Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
January 29, 2008

The User's Column, January, 2008
Column 330, Part 2
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2008 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

There were only two segments to the column this month, largely because I have been learning more about modern medicine and medical imagery than I really wanted to know. I can't promise that it won't continue. They're trying to figure out what's going on in my head and what to do about it. My brain seems to be working, but the energy levels leave a bit to be desired.

I may have to go to two segments per month in future. It's not what I want to do, but I may have no choice. I've been turning out between 8000 and 14,000 words of column material since 1998. Prior to that I did about 6500 a month, and my BYTE contract didn't call for more when BYTE went on line, but when they cut it into weekly segments I wanted to have enough in each week so I increased the output. I think now I'll just have to cut back to 6500 words a month; and rather than chop that into tiny segments, I think I'll cut back on the number of segments, at least for the next few months. We'll see.

Newcomers to Chaos Manor

There will be plenty to write about. We have two new denizens of Chaos Manor, Imogene, a new iMac 20, and a not yet named Kindle. The name Imogene comes from Mamelukes and the Janissaries series: the lady Imogene is Rick's daughter and oldest child, who may have to get used to having a younger brother become her senior, but is both lovely and powerful in her own right.

Imogene is unpacked and sitting on her own table, but she hasn't yet been turned on because she just arrived, and there's a lot of work to be done. I'm collecting software and accessories, and rearranging the office work space so that Imogene is right at my work station: the notion is that she will become a main machine, and I'll do as much of my work as possible in the Mac OS X. The conventional wisdom among my fellow pundits seems to be that a Mac is the right system for students, Aunt Minnie, writers, those who edit video, and in general everyone except business users. Windows XP is for business. Gamers also need Windows. As to Vista, if it works for you, you'll love it, but if it starts giving you problems, "downgrade" to Windows XP, and if you're running XP and that works, do not "upgrade" to Vista.

That seems extreme, but it's not entirely out of synch with my own experiences. I like Vista. It's pretty. I particularly like the active desktop pictures – but I'm not using them any longer. Every time I put up the moonscape I like, within a week the system will crash for some reason or another, and when it comes back up the Moonscape is gone, replaced by a plain black desktop. That's stable. I have wearied of fighting with this, so I have a plain black desktop. One day I may experiment with other schemes or wallpaper or fancy toys, but I have work to do, and I'm tired of crashes.

Imogene set up and ready to run.
Imogene set up and ready to run. Coming next month...

The same goes for networking. I haven't yet tried to integrate Imogene into the Chaos Manor network, but I recall the fight I had to get the PowerBook into the net, and I can't imagine it will be easier with Imogene as a Mac OS X system. We'll see. We'll also see if I can get the PowerBook back into the network; it had a fight with Vista the last time I tried it, then Roberta borrowed the PowerBook, and it's still downstairs, looking neglected, for which I'm a bit sorry.

Anyway, that's all for next month: bringing up Imogene, and learning how to use a Mac should make some good stories.


One of my sons gave me a Kindle for Christmas, but Amazon had run out of them before he decided to do that, so it just arrived. The instructions for setting it up were pretty clear, but I did find myself getting a couple of things wrong, mostly because the Kindle is a bit slower than most of the hand held devices I have used. Not a lot slower, but enough so that I expected things to happen and reacted when they didn't. Therefore the first rule for using a Kindle: have a little patience. It works, and the instructions are correct.

Then I discovered that although the Kindle came shrink wrapped – no one had opened it en route to me – it was registered to the purchaser, and came complete with a letter from Jeff Bezos, but not to me. Of course I could not browse the Amazon eBook store. This was frustrating, because I found it easy to read the instructions that came with the machine, and in fact I was having fun with it.

Peter Glaskowsky found the instructions from Amazon on what to do: make sure the wireless connection is solid, then go to Home, Menu, Settings, select Deregister, and confirm you really want to do that. The Kindle warned me that all the books registered to that owner would be unavailable, but since there weren't any, I told it that would be just fine. Seconds later the Kindle was anonymous, free to be courted by someone else.

Now to register. I gave it my Amazon mail address and password. It immediately welcomed me, and I got a letter from Jeff Bezos, this time addressed to me. Thrilling.

I did have a bit of trouble getting my name and password into the system. The Kindle has page turning buttons on both sides, and until you're used to holding it properly it's easy to hit one of those at the wrong time. That wipes out your attempt to put in your name and password. The menu/entry system is a scroll wheel which is also a button; if you don't press it properly, it will scroll a bit as you press, and again you get the wrong choice. Finally, I didn't see the @ sign as a separate key down by the space bar, and since there are no symbols above the numbers, I thought to press the SYM key, which shows a bunch of symbols you can insert – but not the @ sign. Eventually I did see the @ key down by the space bar, and all was well.

These are minor problems, and the solution to them is to just use it.

Adding Memory

It took about 20 seconds to remove the battery cover and insert a 4 GB Kingston SD memory card. I replaced the battery cover and turned the Kindle on. It recognizes 3.7 GB on that card, which is about what I'd expect. Since it came with 180 MB, the 3.7 ought to be more than enough for a long time. Books can be kept on the SD card or in the Kindle internal memory.

I used Kingston memory because I generally use Kingston memory for everything at Chaos Manor. It always works. Memory errors are rare, but when they happen they are hard to diagnose and extremely annoying. As I have said in the past, if you buy premium memory it doesn't cost all that much more, and it's one less darned thing to worry about.

Buying a Book

I can see how one can spend a fortune on Kindle books. Before I order a real book from Amazon or get one in a book store, I have to think about where I will put it, or what book I will throw away to make room for it. Not with Kindle. It holds a lot of books just as it comes – I believe the eBook instructions say about 100 – and with the Kingston 4GB card there just isn't much limit to what I can store on there.

Once I had registered the Kindle I went to the Amazon Kindle book store. It knew who I was, and recommended some books, including a new edition of poetry by Sylvia Plath. When we were doing research for Inferno II Escape from Hell, I bought everything by Plath I could find, and a lot of works about her (including Her Husband, which is a biography of Ted Hughes). Amazon clearly remembers what books I buy.

Anyway I did find the browsing system adequate but a bit slow. I had no idea of what book I wanted, just that I wanted to buy a book I would be likely to read. I looked into non-fiction best sellers, and discovered Jonah Goldberg's newest book Liberal Fascism. I'd seen a review and thought I ought to read it, but I hadn't asked for a review copy. This is a 400 + page book, for $9.95, and seemed a perfect test case. I ordered it.

The whole thing was painless, and in under a minute I had the book through the Amazon's built in wireless system.


Kindle with protective cover.
Kindle shown with the protective cover.

It's very easy to read a book with the Kindle. You won't think that at first. The page turning bars on both sides of the Kindle are remarkably easy to hit by accident, and it's annoying to have the page turn when you didn't expect it to. At left you can see the Kindle, with the protective cover/holder, propped up for reading. A random picture appears as a screen saver when the Kindle goes on standby.

After a half hour or so, though, you don't hit those bars accidentally. And after that, it's at least as easy to read a book on the Kindle as from any paperback, and easier than reading big thick paperbacks. The Kindle lies flat on a desk or you can hold it in your hand. It can be propped up at a convenient reading angle. It can't be put into a pocket, and you certainly wouldn't want to read it in the bathtub.

On the other hand you can bookmark pages, and make notes. Using the little keyboard takes practice, but again, you can do it. I'd prefer a Tablet for making notes, but we don't have that now. We do have the Kindle.

Kindle comes with the New American Oxford Dictionary, and it's very easy to use. Simply select a line of text you're reading, invoke the dictionary, and the definitions of all the major words in that line will appear on screen. New American Oxford isn't my favorite dictionary for looking up word origins and sources, but it's good enough.

If I'd had this Kindle when I was in the Professor business I'd have asked the students submit their papers in Kindle-readable format. That way I could carry it around instead of a bag full of papers; it wouldn't be hard to use it to mark up the papers, and affix a grade. I can think of other uses.

Bottom line: The Kindle is not the system that will bring about the end of the book industry – or I don't think it will. On the other hand, it's getting us closer.

It's not a pocket computer, and it's not a telephone. In that sense it's just one more thing to carry. On the other hand, what it does do, it does quite well, surprisingly well; I am astonished at how fond of this I became after a couple of hours.

Kindle without the cover.
Kindle without the cover.

At right is the Kindle without the protective cover. You can make the text quite large; I find the default size readable.

Whether it's worth the money depends how much of your life is involved in carrying books around and reading them. I know in my case I am very glad to have it: I won't ever be caught in a waiting room without a book to read, because I am loading the Kindle up with older mysteries (priced from half a buck up) and books I always intended to read (most of those are free) and I'll have that selection with me wherever I go.

And, of course, you can use the Kindle to read newspapers and magazines. It will play recorded books, too. I haven't tried any of that yet, but stay tuned.

Video Podcasting

I now have all the equipment I need to make Video Podcasts. I have the JVC Everio GZ-MG255U 5 megapixel 30 GB hard drive camera, complete with remote control. I've played about with this camera so that I've become pretty familiar with it, and I owe you a full review. The short review is, recommended. It's a mid-price camcorder more than good enough for family pictures and semi-pro applications, including video podcasts.

I have a Vista Traveler Tripod, which is steady, and easy to set up. I have the Pinnacle Studio MovieBox Ultimate. I have the M-Audio Podcast Factory which includes an excellent microphone. Finally, I have the iMac 20.

In other words, everything I need to do real audio and video podcasts.

What I don't have, just now, is a voice: one of the reasons I've been spending time in MRI and CAT scan machines is that I can't talk very well. It's annoying. I think all right. I think I can still write pretty good. But when I try to talk, I know what I want to say but it takes a while and many hesitations to finish a sentence. I also sound as if I were Demosthenes practicing with a mouth full of gravel.

So, alas, my podcast experiments are on hold until the doctors get through pondering just what's going on, and what to do about it. I may try one next month just to show you; it would be decent documentation of "before" assuming they find a remedy so I can do an "after."

Falcon UPS Again

Sometime during the rains, a cabinet fell off the wall in the Cable Room where the routers and servers reside. The incident doesn't appear to have been rain related: the cabinet just pulled loose and fell. It must have happened when we were out of the house, because it surely made a loud clatter: the cabinet was filled with stuff, and it fell a good six feet.

In falling it knocked over the Falcon UPS boxes that protect the servers and routers and Ethernet switches. Since they had been standing on top of the servers, they fell a good three feet, landing flat on their sides. There were two UPS and a battery supplement unit. All fell, knocked head over teacups by the falling cabinet.

Incident in the Cable Room.
Incident in the Cable Room.

And that's about the end of the story. I don't know precisely when this happened, because I didn't discover it until at least a day later when I went into the cable room to find a garbage bag. When I went in, it took me a minute to comprehend what had happened. The cabinet lying on top of the fallen UPS units. I emptied it, and got it out of the room (I'll put it back up when I can get Alex over to help). I stood two of the UPS units on their feet. The third one is under the desk and it's going to take two people to pull it out.

But meanwhile, absolutely nothing has happened. The servers and routers never noticed any problems. Everything runs just fine. One more tribute to Falcon UPS.

Kingston Media Reader

Everyone makes memory reader/writers that run with USB 2.0, and I never heard of one that didn't work with Windows XP. Vista is a bit pickier: I have had at least one reader that works fine with my XP systems including the ThinkPad, but which the Vista machine just never sees.

In any event, Kingston has a new model that reads 19 different memory cards, from microSD to Memory Stick Pro and all shades in between. Vista recognizes it instantly, and I've used it to bring in the pictures from my Panasonic Lumix. Everyone needs one of these.

Winding Down

The game of the year was World of Warcraft. For me, 2007 was a disappointing year for games. I did enjoy The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion quite a bit, but interestingly the game itself was more fun without the story line, at least for me. Of the stand alone games I found myself playing Medieval: Total War (the original one based on scripts, not the new one based on the Rome engine) more than any other.

Another new game with much promise was Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa. I still have it, and I may go back to it, but probably I won't. That has a much to do with my play style as anything else: I don't have any regular hours for on line games, so I don't form any regular partnerships. I can't really schedule game playing time because when I'm writing fiction I tend to write until I run out of steam, and I sure won't quit in the middle of a streak to go log on to an on-line game. Tabula Rasa is not a great game for solo players. Even a two player partnership is far, far better than trying to solo; at least I found it so.

Consequently, World of Warcraft continues to claim my on-line gaming time, and I admit I like it better than most on-disk games.

The movies of the year were American Gangster and Enchanted. Both were thoroughly enjoyable, and if you haven't seen them, go do so. I enormously enjoyed Enchanted, which managed to do something I thought impossible, showing the same characters live and as cartoons and making them real each time.

I also note that for a seasonal movie we much enjoyed Elf. I wouldn't have thought we'd like it a second time, but it happened to be on cable one night when I wanted to vegetate, and we found ourselves again caught up in this improbable story of a human brought up as an elf at Santa's North Pole workshop, and his transition to being human again. There's a short but memorable performance by my neighbor Peter Dinklage as an author who simply loses it...

The first book of the month is My Grandfather's Son by Mr. Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Thomas's memoir is quite revealing as the story of a young rebel who became a leading conservative thinker and leader. It says a great deal about the growth of the United States as well as about Mr. Thomas and his grandfather.

The second book of the month is War World: The Battle of Sauron, by John Carr and Don Hawthorne, Pequod Press ISBN 0-937912-04-2. This handsomely bound edition has star map endpapers, and a wrap around cover painting by Alan Gutierrez. John Carr was, of course, the Senior Editor at Chaos Manor when I created the War World series; Don Hawthorne was one of the most popular contributors to the War World volumes. While The Battle of Sauron isn't quite a part of my stories of the CoDominium leading to the Empire of Man – it was written independently and I don't feel entirely bound by anything I didn't write myself – it has plausibility; and the War World series was deliberately designed to have minimum interaction with the Empire through most of its history. This is a rousing good story featuring First Rank Diettinger and his lady Althene, and the coming of the Saurons to the War World. Recommended.

The first computer book of the month is Andrew Hudson and Paul Hudson, Fedora 7 Unleashed, Sam's Publishing. This is the comprehensive guide to the Red Hat sponsored Fedora Project's Fedora 7, and serves as introduction, handbook, and guide. The included CDROM has development tools and environments as well as the usual documentation files. If you're going to work with Fedora, or are thinking about Linux distributions, you need this book. Note that Sam's also publishes the second computer book of the month, Ubuntu 7.10 Unleashed, also by Andrew and Paul Hudson. The two books give plenty of information relevant to deciding just which Linux path you want to take. A number of people including many of the regular readers of this column have switched from Microsoft to Linux. If you're even thinking about doing that, get these books.

Amateur photographers with a new digital camera they don't understand should run get the Wiley Read Less – Learn More Visual Digital Photography 3rd Edition Top 100 Tips and Tricks by Rob Sheppard. This book assumes you know nothing about photography, and rather than lecture you, shows before and after photos of things you can do. Composing pictures, setting the camera, and using PhotoShop Elements are all covered. I learned a lot from this book, including that there's a lot I don't know that I ought to. Recommended.