

  • Amazon will some time (reasonably) soon release their long-rumored high-res color tablet, capable of displaying fixed-format color page layouts at high quality.
  • Amazon wants a piece of the digital textbook market.
  • The whole point of the format is time-limited DRM.
  • And the whole point of time-limited DRM is to prevent any least possibility of a used ebook textbook market.

I’ve spent a couple of days sniffing around for details, though not much is out there yet. The format in question is .azw4, and you can buy some titles in the new format right now. However, .azw4 ebooks will only render on Kindle for Windows 1.7 and Kindle for Mac 1.7–and only in the US. It’s not only a great deal like PDF; it is PDF, inside a proprietary wrapper. For the moment, it seems that publishers submit a conventional print-image PDF to Amazon, and Amazon places it inside the wrapper.

I’m pretty sure that Print Replica is Amazon’s version of Nook Study, which I mentioned in my April 18, 2011 entry. Nook Study is also a DRM wrapper around a PDF. The DRM is draconian and mostly hated by everyone who’s ever tried it. I’ve never seen evidence that Nook Study is being adopted broadly, but if Amazon’s imitating it, that market must have begun to move.

If it is, it’s probably the only segment of the publishing market that is moving right now, where “moving” means “better than marginally profitable.” Textbooks are the cash cows of the publishing business, and because college education is a monopoly market for books, students shrug and pay well over $100 a copy, often more. There’s very little competition and almost no choice. The prof assigns the book and that’s that. The only shopping possible is for cheaper used copies.

The argument made for digital textbooks is that they are less bulky and can be cheaper than printed textbooks, but cheaper here means $80 as opposed to $120. The argument against is that the legal waters are still very murky on used ebook sales. The doctrine of first sale makes it legal to sell used print textbooks, though there are wrinkles involving importation. Current case law for software suggests that license agreements (even ones that can’t be examined before the sale) may prohibit resale of a physical boxed software product, like AutoCAD. It’s pretty clear that if ebooks are eventually considered software, first sale may no longer apply. To be certain, publishers want textbooks to vanish once each term is over, so that they cannot be resold irrespective of future legal decisions. Once most textbooks are ebooks, every sale is a new, cover-price sale, and if time-limited DRM is taken at face value, once the term is over, the book goes poof. (And whaddaya bet that that $80 e-text will be $85 next year, and $95 the year after that?)

I still have about a quarter of my college textbooks and still refer to them occasionally, most recently Listen, by Nadeau and Tesson (1972.) It’s hard to imagine not having any of the books I studied back then (granting that I only kept the better ones) but it’s sure starting to look like that’s the future. It’s also hard to think of a redder flag to wave in front of the nascent ebook piracy scene than an $80 price tag. As I’ve said many times, I’m glad I got my degree in the 70s, when a term cost $600 and you could keep your books forever.

The Last of the 5″ Floppies

TP3Floppy325Wide.jpgThe AC works again, though now that it does, the hot spell has broken and we don’t really need it. (Love that 72 degree stuff!) However, Carol and I have some cleanup to do, as the air handler made a honking puddle on the furnace room floor downstairs, soaking the bottoms of a number of boxes. Some of those contained Christmas stuff, including my old Lionel trains. More intriguing, another, smaller, box contained a stash of 5 1/4″ floppies from the late 1980s and early 1990s. I went through it to see if there were any old backups to be destroyed (there were none) but the commercial software lineup in the box is pretty impressive:

  • Turbo Pascal 2.0 (includig Turbo 87), 3.0, 4.0, 5.0, and 5.5
  • Turbo Pascal for Windows
  • Mystic Pascal
  • QuickPascal 1.0
  • TopSpeed Modula 2
  • TopSpeed C
  • Stony Brook Modula 2
  • Smalltalk/V286
  • Turbo Basic
  • Quick C
  • Reflex 1.0 and 2.0
  • Turbo Lightning
  • Paradox 2
  • WordStar 3.02
  • MS Word 6.0

…and lots of additional stuff from Borland and other companies, most long gone. Falk Data Systems; Software Science, Inc; Digitalk; Adapta Software, and on and on and on.

The box is toast, and I’m thinking that most or all of the disks have long since become unreadable. Still, it would be interesting to see how true that is. I checked my Paradox 4.0 3 1/2″ floppies from 1993 just now and they still read, so I suppose it’s possible. Alas, I haven’t had a 5 1/4″ floppy drive in the house in years. I’ll be going up to OEM Parts later this week to gather a few things to replenish my parts drawers, and I’ll bet they have a drive on the greasy old crap table. I’ve even got a working machine in the to-be-recycled pile with an open front bay to put it in.

I know, I know–bad use of my time. But at very least I’m going to rejoin the Turbo Pascal 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0 floppies with the manuals, which are still on the top here in my office. I’m sure I can part with the rest. Those, well…in a very real sense they helped pay for the house we’re now living in, so I’ll add them to my memoirs archive. And just in case they do read…I can bring up a DOS VM in ninety seconds flat!

Thermionic Detectors

The air conditioning condensate drain clogged earlier this week, and it may have been dripping water inside the air handler for several days. I only noticed it once it started spilling out onto the utility room floor. So we shut the damned thing off until Monday, which is as soon as the HVAC guys can get out here to poke at it.

Oh, and it’s been hot. 2003 was hotter here, but 2011 is right up there. My internal thermionic detector was detecting some thermic excess, so midafternoon yesterday I went downstairs to my shop, where it’s 5 degrees cooler. After spinning the dials to make sure nobody was having any fun on 10 meters that I wasn’t having, I sat at the bench and looked around. Something, somewhere had to need fixing.

Oh. Yes, of course. Back in 2008 I built a 1-tube FM BCB receiver pretty much on a lark, from the Popular Electronics article in which GE introduced the Compactron tube. The article, “Introducing the Compactron,” by Phil Hatfield W9GFS, talked about some of the challenges of stuffing as many active elements into a 12-pin bottle as could be done. This was the last gasp of the vacuum tube, but GE gave it a good shot, and in August 1961 having as many as four active devices in one envelope was still pretty hot.

6D10Superregen500Wide.jpg

50 years ago…just about now. The example circuit was an FM BCB receiver using a single 6D10 triple triode tube. I had all the parts (even the tube) lying around, so on a whim I built it.

It worked, but it had several defects. One was touchy tuning due to hand capacitance. This is always a problem when both sides of the tuning cap are above RF ground. Another problem was that the tuning range was too wide (about 65 MHz – 120 MHz) and the entire FM band was crammed into about 20 degrees of rotation of the shaft. The last problem was that the regeneration control was just, well, nuts.

The first problem was beyond help; 50 years ago we just lived with hand capacitance. I tried to fix the second problem in 2008 but didn’t improve matters much. I’d painted myself into a corner with the physical arrangement of the tuning coil, and couldn’t easily swap it out. The third problem was still undiagnosed when I set the radio aside to do other things.

So I pulled it down off the shelf, patched it into my bench supply, and powered it up. Still worked; regeneration still nuts. I spun it, listened, spun it some more, and listened some more. (Why do I hear that song with “She wears short-shorts; I wear T-shirts…” every damned time I turn on the radio?) Regeneration was erratic, happening at different points on the pot, and sometimes didn’t happen at all. Alas, I was overanalyzing the operation of the superregenerative detector, thinking maybe I was driving the detector too far in one direction or another. Occam hit me in the head with a frying pan about then: The regeneration pot was bad.

Duhh. The wiper was making only marginal contact with the resistive element. Not sure why. Don’t care that much. Fished a new 50K pot out of the drawer, soldered it in, and wham! Regeneration worked as it should.

Having fixed one out of the three problems, I was on a roll, and being on a roll…I started to build another radio. John Baumann KB7NRN has a design for a similar detector with a grounded rotor. I’ve been intending to build it since, well, 2008, and had most of the parts set aside in a milk jug. So with the upstairs mostly uninhabitable until Monday, I got to work downstairs last night, and have gotten pretty far along on the RF portion of the circuit.

SuperregenRFDeck500Wide.jpg

This is only a lashup; once I get the circuit working as I want, I’m going to build another instance on a conventional chassis with its own power supply. It’s going to take a few more evenings to get to the smoke-test stage, but I’ll let you know the rest of it comes along.

Perversity Dust

The perversity fairies are flitting about the last few days, scattering perversity dust in odd places. We noticed the air conditioner flaking out at 3:30PM on Friday. By the time we called the HVAC place that services it, we were on the list for bright and early…Monday. No emergency, and it actually still works. However, the drain port in the condensate tray is blocked, and the tray is overflowing into the rest of the air handler. So we turned it off, and it will have a couple of days for everything to dry out.

Air conditioners always go paws-up late Friday afternoon. It’s going to get hot in here later on, barring a nice juicy thunderstorm. (Possible, but unlikely with the perversity fairies anywhere in the vicinity.) I may have to do something radical like…go shopping.

Shopping. I need a smartphone, and have been ducking the decision for months. Of all the units I’ve researched, my favorite so far has been the Droid 2 which, alas, just went off the market in favor of the Droid 3, which is apparently on the market but hasn’t yet made its way out into the provinces. I’ve gone so far in my smartphone research as to make precisely dimensioned cardboard cutouts of the major contenders to see whether they’ll fit in my pockets. There’s evidently a format conflict in men’s shirts: All my pockets are 4:3, and the damned phones are 16:9.

Shopping for socks is easier. But I already have a drawer full of socks.

I ordered a quiet, lower-power supply for the main tower here last week. NewEgg had it on my doorstep in three days, as usual. The “We shipped it!” email never arrived, and I assumed it went out with the spam. This happens now and then, and I’ve learned to live with it. So of course, yesterday evening, three days after the arrival of the supply and a full day after I installed it, I got the message telling me that the order would be shipped soon, and would arrive three days ago. Yup. Gotcha. Knew that. Thanks for sharing. This batch of perversity dust must have had some thiotimoline in it.

The supply worked very well, by the way. Every time I come into my office here, I feel a twinge of panic because I can’t hear the machine. Damn. Did they drop power to the house again? But no: A product worked better than advertised, and I still can’t internalize my good fortune. Quick, Murphy: the Flit!

Odd Lots

  • Fairness requires that I point this out: An article in the Guardian that I cited in my last Odd Lots was in error. NASA had nothing to do with the paper in question, which was written in his spare time by a postdoc who happens to work for NASA. That makes the paper no less ridiculous, but at least NASA isn’t doing stuff down that far along the dumb spectrum.
  • And I’ll give this project a fair shot, though I would prefer to see NASA do this on a non-exclusive basis rather than for a particular publisher only. No word on whether and what Tor/Forge is paying for the deal. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Samsung has cited Kubrick’s film 2001 in a patent prior art case. (Engadget has a shorter entry with a still.) I wasn’t aware that fictional concepts can be raised in prior art challenges, but evidently it was done back in the 1960s when waterbeds were coming into common use. Robert A. Heinlein had described a waterbed in his 1942 novel Beyond This Horizon, and it was cited in a prior art challenge that cost Charles Hall his patent on the waterbed in 1968.
  • My computer books and articles have been cited in patent applications 37 times, but I don’t know if it’s possible to look up prior art case citations. Will have to research this.
  • While we’re citing citations, I was recently cited in a book by Paul J. Nahin, Number Crunching: Taming Unruly Computational Problems from Mathematical Physics to Science Fiction . The citation, on page 281, briefly describes my reprints of the Carl & Jerry stories from Popular Electronics. Alas, he cites me as “Copperhead Press” but mentions of the boys are way down in the last year and I’m glad they were mentioned at all. Thanks to Bruce Baker for letting me know.
  • If you’re interested in hurricanes, here’s a nice summary page with automatically updating satellite imagery and lots of interesting graphics. The satellite imagery can be animated to show changes over the last several hours.
  • I didn’t think this was new news, but apparently star formation is slowing down, as material that was originally hydrogen is “locked up” in white dwarfs, neutron stars, and heavy elements, even after a supernova has blasted a star’s substance back into interstellar space. I didn’t think that 70% of a supernova’s mass fails to return to the gas pool, but that seems to be the case.
  • Jim Mischel sends along a link to a marvelous homebrew bandsaw made mostly of wood. (The blade and the hardware may be inescapably metallic.) The site as a whole has lots of interesting woodpunk concepts and projects. I especially like the wooden gear template generator, which calculates a gear outline that can be printed to paper and then cut out from wood.
  • Whew. We get the message, guys.

Ten Gentle Opportunities and Virtual Assistants

djdenise.jpgI’ve been getting notes from all corners the last few days about a $200 virtual DJ program that has been been given her own show on radio station KROV in San Antonio. The program is actually an application of a more general “virtual assistant” product from Guile 3D Studios. DJ Denise goes on the air at KROV tomorrow, from 1 PM to 4 PM. You can listen over the Web; I intend to.

Most of the horsepower in creating Denise seems to have gone into rendering her lip gloss, which is odd for something used as a broadcast audio DJ. I’m more interested in whatever AI lies behind the pouty face, though early indications are that she has more lip gloss than AI. It’s an issue of special interest now, because I’m making slow but steady progress on a near-future SF novel that explores (among other and stranger things) the border between real AI and “fake” AI, a category that goes back to the ELIZA program at MIT in 1966. Ten Gentle Opportunities contains both. A cheap coffee maker contains an animated barista that talks a lot and understands little. A model-year 2020 Mazda RX9 has an annoying dashboard cartoon that understands more deeply but very narrowly. Both handle natural language well, and people are easily fooled into thinking that smooth natural language processing implies true intelligence.

I don’t think that’s true, as the more advanced AIs in the story demonstrate. One of them is Pyxis (Latin for “compass”) a high-end commercial product sold at a five-figure price as an executive assistant. Brandon Romero, an executive trying to manage a completely automated AI-controlled copier factory, has his own copy of Pyxis. (I posted a glimpse of the copier factory and its AI controller Simple Simon in my June 26, 2011 entry.) Far from being a geek-dream sex kitten, Pyxis is obedient without being especially pleasant. Worse, she holds her boss to his word, to the point where he begins to wonder who’s working for whom.

Romero dislikes having human underlings, but as he soon comes to understand, AI staff might be described the way Jerry Pournelle once described the Bomarc as the Civil Service missile: “They don’t work, and you can’t fire them.”

Pyxis saw him approaching his office door, and Brandon heard the lock bolts snap back. The coffee machine on the teak credenza was hot and full, and the air was rich with the scent of dark roast and Irish Crème. The human interns always scattered magazines on the glass coffee table against his preferences; the day when paper magazines became extinct could not come too soon. One of those interns had recently left a stuffed moose on the credenza. This was at the direction of HR, which (as he later discovered after much annoyance) wanted to “soften the human side of his persona.” The ugly abstract art shotgunned at the eggshell walls was bad enough. God forbid he should meet with a Chinese parts supplier without his stuffed moose.

Brandon sat down at his teak desk, its oiled vastness divided into the rigorously rectangular regions he maintained at all times, including a small square for coffee and another for mints: charts, summaries, two tappers full of notes and test-run videos and model animations, all at his fingertips. Defining the far sides of his desk were three brushed-stainless OLED panels currently animated with some slow-flowing pearlescent liquid that looked like shampoo. Far too soon, the triptych would spring to life with more views of this lunatic’s kingdom than any one man could possible follow.

Pyxis saw him sit down, and a window in the panel to his right burst into existence with her scowling image. “Twenty-six messages vetted and queued, five urgent.”

“Later.” If it wasn’t from that ass-covering coward Amirault, he didn’t want to hear it. Brandon set his primary tapper down in its vacant rectangle on the desk, and pulled a few loose papers from his briefcase. Like everything else, each had an appropriate place, and he scanned the piles that had been accumulating for most of a week, dropping a sheet here and a sheet there. The stapled set describing Zircon’s looming Retirement Incentive Program (was that a hint?) needed to go somewhere. A new pile? For corporate suicide notes? Brandon scanned the desktop almost automatically, but there was only one empty rectangular region left.

He stared at the tidy strip of oiled teak and felt himself tighten inside. Not big enough for anything except bad memories-but like those infuriating little sliding-square plastic puzzles, he had never hit upon an arrangement that would eliminate it.

“Here it is, Mr. Romero.” A new window popped into view, with a high-res scan of the framed photo that had stood in that teak rectangle for many years: Carolyn in a white cotton V-neck sundress out in her garden, holding a cardboard sign reading, “Greek Fire.” To a newly minted second lieutenant on the ground after Desert Storm, it meant that Carolyn Helena Ankoris was waiting impatiently for him to come home and marry her. To Major Brandon Louis Romero, US Army, Retired, it meant only failure.

“I didn’t ask you to open that.”

“You were staring at the space where the photo had been.” Building 800 was as full of electronic eyes as it was empty of human beings. Pyxis not only knew where he was at all times, she knew where he was looking.

His AI assistant was unfailingly obedient, but Brandon had set her obsequiousness parameter to zero. What was the point of having a virtual suckup? It wasn’t like the physical world suffered a flunkie shortage. “Your job isn’t to read my mind.”

Pyxis folded her arms implacably. “My job is to anticipate your needs and help you stay productive. We have a line start in a little over an hour. You have a lot to do. Mr. Amirault asked you to copy him on a call to…”

“Ok.” Brandon tossed back the last of his Red Hen coffee, and flashed with sad longing to his Army B4 training, when he had aimed an M16A4 at line-drawn enemies printed on sheets of cardboard, and nailed every damned one through the heart. “Get me Simple Simon.”

Paradoxical Insomnia

For all the time I’ve been struggling with insomnia, I had never heard of “paradoxical insomnia” until Michael Covington recently called it to my attention.

Sleep is a weird business from top to bottom. I’ve encountered a lot of that weirdness, especially since 2001, when my company began to implode. I’ve never been a strong sleeper, but after that I began having nights when I might sleep for no more than an hour…

…or so it seemed at the time.

One of the weirdnesses of the post-Coriolis era is that, for as little as I thought I slept, I seemed to do reasonably well during the day. I certainly wasn’t at my best, but for the most part I wasn’t falling asleep in my chair. I wonder now if I experienced paradoxical insomnia, which is an unusual sleep disorder in which patients feel like they have slept little (or not at all) when in fact they slept adequately, if not normally. In paradoxical insomnia, a patient perceives time spent awake incorrectly. He or she might feel like it takes an hour or more to fall asleep when in fact it took only a few minutes. Early-morning awakenings during which hours seem to pass may again span only a few minutes. The condition is poorly understood. Researchers now think that patients are dreaming that they’re awake. This may seem bizarre to people who sleep normally, but let me tell you, I understand completely.

Here’s why: In my case, at least, the border between wakefulness and dreaming is rubbery. I’ve had some success with a technique I read in one book or another, which involves imagining some quiet activity that reflects daily life. Counting sheep may work for people who live and work with sheep. I’ve seen live sheep half a dozen times in my life, and you can have ‘em. What works for me is imagining things like taking walks, sorting books on bookshelves, and having boring conversations with unexceptional people. Although I have “interesting” dreams about one shot in ten (along with the very occasional lulu) the vast majority of my dreams are very much like that: walking alone or sometimes with a nameless companion, or doing domestic things of little consequence, like taking towels out of the washing machine and putting them in the dryer.

I know that the technique works because a time or two I recall sliding from guided meditation into a dream without any change of scenery. I know that it was a dream because it stopped following the script. Here’s the best example: Jeff and a nameless and poorly imagined female companion are walking down a country road on a generic summer evening, talking about dumb stuff. No mosquitoes.

JEFF: Hey, there’s a sycamore tree! I like sycamore trees.

COMPANION: Me too.

JEFF: My grandfather planted one in the back yard when I was a kid. It had the biggest damned leaves.

COMPANION: I remember those.

JEFF: And seed balls. We used to throw them at each other.

COMPANION: That must have been fun.

JEFF: It was. We used to be able to burn the leaves in the street.

COMPANION (Turning): Jeff, what do you want most from God?

JEFF: Unconditional love.

Bzzzzt! In my directed meditations my imaginary companions do not ask me questions. So when my imaginary companions begin taking control, I know (in hindsight) that I’m dreaming.

In the grim days after Coriolis went under, I had plenty of experience lying awake much of the night and staring at the wall. At some point it became part of ordinary life, and thus completely unremarkable dream-fodder. I also seem to slide from conscious thought into dream states very smoothly. This is why dreaming about lying awake is no stretch at all, and may have continued long after I had gotten over the loss. It may continue to this day. Short of monitoring my own brain waves, I’m not sure how to tell.

But boy, it’s probably better than talking beavers.

Odd Lots

  • Antique Electronic Supply in Tempe, Arizona, has created a new DBA for their tube audio amplifier business: Amplified Parts. The tube stuff still predominates but it’s hardly “antique” and has definitely gone upscale. They rate their power tubes like fine wine: “This Russian tube [6L6GC] has tight lows, straightforward body, and smooth highs. In overdrive, it offers a tight and frosted crunchy bite.”
  • My Taos Toolbox 2011 colleague Alan Smale just won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History at the 2011 Worldcon in Reno. We workshopped an expansion of the winning story, “A Clash of Eagles” and it was terrific. I’m guessing this will make it perhaps a little easier to sell the novel-length work. Bravo, Alan!
  • Even though HP announced yesterday that they were killing their cloud-centered TouchPad tablet, Carol and I saw an expensive commercial for the device on The Weather Channel this morning. Cloud? Did you guys say “cloud”? (No wonder they got the ad…)
  • If you haven’t seen it yet, definitely take a look at Stellarium, a free planetarium program available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It’s one of the best I’ve ever tried, more polished (if not as deep) as the venerable Cartes du Ciel, which is remarkable in part by being a Lazarus app.
  • David Stafford sends word that an elaborate steampunk loft apartment has gone up for sale in Manhattan. The price? A “mere” $1,750,000.
  • This is killer cool as binoculars go, but would they capture anything at night? (Somehow I doubt it.)
  • Bill Higgins writes to tell us that Catholic University has placed a scan of the 1964 Treasure Chest comics series “Pettigrew for President” online, for free download. I blogged about this years ago, but the comic was not available for download then.
  • Nick Kim does Cowboys and Heavy Metals. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Fellow carnivore Jim Tubman and I share an appreciation for The Periodic Table of Meat. Most of it, anyway. (No thanks on Meat 75. Oh, and 95.)
  • Back from meat to metals again: Given that it’s the cornerstone material required to build the Hilbert Drive as used in many of my SF yarns, I was a little surprised that ytterbium is so cheap.
  • Did you ever wonder about the physics of coffee rings? Wonder no more.
  • From the Please-Give-Those-Guys-Something-To-Do Department: New taxpayer-funded NASA research tells us that unless we take prompt and serious action against global warming, aliens may invade and wipe us out. UPDATE: This turns out not to be entirely true: The chap who co-wrote the paper works for NASA but he did it on his own time and there was no public funding involved. The Guardian has corrected the piece.

Sixteen Inches in Seven Books

SevenBooksSixteenInches.jpgSpace is getting tight in here again, and books are getting tossed on top of other books. It’s long past time to thin the ranks a little–both on the shelves and in the closet–and in standing in front of the computer section here it occurred to me that if I were attempting to free up shelf-inches I should probably go after the biggest spines first.

And so I did. After no more than five minutes, I freed up sixteen inches of shelf space–in seven books. None of these are essential. I have other, much newer books on HTML and GNOME, and given that I haven’t written a line of Perl in five years or more, one Perl book (out of two) is plenty. There is no longer a single instance of Windows 2000 here beyond a VM, so monster Win2K tomes are doing nothing but crowding out other, more useful things from my shelves.

Speaking of which: The top two titles date back to the mid-1990s, and illustrate the “spine wars” raging at the time among computer book publishers. If your books were all three inches thick, there would be fewer shelf-inches in the bookstores for your competitors, so we all wanted to make ours three inches thick. (Sybex was a champ at that, as you can see.) Coriolis published a few thick books, the thickest of which was Michael Abrash’s Graphics Programming Black Book, but compared to the other presses we were pikers. Huge spines tended to crack and spill pages in regular use, as we discovered after Michael’s book was out there for awhile. Page count was not always in proportion to spine width, either. Mastering HTML 4.0 was barely 1,000 pages long. The Coriolis HTML Black Book by Steve Holzner (2000) was 1,200 pages long, and only 1 5/8″ thick. That’s 200 more pages in one fewer inch. The difference was thicker, pulpier paper.

The Microsoft Press book at the bottom is a sort of circus freak and may never be equalled in the spine wars: It’s 1,800 pages long and a full 3″ thick. It’s not a bad book, but I’ve wondered here before it it was mostly a stunt.

Anyway. I’ve already culled an additional six or seven books, but I doubt I will ever have a stack equalling the one shown above. Ahh, computer book publishing in the spine-swellin’ 90s–what a ride that was!