“Why do we have a server named ‘Vicious?'”

My first non-food service, non-retail job was working desktop support for my college, the University of Missouri-Columbia. They were doing a massive computer upgrade and needed some part-time help. When they realized they’d found a journalism student who knew PC hardware and already knew OS/2, they cut the interview short and showed me around. I started work the next day.

My job was, initially, to unbox a few hundred IBM PC 330s and 350s, install network cards and memory, then install OS/2 on them. We had room for me to set up about 10 of them at a time, on long folding tables on opposite sides of a long room. It was lonely work at times, but I got to work with computers, and they were paying me $8 an hour. I liked it better than retail.

After a few days I had enough time to watch the boot process. OS/2 had a facility called Configuruation, Installation and Distribution (CID), similar to Microsoft’s unattended installation that appeared in later versions of Windows NT, that automated much of the process. An administrator configured machines in advance, and then when build time came, I booted off a floppy, entered a computer name, and the process pulled down what it needed from the network. After 30 minutes or so, we had a functional machine. CID probably saved a couple of hours of repetitive work. On this particular day, after I got nine machines going, I watched the 10th go through its the CID process. I noticed the machine kept addressing a server named \\VICIOUS.

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The origins of Prince of Persia unearthed

Prince of Persia isn’t just a recent movie. It’s based on a video game series, the first of which was first released all the way back in 1989 for the venerable Apple II series of 8-bit computers. That original game, extremely simple by today’s standards, is a classic today.

The author, Jordan Mechner, had given up on looking for the 6502 assembly language source code behind the game until his dad found a box of disks buried in a closet. Among them were several hand-labeled disks claiming to contain the long-lost code. Read more

Eric Show and the wrong side of history

ESPN has a moving article about Eric Show today. Eric Show was one of several tragic figures from the mid-1980s San Diego Padres who stood in the shadow of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, one of the greatest hitters ever.

Show’s family would prefer that people remember him as the millionaire pitcher who was fond of inviting the homeless people he passed on the street to dinner.

But generally speaking, people remember him for a hit he allowed in 1985. A hit to a much lesser man. And nine short years later, Eric Show was dead at age 37.

Show’s tragedy, sadly, wasn’t unique among his teammates. Left-handed pitcher Dave Dravecky lost his arm to cancer. Second baseman Alan Wiggins became the first baseball player to die of AIDS. Tony Gwynn, of course, died much too young as well.

Supposedly the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs are cursed, but their 1980s teams have nothing on that.

But I’m way ahead of myself.

In some ways, Eric Show was a Greg Maddux-like pitcher. He didn’t have overpowering stuff, but he threw a lot of pitches well, and was much smarter than most of his opponents. Show never matched Maddux’s best numbers, but spent most of his career just short of the brink of Maddux-like superstardom. Scarred by a poor relationship with an abusive father, Show’s difficulties bouncing back when little things went wrong turned him into an all-or-nothing pitcher, and those occasional games where he had nothing were the difference between him and guys like Maddux.

Show put together a perfectly respectable career, even if he never lived up to his full potential. During his career, the Padres went from last place to the World Series, and he played a key role in that transformation. Even ignoring what he did off the field, people should remember him as a very good pitcher for a very good team.

Instead, he’s the guy who gave up a record-setting hit. He’s also the guy who hit Andre Dawson with a beanball in 1987. That is, when someone remembers him at all.

But there was a lot going on with him behind the scenes. Show was a gifted musician. Routinely he asked homeless people to join him for dinner. He handed out $50 bills like candy to people less fortunate than him. He was a committed Christian. Finally, he was a deep thinker and only two of his teammates understood him.

Show started falling apart in 1987, when the Padres traded those two friends–Mark Thurmond and fellow tragic figure Dave Dravecky. That was the same year he hit Andre Dawson. I’m familiar with the other side of that story. I was a Cubs fan in 1987, and I’m related to ex-Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe had lobbied hard for the Cubs to sign Dawson. When he saw his man go down, Sutcliffe went after Show. The commissioner fined and suspended him 8 games for his role in the brawl.

What I didn’t know was that Eric Show hand-wrote an apology and tried to give it to Dawson.

Abandoned and injured, Show did something completely out of character. The man who talked junkies on the street into going into rehab turned to drugs himself. First it was greenies, which propelled him to his last great season in 1988. But that soon led to crystal meth, cocaine, and heroin. After two barely mediocre seasons, the Padres let him go, and at age 35, he signed with Tony LaRussa’s Oakland Athletics. The ESPN article calls the move naive, but I disagree. Show was exactly the kind of reclamation product that LaRussa’s longtime pitching coach, Dave Duncan, specialized in.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, it didn’t work out. Show didn’t turn into one of Duncan’s success stories.

In 1992, Show was out of baseball and in rehab when he went to see his former teammate, Dave Dravecky, give a lecture. Dravecky wrote two books about his battle with cancer and embarked on a long career as a speaker and author. Dravecky recognized him and asked him to call, but Show lost his number.

ESPN has the rest of the story.

But I agree with his family that Eric Show’s legacy ought to be as a man who took homeless people out to dinner and who forgave and repeatedly tried to reconcile with his abusive father.

I’ve been following baseball for as long as I could read. I’m sure Eric Show isn’t the only baseball player who ever took a homeless person to dinner. But I never heard of any other.

Why piracy matters

Rob O’Hara offers an interesting perspective on piracy.

I agree with him. 20 years ago, copyrighted material offered presence. It was something special.

Computer software was mostly sold in specialty stores. And if you wanted something, the store might or might not have it. There was a bit of a hunt involved. I still have fond memories of going to Dolgin’s, Babbage’s, and other long-gone stores to buy Commodore software. Sure, I pirated some stuff (who didn’t?) but mostly confined myself to out-of-print stuff that you couldn’t otherwise get.

Believe it or not, I took pride in having a shelf of paid-for software.

Music was the same way. Back then, the average record store had a comparable selection to your local Target. If you decided you liked Joy Division or Sisters of Mercy, you had a long road ahead of you to collect all their stuff. Acquiring material that was far off the Top 40 path took time and effort, not just money.

Today it doesn’t matter what you want, you can probably find it in 30 minutes online. Legally, or, in most cases, illegally. Like a friend asked me about 10 years ago when broadband connections became attainable and this stuff started to change, “How can data be rare?”

The solution some people give is touring. That works for musicians, but not so well for everyone else. Book signings aren’t very profitable for most authors. There’s no close equivalent at all for software. Charging for service works for application software, but not at all for games.

The solution is to find other ways to make a living.

The loss? Culture, frankly. Music gets reduced to the lowest common denominator. Record labels can’t (or won’t) take a chance on promising young bands whose first few records don’t sell. Had U2 come on the scene in 1999 instead of 1979, it never would have made it. The Joshua Tree was a huge seller, but who’s ever heard of Boy and October? By today’s standards for first and second albums, they were flops.

The result is we see a lot more acts like Justin Timberlake, who can make a lot of money fast. If they fade from view, it doesn’t matter, because the record companies can always manufacture a replacement. Which leaves little reason to take a chance on someone who does things differently and takes a few years to really burst onto the scene. The environment doesn’t really favor the development of someone like Talking Heads, the Moody Blues, or much of anything else that deviates from the norm today. Or U2, for that matter, who may sound mainstream today, but they sure didn’t in 1980.

I see other arenas suffering too. Name me an innovative video game. There’s been very little innovation since Wolfenstein 3D came into being in 1992. Virtually everything since is just a variation on that same theme: Shoot everything that moves in a 3D environment. Yawn. That wasn’t even very innovative–it’s just that it happened in 3D. There were plenty of shoot-everything-that-moves games out there in the mid/late 1980s for the Nintendo NES. Wolfenstein itself was a remake of a 2D shooter from the early 80s for 8-bit computers called Castle Wolfenstein.

Creative people who want to have a house and a car and a few things to put in it find other ways to make a living. Like writing or doing graphic design for Pizza Today or another trade magazine. It’s steady work. It’s not glamorous and won’t make you famous, but it pays the bills. And it’s niche enough that it’s unlikely to be pirated.

Someone may find a way to make things work in this new reality. Odds are it won’t be someone in Washington. And it probably won’t happen tomorrow. Which is a shame.

The Police put on an unforgettable show

Wow.

The Police weren’t perfect last night, and, perfectionists that they are, they probably weren’t completely satisfied with their performance, but it certainly was more than good enough. I’ll get in lots of trouble for saying this I’m sure, but their performance left me wondering, in terms of raw ability, how much better could The Beatles have been?The Police haven’t toured since 1984, but their best-known songs live on due to Sting’s very long solo career and of course Sting performs them a lot. Since Sting sang and wrote the lyrics to all the best-known songs, his name is almost synonymous with The Police. What last night’s concert confirmed is that Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland contributed just as much to the band’s sound. Sting performing a Police song solo just doesn’t sound the same because there’s no way he could find a drummer/percussionist to replace Stewart Copeland. And while there’s no shortage of guitar heroes out there, could anyone sling a guitar quite like Andy Summers?

Clearly the set list is still a work in progress. Of course they play the songs everyone expects to hear–Message in a Bottle; Synchronicity II; Walking on the Moon; Every Little Thing She Does is Magic; Wrapped Around Your Finger; De Do Do Do, Da Da Da Da; Can’t Stand Losing You; Roxanne; King of Pain; So Lonely; and Every Breath You Take. The middle of the set seems a bit weaker. When you start getting into album tracks as opposed to singles, everyone has their personal favorites and it’s impossible to please everyone. Not every song toward the middle of the set was recognizable to the casual fan, and the album tracks tended to be the least memorable.

The controversial Don’t Stand So Close to Me was in the set; the band is considering dropping it. The original version was a classic; the 1986 re-recording for their first singles collection was a train wreck. Something resembling the original arrangement is likely to be difficult for the band to do live. To my ear, it sounds like the original had Sting singing lead vocals but all three members singing backing vocals. The only way to do that live would be to drag Sting’s son on stage to have him sing backing vocals. Come to think of it, that might not be a bad idea, if all parties were agreeable. Joe Sumner’s band is the opening act on this tour, and we’ll talk about that later.

Live, Don’t Stand So Close to Me was somewhere between the original and the 1986 version in sound, leaning more toward the original. It’s one of their better and more memorable songs, so it would be a shame to have to drop it.

The band was as fun to watch as it was listenable. Stewart Copeland looked like a madman on the drums. It was easy to see where he got his reputation for hitting the drums about four times as hard as necessary. You could see him straining at times, and he made me wonder how he could possibly do any backing vocals at all while pounding on those drums.

Copeland also made his contributions to the classic Police sound evident. On songs like King of Pain and Wrapped Around Your Finger, Copeland had an elaborate setup of exotic percussion instruments set up behind his traditional rock drum kit. Copeland would start out behind the drums, playing percussion, then race back behind the drums when the song switched to the drum kit, all the while not missing a beat. The set gave Copeland a chance to showcase his versatility, or at least some of it. Copeland even played guitar on a few of the band’s b-sides and other lesser-known tracks, and on his solo records recorded under the pseudonym Klark Kent, Copeland played all the instruments.

Sting introduced Summers as "The Legendary Andy Summers" and he lived up to it. Summers played a number of blistering guitar solos but he and Sting were also able to improvise well whenever they felt like stretching a song out a bit. Summers rarely cracked a smile during the show, but the look on his face looked more like intensity to me, rather than unhappiness to be there. It’s hard to stand out when Copeland is playing drums and racing around like a madman as if the fate of civilization relies on what he’s doing, and when you’re playing next to Sting. Summers’ performance would have been the highlight of pretty much any other concert I’ve seen, but he had a lot of competition tonight.

Sting was, well, Sting. You could tell he’s been doing this for more than 30 years and was comfortable with it. I think he’s lost a little range but has learned to compensate for it. I think his experience more than makes up for whatever he’s lost. I probably wouldn’t have noticed that Sting’s voice has lost something except his son’s band was the opening act, and Joe Sumner sounds just like Sting sounded 25 years ago. Sting didn’t spend a lot of time talking to the crowd, which is fine since we were all there to hear the band play rather than to hear him talk. I heard him make reference to Mississippi Nights, the legendary club on Laclede’s Landing that sadly closed earlier this year. I read in the paper this morning that Mississippi Nights was the first concert they ever played in St. Louis, more than 29 years ago in 1978.

I agree with the other things I’ve read so far that there were a few things they could have done that would have made the show better, but admittedly this is early in the tour. Even with the shortcomings, I still think it was probably the best concert I’ve ever seen. I probably won’t get the opportunity to see them again, but if I had the opportunity, I’d do it.

As far as the band’s notorious friction, I didn’t really see any of that. The three did seem to enjoy themselves, and it would make sense that three people who worked together for seven years making such unforgettable music would be able to click again for the same reason they clicked in the first place.

I know I’ll get the opportunity to see Sting again, but having seen The Police, it’s hard for me to get excited about that possibility. I don’t see how he could possibly put together a set of backup musicians that could hold a candle to the rest of The Police.

The opening band was Fiction Plane, a three-piece band fronted by Joe Sumner, Sting’s 31-year-old son. Fiction Plane has a harder, edgier, grungier sound than The Police, although it certainly appeared to me that Sumner learned a lot from his famous father. At one point he played one of Sting’s songs, and it certainly sounded convincing. I thought Fiction Plane showed a lot of talent and promise, but the question remains whether the radio will play any of it. I’m not sure what it takes to get on the radio these days but talent doesn’t seem to be the most important thing. I think I’ll buy some of their stuff though. I’ll listen to them even if nobody else knows who they are.

If you have the chance to see this tour and you’ve been sitting on the fence whether to go, I recommend going. I don’t see how they could let you down.

Song lyrics on the web will be the death of the music industry?

How many times did you hear a song on the radio, like it, then eagerly wait for the DJ to come on and announce what the song was, only to hear the next song? (Which inevitably is something worse, of course.)

It happens to me a lot. So I don’t even wait for the disappointment. I grab a scrap of paper, listen for a few words that sound distinctive (or that get repeated a lot), then when I get home or somewhere that I can mooch a little Internet access, I hit the search engines.

I’ll bet I ended up buying half my CD collection that way.I guess I should apply for a patent on this method of investigation though, because obviously I must be the only one who does this, because posting this stuff online is killing the industry.

Now that I think about it, posting song lyrics might be difficult to justify under the fair use doctrine, especially if your web site is just one big database of song lyrics that somebody else wrote. It’s one thing to quote a few lines of a song–which has always been permitted, even if what you’re writing isn’t a music review–but song after song, in its entirety does cross a line.

The question is whether it does more good than harm. I’m not convinced that online postings of song lyrics and guitar tablatures necessarily harms the sheet music industry all that much. In the past, I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out with musicians, and most of the musicians I knew sat down with a tape or a CD with a pencil and paper and wore out the fast-forward and reverse buttons playing snippets of songs over and over again, taking notes, until they’d figured out what was being played.

Today it’s faster to search the Internet for that kind of information. But if you couldn’t, you’d probably go do it the old-fashioned way.

And the sheet-music industry doesn’t make any money either way.

Why not just go down to the record store and buy the music? Oh. Well, because you probably can’t. And even when you can, the selection is limited. If you want something other than current hits and staples of a particular popular genre, you probably won’t find it, because sheet music takes up a lot more space than CDs do. So you can order it online, but in the time it takes for the thing to arrive in the mail, you could have transcribed the artist’s entire catalog yourself.

And besides, most musicians don’t have any money. And the musicians I know who do have money didn’t make their money making music.

So I suppose the Music Publisher’s Association is probably justified–from a legal standpoint–in going after web sites that are just a cache of lyrics. But when they do, expect CD sales to take another hit–especially sales of back-catalog discs and acts who haven’t quite hit the big time yet. Of course the RIAA will just blame downloading and CD burners.

There’s a way around this, of course. The songwriter can do whatever he or she wants with the words.

And if the songwriter wants to make more money than the average substitute teacher, I suggest posting those lyrics online, so that when the song manages to get played on some station on the far left side of the dial and 12 people hear it, the four people who like it can do a search and buy it. They might sell less sheet music. But they’ll sell a whole lot more records.

My first impressions of Pandora

So I’ve been messing with Pandora, a new music service.

It’s interesting. Not foolproof, but interesting.The theory goes like this: Have highly experienced musicians overanalyze pop music, identifying its tonal qualities, and based on the qualities you find in a song that the masses (or any given individual) like, predict other songs that will have the same appeal because they share the same tonal qualities.

So I signed on, and it asked me for the name of a band or a song that I liked. So I picked “City of Blinding Lights” by U2 out of the air.

Two songs later, it played “Read ‘Em and Weep” by Meat Loaf.

Say what?

I gave it a chance. I thought more of Meat Loaf when he was a one-hit wonder than I did after he made that comeback in the ’90s. And this song is the epitome of why.

Let the record state that I don’t like over-the-hill wanna-be hard rockers singing songs that were originally written by Barry Manilow!

Note that I’m emphatic enough on that point to break out the italics and the exclamation point. I’m almost emphatic enough to break out the blink tag.

If I lose coolness points for not liking Meat Loaf-sung Barry Manilow cover tunes, then so be it.

I suppose it did have somewhat similar musical qualities to U2’s City of Blinding Lights. But this just goes to show there’s more to music than just, uh, the music.

To its credit, it did pick out a song by Delirious? that I liked.

But I guess U2 isn’t exactly the best experiment for something like this. While U2 has a reputation for all of its songs sounding the same, any serious U2 fan will point out that it’s several of U2’s hits that sound similar. But if I were to whip out a few of U2’s lesser hits, like, say, “A Day Without Me” off Boy and “The Fly” off Achtung Baby, to name two of the better songs off their two best albums, you might be hard-pressed to identify the band.

And since that’s one of the things I really like about the band, I abandoned the experiment. Tonal qualities alone won’t find another U2.

I forgot about the first time I ever heard “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The reaction? “U2 records albums?” Yes, when I was 13, I thought U2 just toured and put on political demonstrations and that making records was an afterthought.

Sometimes the appeal isn’t just the music and how it’s played. Need another example? Anyone care to do a survey of how many people watch Jessica Simpson music videos with the volume muted?

So now that I’ve talked about why Pandora can’t work, let’s talk about when it does work.

After the Meat Loaf indignity, I typed in “What About Everything, Carbon Leaf” into Pandora. And it came back and said it didn’t know that song. So I just typed in “Carbon Leaf.” It came back and described Carbon Leaf as a band that uses subtle harmonies, electric instruments up front, a mixture of acoustic and electric in back, and prominent percussion.

I’d never thought about it that way, but that was what made the band catch my ear in the first place. The line “What about aeroplanes?” had a lot to do with it too, but Pandora’s technical description tells how the band said, “What about aeroplanes?” Had it been Pantera asking “What about aeroplanes?” I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much.

But when I think about the alt-rock that was being recorded in the early 1990s, before it became all-grunge-all-the-time, that description of Carbon Leaf pretty much could apply to the songs by Sugar, Material Issue, Aimee Mann, The Connells, and, for that matter, even Weezer, that I liked.

So out of curiosity, I punched in “The Sisters of Mercy.” It came back and asked if that was a song or a band. I had the band in mind, rather than the Leonard Cohen song. Leonard Cohen is an example of someone whose lyrics I like, even when I often don’t like the music.

It identified the Sisters of Mercy as having hard rock roots, electronica influences, and an emphasis on minor key tones. Fair enough.

Problem is, it gave me Pig Society by Dope, Loco by Coal Chamber, and Set Me Free by Velvet Revolver, followed by Big Truck by Coal Chamber (which sounded like a monster truck rally).

How much does Andrew Eldritch know about monster trucks, anyway?

Once I gave it enough thumbs-downs, it tried Sonic Youth on me. Sonic Youth isn’t very goth, but it’s a much better fit than something called “Big Truck.”

So I decided to see what it said about Joy Division. “Punk influences, mild rhythmic syncopation, extensive vamping, electronica influences, and minor key tonality,” it said. OK, basically Sisters of Mercy minus the heavy metal with a little punk instead? I’ll buy that. I let it play. So far, no songs about monster trucks, but the songs it did play were songs I wouldn’t mind hearing again. Tactic learned: If you punch in one band and don’t like what it finds you, punch in the name of a somewhat similar band and see what it finds.

For entertainment value, I have to give Pandora some props. Sometimes the entertainment value is unintentional. But hey, even Babe Ruth only hit a home run 8.5% of the time. There are worse ways to discover new music than this.

Like turning on the radio, for instance.

Eldred loses, and so do the rest of us

It’s obvious from today’s ruling in the Eldred v. Ashcroft case that copyright law will never revert back to what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Corporate interests will be able to continue to buy extensions to copyright law to prevent the overwhelming majority of works made after 1924 from falling into the public domain unless for some odd reason it gets abandoned.
The problem is that when you and I want something, all we have to offer to our congressmen is our vote every two or six years, and maybe a campaign contribution. Disney doesn’t vote, although its employees do, but Disney can give a congressman or a political party more money in a year than I’ll earn in the next decade.

The result is that companies like Disney can profit off the public domain (that’s where they got The Jungle Book–author Rudyard Kipling didn’t make a dime off the Disney movie) without ever putting anything into the pot. Movies like Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, which would be public domain by now if the Sonny Bono Copyright Act hadn’t passed in 1998, remain locked up.

I doubt the public domain issue is something that’s going to energize the masses enough to force the issue into Congress. At least not in the short term. Most people have no clue what “public domain” means. They just know that around Christmas, suddenly 50 of their cable channels start playing It’s a Wonderful Life 24 hours a day. If any of them ever bother to ask, they find out it’s because the movie is in the public domain and anyone can broadcast it without paying for it. Then they shrug their shoulders and reach for the remote and look for tanks or bulldozers or football.

But this is a battle we have to fight.

Since writing to our Congressmen is futile–I may do it anyway, hoping that maybe my word carries a couple of grams’ worth more weight since I have produced a number of copyrighted works–we’re going to need to resort to something else: Civil disobedience. If a law can’t be counted on to be kept by 70 percent of the populace, it’s not enforcable and the law will chance. The most recent example of this is speed limits.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to run out to Gnutella and Kazaa and download everything in sight. As much as I may disagree with Aimee Mann’s political views, she has more than the right to be paid–she has the need to be paid. She’s not working a steady 40-hour-a-week job so she needs those record royalties to pay her bills. Taking her music without paying for it is no different from withholding my 40-hour-a-week paycheck.

But when the copyright would have rightfully expired by now anyway, I see no moral or ethical problem in taking it.

For example, there’s the Non-US Online Books Page that lists old books that are out of international copyright but not U.S. copyright. Books make you look smart, right? Download them, unwrap them with a text editor like Metapad, and then you can load them into Word and set the font and size to whatever you want. Duplex-print them (or print the odd pages, let the pages cool, then put the pages back in and print the even pages) and comb bind them or put them into cheap $1 3-ring binders, or take up bookbinding as a hobby. Fill up your bookshelves with free books you may not necessarily ever read. Be sure to include legitimate public domain books in your collection as well.

Or, since I know the majority of you won’t do that, amass a huge collection of early ’50s rock’n’roll tunes. The copyrights have expired in Europe. Import cheap European bootlegs, or get them through Gnutella. Share them with friends. Record a shelf full of CDs. If your hobby is music, sample and re-use the living daylights out of them. If you’re a European musician, do us States-siders a favor and use a 1950s-era sample in every song you record so that your colleagues over here start wondering why they can’t do that.

Sometimes civil disobedience is the only way to overthrow oppressive laws.

Self publishing to success

There was a thread on Slashdot on Friday about self-publishing, the result of a review of a self-published novel. I found it pretty interesting.
People complained about the price of the book. I looked at Xlibris’ pricing. Had they published Optimizing Windows, it would have sold for about $4 less than it did.

People talked about self-publishing as a sign of poor quality. Unfortunately, anything is a sign of poor quality. If it’s published by a publishing house, marketing is paramount, rather than quality. Don’t listen to the publishers who claim they think about quality and nothing else. It’s a lie. Some publishers are worse than others. There are a lot of publishers I just won’t buy a book from, period. There are a lot of authors I won’t buy a book from, period. (And don’t bother trying to give their books to me either; I don’t want the other books on my bookshelves to look bad by association.)

The author of the book complained about Xlibris’ pricing being designed to make money off the author rather than the readers. That’s true of every self-publishing company. To a degree that’s true of the big publishing houses too. The terms of places like iUniverse and Wildside may be more favorable.

The author of the book complained that he made $2 per copy of the book. If I remember right, my royalties for Optimizing Windows, had everything gone well, would have worked out to about $1.75 per copy. And that’s actually not bad. Some of the authors of Dummies books make 25 cents per copy. The hope is that they can make it up in volume. Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn’t. If your name is Andy Rathbone and your book is titled Windows [whatever] for Dummies, you’re going to sell a million copies so even if you only get 25 cents per book it’s worth your while to do it. Though I’m pretty sure Andy Rathbone gets better terms than that.

While Optimizing Windows didn’t sell terribly well, it outsold some of the Dummies books, including some written by authors who were more established than me.

There’s a misconception out there that writers are rich. Writing books isn’t like big-league baseball, where the minimum salary is more than $200,000 and you get a minimum of three months off (and that’s assuming you’re a pitcher or a catcher and went to the World Series). You get an advance and you write your manuscript. Hopefully the advance is enough to pay your bills while you write, or you have money from somewhere else. The advance is taxable income. You’re self-employed. So the government’s going to take half of it. Some creative financing and tax planning can soften that blow a little.

Authors pay that advance back in the form of deferred royalties. Once a book sells enough copies that royalties cover the advance, the author starts getting checks every quarter. But when you pay $25 for a book, the author’s getting a small percentage of it. It might be as low as 25 cents. If it’s five bucks, that’s really high. Paper isn’t cheap and presses aren’t cheap, so most of what you’re paying for is the printing cost. The publisher and retailer make a few bucks and the author makes a couple of bucks.

I met an author last month who’s sold more than half a million books. He drives a Hyundai.

An awful lot of authors could make more money doing something else for a living. Those who choose to make a living writing are doing it for prestige or independece or enjoyment, much more so than for the money.

So I’m not convinced that self-publishing–especially print-on-demand self-publishing with little or no up-front cost–is a bad idea. Now that’s not to say I’m going to run out and self-publish immediately. But the thought’s crossed my mind a few times, yes. And if I had enough material already written for one reason or another to make up about half of a book (the half-book I wrote two years ago about Linux doesn’t qualify–I’d have to buy back the rights to parts of it), I’d probably write the other half and do it, for exactly the same reason that some musicians choose to self-publish.

The best band you’ve never heard of

I went to a Bebo Norman concert last night. Bebo Norman is a Christian singer/songwriter. I saw him open for Third Day a few months ago, and as good as Third Day was, Bebo kind of stole the show.
What goes around comes around. One of Bebo’s opening acts was the David Crowder Band. All I knew about them going in was they were from Waco, Texas. I didn’t expect much. But they blew me away.

David Crowder has an unusual voice. Sometimes it reminds me some of the lead singer for Toad the Wet Sprocket, if you remember them. And sometimes it reminds me of Elvis Costello. But I find I’m really reaching. It’s different enough to grab you, but not so different as to make you uncomfortable. There, how’s that?

He has an appearance that’ll grab you and might make you uncomfortable. He has really wild hair, thick eyebrows and a goatee that’s a good three inches long. He wears glasses with the thick black frames, similar to the standard military-issue glasses. Normally I’d call them unstylish, but they look fine on him.

The band is loud. Really loud. And in addition to the expected electric and acoustic guitars (lots of ’em), bass, and drum, they frequently mix in synthesizers, samples, and violin. It’s been a long time since a band has floored me with its sound, but these guys did. All of their songs could have been about motor oil and I would have bought all their records. Since I was pretty sure I heard them mention God a few times (it was hard to tell over all that double-time clapping) I had double excuse to buy all their records. So I went to their booth at intermission and bought all their records.

The current one is called “Can You Hear Us?” It’s loud. I don’t think David Crowder’s favorite Psalm is “Be still and know I am God.” But you know how a lot of bands are an angry loud, or at least an angst-y loud? DCB is a happy loud.

It starts off fairly slow and easy and segues into loud and fast. The album roughly alternates fast and slow numbers for the duration. I think there needs to be a radio station that does nothing but play it over and over. So I guess I like it, but I can’t nail down exactly why. It’s loud and quirky and uses a lot of instruments. But just as Butt-Head knew it takes more than bears to make a video cool (even though Beavis didn’t), it takes more than volume and quirks and lots of instruments to make a record cool. I don’t know what that is but they’ve got it.

One of my favorite bands of all time is The Cars, and I think part of what I liked about them was how they mixed quirkiness with really good musicianship. I wouldn’t say DCB sounds like The Cars. But they take that formula another direction.

David Crowder got his start by recruiting college students for worship services, which led to him co-founding a church called University Baptist Church in Waco, and eventually he started writing his own songs. I don’t know about using some of the songs for a church service, at least not in Mehlville and Oakville, Missouri, but I’ll listen to it when I’m not in church, that’s for certain.

And if I’m ever in Waco, I’ll check out his church to see how they make those songs work in that setting.

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