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November, 2011:

The Critical Difference Between “Some” and “All”


I am sore. Since we got back from Chicago a few days ago, we’ve been picking up the lower level of our house in preparation for some messiness: We have to have the east end of the slab mudjacked to raise it a little and keeping it from sinking any further. The damage isn’t huge so far, thanks to a little-known method of framing lower levels of homes like ours, which basically suspends the walls from the main level. The lower-level slab can thus move independently (mostly) of the walls.

The mudjacking contractor originally told us that they would only need to pull back the carpeting on the east and south facing rooms a few feet. Further analysis (which we learned only yesterday afternoon) showed that those east and south facing rooms will have to be emptied completely. My workshop is mostly unaffected, but the eastmost section of slab has sunk a little, and I have to move whatever sits on that section, to the first seam.

Alas, what sits on that section are two 150-pound particle-board shelves containing sixty years of QST (with a density only slightly less than National Geographic) plus 35 years of CQ, the full run of Ham Radio, a spotty collection of 73, plus fifteen ARRL handbooks, four shelf-feet of component databooks, and several dozen other miscellanous tech books. Oh, and the tops of the shelves are piled high with homebrew projects.

And that’s just my workshop. In the great room are another eight or nine hundred books on six robust Hundavad shelves, a treadmill, a couch, a 1937 Zenith cathedral radio, and two oak tables supporting a 61-inch TV and associated electronics. In the guest bedroom are two more tall bookshelves (fortunately not densely populated) a bed, a two-drawer lateral file cabinet, and two waist-high teak cabinets. In Carol’s office are another two-drawer lateral file cabinet, her desk, a rocking chair, a tall bookshelf, and miscellanous furniture.

Readers who have been here may begin to get a grip on the magnitude of the challenge. All that stuff has to be moved onto firmer slab, which exists in only three places: the furnace room, the unfinished bedroom, and the western two-thirds of my workshop. All three of these places have stuff scattered about in them. So we have to empty those places out so that we can fill them with furniture and boxes from the rest of the lower level.

Oh…we have seven days to do this, and counting. From a dead stop.

So last night I was downstairs stuffing books in boxes, schlepping stuff to the garage, and piling it on the higher sections of steel shelving that we already have. (I’m going to buy another Gorilla Rack when I go out later to buy more boxes.) One of the lateral file cabinets is broken and will be scrapped, but Carol has to empty it first. ARC is going to get several goody-bags of resale material, which means that more time will be spent culling the collection.

It’s almost like moving, except we’re not going anywhere.

So I’m sore from hoisting boxes of medical books and photo albums onto a cart and then onto shelves. The QSTs haven’t been touched yet. I had hoped to write a longish Contra entry yesterday evening, but by 8:30 PM I was too wrecked to do anything but sit in my big chair and take notes on the coming days’ logistical challenges. I think I can do this. It may well be excellent strength training. (Moving here from Arizona in 2003 certainly was.) But man, it’s gonna hurt.

Odd Lots

  • You’re getting two Odd Lotses in a row for a reason. Stay tuned–I’ll try and explain tomorrow, if I don’t run out of Aleve.
  • Bruce Eckel is returning his Kindle Fire because the damned thing will not render .mobi files. C’mon, Amazon. I mean, come on. (Thanks to Mike Bentley for the link.)
  • Xoom 2, where are you? Whoops, it’s going to be called the Droid XYboard to distance itself from the Xoom brand, which was done in because Somebody Didn’t Want It To Have a Card Slot. (Don’t know who. Have suspicions.)
  • Charlie Stross makes a good case that DRM on ebooks (as required by the Big Six) is a stick handed to Amazon with which to pummel the Big Six. Read the piece, follow the links (make sure you know what a “monopsony” is) and then read the comments.
  • Schumann resonance waves can apparently be detected from space. This is surprising, as my earlier readings suggested that they only exist by virtue of a sort of immaterial waveguide formed by layers in the Earth’s atmosphere–the same waveguide effect that allows hams like me to bounce signals around the world.
  • Femtotech? I postulated a “femtoscope” in my novel The Cunning Blood, but it was used to plot quantum pair creation and did not rely on exotic matter. I’m not sure such things are possible, or could be done in any environment where we could live or even work through proxies. But as with a lot of things (especially LENR) I would hugely enjoy being wrong.
  • I torrented down the brand-new Linux Mint 12 Lisa the other day, and like its predecessor it will not detect the video hardware correctly on my 2009-era Core 2 Quad with NVidia 630i integrated graphics. Somewhat surprisingly, it will install on an older Dell GX620 USFF with (as best I can tell) no video problems. Not sure if I like GNOME 3, though. MATE, a GNOME 2 fork, has promise.
  • I may have made this point once before, but hard steampunk authors should have the Lindsay Books catalog on hand, or at least have the site bookmarked. These are books explaining how to actually do steampunk technology, often in the form of reprints of original Victorian-era reference texts. Thermite, brass, steam engines, and loads of other goodies just as great-great grandpa learned them. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the noodge.)
  • One of my German friends told me that plagiarism in German doctoral theses is so widespread that it’s spawned a crowdsourced mechanism for detecting it. That’s the abbreviated English-language version; if you have a reasonable amount of German, go to the richer, fuller main page.
  • Very spooky time-lapse video of a little-known physical phenomenon. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • I originally thought this was a hoax. On the other hand, I have a Tim Bird and I love it. It’s hard to believe that such things actually work as well as they do.
  • Sometimes you wear what you eat–or at least a reasonable facsimile.

Odd Lots

  • Happy Thanksgiving Day to all who celebrate it–and to those who don’t, well, this guy is still thankful that the world is big enough for both of us. In terms of Thanksgiving Day meditations, I’ll simply offer the one I wrote in 2008. I may not ever do better than that.
  • From the Words-I-Didn’t-Know-Until-Yesterday File: seedbox, a remote and generally headless system on a high-bandwidth Internet connection, used exclusively to seed torrents in defiance of ISP speed-throttling of BitTorrent users.
  • Also pertinent to yesterday’s entry: Penguin Books got into a snit of lender’s remorse, and basically shut down access to its titles previously available to public library patrons through Amazon’s Kindle lending program. Apparently the DRM wasn’t DRM-y enough, and Penguin (through the Overdrive technology) locked its titles out. Precisely what the technical issues are is still unclear, but I’m researching it.
  • We have lost Anne McCaffrey, at age 85. She died of a stroke at her home in Ireland on November 21. She was the first woman to earn a Hugo or a Nebula award, and did a great deal to drag SF out of the locker room to which the pulps had led it.
  • Having recently become an Android user (via my Droid X2) I have now begun to dream of SparkFun’s Electric Sheep.
  • Debsnews now has a wine channel. It’s one way to focus in on specific short videos (example: WalMart’s new $3 wine line) without having to spend a third of your life parked in front of a TV.
  • Anybody who’s tried to spread a Ziplock bag with one hand while pouring leftover spaghetti sauce into it with the other may appreciate this gadget. Everybody else, move along.
  • Many people are sending me links to stories about canned goods containing greater than acceptable levels of BPA. This is not new news. However, I didn’t know about it until yesterday, right after opening a can of Spam.
  • Maybe the new Spam Singles packaging is the answer. No can!
  • Carol met Colonel Sanders at the Mayo Clinic back in 1975, and the guy does get around. You can now see him from space. This is not photoshopped, but the real deal. It’s been there since 2006, and consists of 87,000 colored tile “pixels.” (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • Make describes a steam-powered bristlebot. Somehow this reminds me of those little scrubbing-bubble guys on the TV commercials.
  • There may be another reason (quite apart from battery life) to turn your smartphone’s power off every night. (Thanks to Pamela Boulais for the link.)
  • If you’ve never gone up to the Car Talk Web site and looked at the staff credits page, you’re missing out on people you haven’t seen since your study hall attendance-sheet days. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)

Pirates and Dummies

I used to go up to the Pirate Bay on an almost weekly basis, to see which Paraglyph Press books were listed there. It ceased to be a priority after Paraglyph folded, and I don’t think I’ve been up there for over a year. Then last week I learned that large NY publisher John Wiley & Sons is preparing a multiple “John Doe” style lawsuit focused on torrent piracy of its staggeringly popular “For Dummies” series. So I sailed back up to the Bay to see how bad it is on the ebook side.

For dummies in search of “For Dummies,” my initial impression is that it’s pretty good, which means that for Wiley, it’s pretty bad. The word “Dummies” can be found in TPB’s torrent catalog 691 times, and although some of those may not be “For Dummies” titles, I’m guessing that nearly all of them are. Individual books are listed, of course, but what probably worries publishers more is that a 6.3 GB file containing 572 “For Dummies” books is listed as well. 6.3 GB sounds like a lot. It’s not. It’s about the size of a single 720p feature-length Blu-Ray rip. 572 PDF ebooks in one lump, egad–in truth, I didn’t know that there were that many “For Dummies” books in existence. (GURPS for Dummies is not something I would have gone looking for.)

Alas, the pirates have forgotten about me personally, and for that matter, about Paraglyph Press itself. Only one Coriolis book is listed, Michael Abrash’s Graphics Programming Black Book. (There may be others that weren’t cited with the word “Coriolis;” I didn’t search deeply.) As I said, my own last name isn’t present even once. Much more startlingly, David Brin is listed only three times. Connie Willis, twice. Vernor Vinge, once. Nancy Kress, not at all. Being hot must help; Neil Gaiman is listed 49 times.

One gets the impression that reading isn’t a priority among pirates. To find out just what is, you need a better metric, and The Pirate Bay offers one: the number of complete torrents. “Seeders” are people who make available complete copies of a given file. “Leechers” are those who are currently downloading the file. The more seeders, the more popular a file, and the faster it will download to the leechers. (The protocol is interesting and described well here.)

Although there are hundreds of torrent trackers, the Pirate Bay is by far the most popular, ranking 91 on Alexa. I think it’s pretty characteristic of the pirate world in general. So let’s go count Pirate Bay seeders:

  • The top audio book is Double Your Reading Speed in Ten Minutes. 548 seeders. (Irony alert! Near-toxic levels!)
  • The top ebook is Do Not Open: An Encyclopedia of The World’s Best-Kept Secrets. 1,442 seeders.
  • The top pirated app is Photoshop CS5. 6,412 seeders.
  • The top music track is “We Found Love” by Rihanna. 7,010 seeders.
  • The top game is The Elder Scrolls. 12,438 seeders.
  • The top movie is Conan the Barbarian. 17,422 seeders.
  • The top TV show (in fact, the top torrent of any kind) is an episode of “How I Met Your Mother.” 23,259 seeders.

I hope I don’t have to beat you over the head with it: Video is twenty times more popular on torrent sites than ebooks. Down in Dummies land, it’s worse: The 572-book “For Dummies” collection has all of 99 seeders. Neil Gaiman’s best (46) is less than half of that.

So why is a major book publisher suing a relative handful of torrenters? I’m guessing that it’s because it can. BitTorrent is extremely “open” in terms of who’s doing it, and if you’re downloading you’re automatically uploading too. Recording the IPs of people in a torrent swarm is easy. Suing them is dirt simple. Some money can be harvested offering settlements, but at those minuscule usage levels, not much. I’m sure that Wiley wants to exert a “chilling effect” on sharing of Dummies books, and they are–but only in the torrent world. Even though my books vanished from the Pirate Bay, it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to find them out on the bitlockers and Usenet, which for various reasons are much tougher nuts to crack on the legal side.

Video rules the torrent world because video is big, and the BitTorrent protocol is the most effective way to get video downloaded quickly. Small files like ebooks are elsewhere, unless they’re gathered into massive collections the size of Blu-Ray rips. Ebook piracy seems to be a minor issue today because ebook piracy is mostly invisible. It’s out there, and for all that I’ve pondered the problem, I return to the conclusion that the problem has no solution other than to sell the goods easily and cheaply, and to stop teaching people to be pirates by making the media experience complicated with DRM.

In the meantime, announcing mass lawsuits of torrenters of a specific product line pulls the Streisand chain hard. You might as well yell “Come and get it!” to people who hadn’t known that all 572 Dummies books (or ebooks generally) could be found on torrent sites. This has to be balanced against whatever chilling effect the lawsuits may have, and I can’t help but think that it’s a wash, at best. The real result of such suits over the years has been to push piracy into places where it’s difficult to see and almost impossible to police. The First Principle of whatever we try has to be this: Don’t make the problem worse. If this means that no solution presents itself, we may have to content ourselves with that.

Odd Lots

Minty Failness

I gave it a good shot and I tried, honestly I did. But Canonical’s Unity UI simply doesn’t work for me. It’s obvious that Canonical is trying to create a single UI that will serve end-user computing from top to bottom. It’s just as obvious to me (now that I’ve had six weeks or so to play around with a Droid X2) that there is no single “end-user computing” anymore. Desktops are fundamentally different from smartphones, or anything else (tablets, possibly; we’ll see) that is primarily tap-and-consume. I’m having no trouble working the Android UI on my phone, and Android habits don’t intrude on my desktop synapses. I’m not confused or in any way slowed down by the differences between the two, no more than I’m confused about the differences between a shovel and a rake.

So if Unity is all I get under Ubuntu, Ubuntu has to go. Others seem to agree with me, and at times the discussion gets disturbingly violent. Online I’m seeing that huge numbers of people are fleeing Ubuntu for Linux Mint, which I’d barely heard of a year ago. I have to smile a little bit, because Linux Mint is Ubuntu, basically pulled back to a variation on the GNOME 2.3 interface. The upcoming release (Mint 12) will move to GNOME 3, which worries me a little (I like GNOME 2) but I’ve seen word that Mint 12 will allow users to have something very like the old UI–which is precisely what Canonical did not do with Ubuntu and Unity. It was Unity or the highway, and boy, it’s bumper-to-bumper out there.

There’s an enormous issue of why we’re suddenly tossing older and much-loved UIs away without nary a glance over our shoulders, when there’s no compelling reason to adopt one of the new models. Programmers like to create Shiny New Stuff, fersure. I in turn don’t like to change the way I interact with the machine I use, unless such changes make me a lot more effective. So far, the costs in relearning ordinary tasks far outweigh the fairly paltry benefits for me.

I’ll take up that issue eventually. In the meantime, I’ve hit the highway, and installed Linux Mint 11 Katya in its own partition here on the quad core. The OS looks great and works the way I’m used to working. I have some minor quibbles, like the failure of the Software Manager to tell me when it’s done installing something. Ubuntu does this well, but Mint installs and gives no sign. This was critical when I installed WINE, since (because WINE is not an app, strictly speaking) it’s tricky to determine if WINE was fully and correctly installed. Because running Software Manager again and selecting WINE still indicates “not installed,” I think there’s something wrong.

Small stuff. The big deal is that Mint doesn’t work well with the integrated graphics on my EVGA NForce e-7150/630i Core 2 Quad motherboard. The default graphics drivers worked, but looked clunky and don’t support effects. Installing the recommended proprietary NVIDIA drivers produced weird graphics failures, including windows refusing to render once they’re over a certain size. (Some windows would not render at all, and simply remained blank and white even when first instantiated.) Using the supposedly experimental NVIDIA 173 drivers worked better, but still fails on certain apps, especially Stellarium, which worked exactly once and then comes up with a blank, black window every time. I’m not willing to give up Stellarium, so at this point Linux Mint is on hold while I wait for Mint 12 Lisa.

Linux Mint has supposedly become the 4th most popular OS on the planet. It’ll be interesting to see if that continues to be the case once they cut in the mandatory GNOME 3 upgrade. I’ll give GNOME 3 the same consideration I gave Unity, but I’m also looking closely at the Xfce UI and Xubuntu. It’s going to be an interesting year in the Linux world. I’m keeping all my old Linux installer .iso files, trust me.

Big Banks and Small Customers

I haven’t seen this come up in recent discussions, but it’s something more people need to understand: You do not hurt large banks by withdrawing your own (small) accounts. Really. On the contrary, you’re doing them a huge favor, and making them more efficient and more profitable.

Even small banks make no money on consumer checking accounts. Big banks run a sigificant loss on such accounts (from what I’ve read, on the order of $300-$400 per account per year) and would prefer not to have them at all. Banks and bank-like institutions like credit unions and savings-and-loans make virtually all their money on loans. Checking accounts especially are loss-leaders to get consumers in the door so that bank reps can sell loans and (to more affluent customers) investments.

Large banks have angered consumers by attempting to raise fees to cover the service costs of checking accounts and small savings accounts. (The recent ATM fee debacle is a good example.) It’s become stylish to protest by closing accounts and going to smaller institutions, particularly credit unions. How this hurts the big banks I can’t imagine. Small accounts provide a certainly amount of liquidity but at a high cost in customer service manpower, printing, and general overhead. The best outcome for big banks would be to drop all customers with less than about $10,000 in cash in their accounts. They’d be flayed alive in the media if they just canceled and refunded such accounts. Now these costly customers are punishing big banks by canceling the very accounts the banks would love to cancel themselves.

I guess it makes about as much sense as anything in politics these days.

UPDATE: The article that triggered my line of thought here is paywalled and I couldn’t cite it, but I’ve since discovered this discussion with the Motley Fool guy in the Christian Science Monitor. (Thanks to gmcdavid over on LiveJournal for the link.)

There’s the additional issue that if everybody pulled small accounts out of the big banks, the big banks would feel it. However, if only a relative few participate in Bank Transfer Day, the banks benefit. The effect is not linear, and cooks down to the difference between eating their lunch and washing their dishes.

Odd Lots

Hephaestus Books and Deceptive Titles

Here’s an emerging story, first pointed out to me by Bruce Baker: There’s a new POD business out there selling free content that isn’t quite what it appears to be. A firm called Hephaestus Books in Richardson, Texas is listing literally hundreds of thousands of POD titles (166,000, as of this morning) on the major online booksellers, including Amazon, B&N, and BooksAMillion. Some are familiar public domain material. Some of them are eye-crossing minutiae that maybe seventeen people in the world would find interesting. Some sound scholarly. (Here’s an example.) But many of the newest sound like compendia of popular modern novels that in no way are in the public domain, like Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium stories. And for $13.85, yet.

Sounds like. And here’s the catch: The POD books in question do not contain the novels listed in the title.

That would be difficult, considering that most of the books from Hephaestus are 40-80 pages long. They in fact contain discussion about the novels, much of it harvested from Wikipedia, all of it shoveled (presumably by scripts) into a file accessible by POD print machinery. Most of the big-name writers in SF are represented in the Hephaestus catalog, including Larry Niven, David Brin, and Charlie Stross, but lots of far more obscure names are there, too, like Robin Hobb. Check for yourself: Go to Amazon’s search page and type the name of any (reasonably) well-known writer, followed by “Hephaestus.” Prepare to be surprised–after all, there are 166,000 books to choose from. (Alas, don’t look for me. Already checked.)

So what precisely is this? Copyright infringement? Given the scorched-earth penalties called out by the DCMA, I doubt there’s any infringing material in these books. They’d be nuts to do that. Some online have suggested that this might be a legal issue called “tort of misappropriation” of a celebrity’s publicity rights (which, interestingly, are very well protected by Texas law) but I myself don’t think so. There are strong fair-use protections of discussion and criticism of events, things, and people, and a lot of redistributable content online. This seems to be what Hephaestus is selling. If they trip up, it’s likely to be on consumer-protection grounds, since the titles of many of these books are very deceptive. It’s a tough thing to prove, though, and the whole business seems to have been constructed with considerable skill.

One thing I still don’t understand is the cost of the ISBNs. Every book I’ve seen has an ISBN, and the ISBNs appear to be legitimate. ISBNs are not free, and in fact cost about a dollar each, even in blocks of 1,000. Given that the vast majority of these books are never likely to be ordered, even once, the burden falls on the rest to make back the investment in ISBNs given to all of them. ISBN’s for 166,000 books must have cost them about $150,000. That’s a hefty upfront cost for a revenue stream as dicey and unpredictable as this one.

How much they’re making per book is impossible to tell without knowing more about how they’re being distributed. Ingram and similar companies charge fees for mounting POD books on their systems, which would send the upfront cost for the press hurtling into the millions dollars–before they sell a single book. I’m still looking into this, but it’s a head-scratcher first-class. If you know anything more than I’ve summarized here, please pass it along.

Ah, well. This is only the latest emergence of a phenomenon that’s been with us for some time. I call such presses “shovelshops.” The big retailers could kill them in an hour by restricting the speed with which titles can be registered. Even presses like Wiley and Macmillan don’t publish more than a handful of books per day. The Hephaestus business model depends upon thousands upon thousands of books appearing very quickly. If no press can register more than ten or twenty books a day, it’ll take a long time to get the title count to the point where the number of clueless customers begins to pay off.

And then there’s always that sleepy dragon, the FTC, which may or may not be prodded enough to take notice. In the meantime, buy nothing from Hephaestus Press. You’ll be glad you didn’t.

Tweeting the Big Whistle

Wow. I think I finally happened upon a use for Twitter. The Union Pacific railroad tweets status updates on the tour of its restored 4-8-4 steam loco, #844, as I described in my entry for October 31, 2011. I have line-of-sight from my house to the BNSF tracks on which #844 would be taken south to Pueblo yesterday, and I wanted to actually see it from my back deck. Now, it’s a long line of sight–a little over five miles, according to MapPoint–but since I’m on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain, 600 feet higher than the tracks, I have no trouble making out BNSF’s coal trains, though it’s easier with binoculars. On quiet summer nights I can hear their horns (faintly) when they go through grade crossings. Uphill seems a favorable direction for sound. As I’ve mentioned here several times, we hear Fort Carson’s bugle calls on most quiet days.

#844 has a whistle, a real steam whistle, but not just any old steam whistle: It’s got a whistle transplanted from one of the now-extinct but inexpressibly awesome Big Boy 4-8-8-4 articulated locomotives, which seventy years ago began hauling freight up Rocky Mountain grades. None of the Big Boys are still operable, but a piece of one of them remains in service, and #844’s got it.

I wanted to see #844 from my deck, and I wanted to hear it too. The window was short, probably two minutes or less, so if I wasn’t out there at precisely the right time I would miss it. Enter Twitter: By following the UP’s status updates while I worked here on my quadcore, I was able to grab my jacket and binoculars as soon as #844 pulled out of downtown, and be there on the back deck (along with QBit; Carol was still in Chicago) when the loco went past.

QBit sat next to my chair and gnawed a Nylabone. I leaned back and did a little deep breathing and some ten-second-meditation exercises. A couple of minutes later, I felt annoyed at the sound of some damfool 18-wheeler engine-braking on Highway 115. (We hear those a lot too.) But…it wasn’t engine braking. It expanded to the deepest, thrummingest whistle I’d ever heard, and for four or five seconds it blasted, echoing among the hills and against Cheyenne Mountain itself. It wailed the way nothing on earth but a steam whistle wails, a wail that doubtless inspired ghost-train stories and infused the history of steam traction with something like mythic sadness. Steam trains sounded sad long before they were an endangered species. (The physics of that wail is simple but surprises many people when they first learn of it. You all understand it, right?)

I stood up, leaned on the railing, and looked hard. Sure enough, a comet’s tail of cylinder-vented steam crept out from behind a hill, and for two minutes and change #844 crossed my field of view. Five times the big whistle sounded, and then it passed behind another hill on Fort Carson and was gone. It’s far from certain that I will ever see it again.

Why didn’t I go down there closer to the tracks and get a better view? I’m not entirely sure myself. I can guess, though. This house was a first for us: We’re 600 feet higher than Colorado Springs itself, and we get a view from a height. The wide view off my decks is a personal metaphor for the world as a whole. I can see buildings and cars and traffic lights and water towers and the aviation beacon from Butts Field. Houses and offices and a little bit of everything are right there, and I can take it all in at one glance. Seeing #844 from my deck made it feel like steam was still part of the world I live in, and I felt it viscerally. Big steam whistles will do that.

And yeah, Twitter made it possible. As silly as I consider it sometimes, broadcast IM may well have its (occasional) uses. I wonder how many years it will be before I run across another one?