Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2008 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

February 4, 2008

We have a lot of mail on many subjects this week. We begin with an observation that goes with the column I am preparing. In my column I comment on the Microsoft bid to buy Yahoo. This letter came well before that announcement, but it's relevant.

How far behind is Microsoft?

Dr. Pournelle,

If anyone is really interested in how far behind the leading edge Microsoft has become, all they need to do is look at this quick video clip. It's an amateur demo set to music showcasing the newest 3D enhanced desktop available for Linux. This one uses Gentoo but Ubuntu and others can essentially use the same effects since Beryl can be convinced to work on a wide variety of Linux distributions without too much hassle. The video shows Beryl + Compiz Fusion + Metacity on a gentoo Linux installation, with a fast NVIDIA video card and Intel core 2 duo cpu.


Microsoft and Apple used to drive this sort of thing. Apple seems to be trying, but it's almost as if Microsoft has completely lost the bubble and is hopelessly behind. The hardware capability is already there, so any excuses MS has for not having this implemented a year ago are nothing but that... lame excuses.

And yes, this is going to be the standard Linux windows look (fully customizable and it can be disabled of course) for anyone with a reasonably standard and capable 3D enhanced video card within a year or so. This is already included standard with Ubuntu and some other distributions, although users do have to enable the effects during or after installation.


Interesting. As you say, Microsoft and Apple used to drive this sort of thing, and Apple is still working at it. I haven't seen too many signs of such interest from Redmond. Microsoft seems to be evolving into yet another GE type company, willing to do anything that make money without much regard to core competence. I think they will regret that kind of evolution.

Francis Hamit is an old friend and associate. He comments on several points in last week's column:

Re: January Column Part 2

Dear Jerry:

Very informative. I'd like more details on the audio podcast set-up. Might get one myself, if we ever get a web page up. As for Kindle, it may be tranformative, but the price point is a major barrier to wide spread adoption. Putting on my Marketing Guru hat, I think Amazon will probably offer some deals in the months ahead. They've captured the sucker..er, early adopter market already, so were I in charge of that product, my next move would be to follow King Gillette's example; give away the razor and sell the blades. The original Gillete safety razor was a five dollar item at a time when that was a lot of money; a day's pay for the workers on the Ford factory production line. Gillette bundled the razor with a package of 25 blades, also worth five dollars and sold them for five dollars total, making the razor free.

Look for something similar here. The price point on Kindle will probably come down to about $250 later this year, especially if the overall economy slows, and it will be bundled with a like credit at the Kindle store. E-reader crack, in other words.

Amazon Shorts has started offering selected items there for free and the freebies now dominate the best seller list. There is some thought that the ever growing catalog of Shorts will be available on Kindle RSN. It would make sense, but your Iron Law of Bureaucracies seems very much in play at Amazon.com. People don't talk to each other very much. The rules seem to be more important to a lot of people than the results.


Francis Hamit

We can hope that the higher authorities at Amazon will pay attention. This is a critical time in the future of publishing. Amazon has a good head start, if only they will take advantage. They should study Baen Books on how to sell eBooks, and your advice on bundling books with a Kindle seems right on target.

Regarding Kindle:

Subject: Amazon Kindle

Hi, Jerry:

I note in the latest Chaos Manor that an Amazon Kindle has joined your family at Chaos Manor. I'll look forward to further commentary as you use it.

Personally, I'm not interested in a dedicated ebook reader. I need a device that does more than display ebooks, so my ebook reader was and is a Palm OS device. (A Tapwave Zodiac 2)

But the Kindle, the Sony PRS-505, and the Bookeen Cybook have certainly created a stir in the market, with eInk technology that a lot of folks find much easier to read than backlit displays on other handheld devices. The question is whether the market for dedicated readers like the Kindle and the PRS-505 is large enough to justify Amazon and Sony's continued presence. Both are big outfits that need to sell a lot to get an acceptable ROI. There's some discussion in various forums about whether the Kindle and PRS-505 will become orphans if Amazon and Sony discover there *isn't* a big enough market for them to profitably address.

One problem for ebooks in general is the lack of a standard format that everyone supports. I have five different content viewers installed on my PDA to cover all of the bases, and must remember which content is in which format viewed by which program, which is arguably nuts.

Should you have time and interest, the best site I know of for ebooks and ebook readers is http://www.mobileread.com

MobileRead has active forums devoted to all aspects of ebooks and ebook viewing devices, including the Kindle, plus a number of folks actively converting work in the public domain to finely crafted ebooks in the various popular ebook formats.


Thanks. The mobileread site looks very interesting. I'm still collecting information on ebook readers. I have now carried the Kindle to many places, and it has been very handy; I can have a non-fiction book, Margaret Truman's Murder at the Opera, and a Trevanian novel, and read according to whim.

I'm pretty sure that Kindle isn't the last word in portable readers, and I am not at all sure I'd have paid for it — it was a gift from my son Frank — but it's sure Good Enough for reading and I am gad to have it.

Another letter on Kindle and eBooks:

I haven't seen the Kindle live yet but I have to say that I find the Sony e-reader to be a nicer package. I don't need a keyboard to read and the Kindle just seems big to me. That and the lack of native PDF support is a little annoying at best. On the plus side it has does have wireless and runs Linux. Part of me would love to get a Kindle and see what new features I could add. If it just had bluetooth so you could hook it up to a GPS imagine how handy it could be with Google Earth running on it :)

Have you have seen the Asus EEEPC notebook yet. They are small, light and runs Linux. They "only" have two to eight gigabytes of flash built in but you can add an SD card and it has USB ports so you could use a portable hard drive if you really wanted to have access to massive amounts of storage for music and videos. I think people forget that even two gigabytes is a lot of data. It also has WiFi so if you can find a hotspot you have internet access. Of course there is also a large hackers community that have added more USB ports, GPS, Bluetooth, and even FM transmitters to the thing. It really looks like a real replacement for the old and loved Tandy 100 from so long ago.


I have not done it myself but I am told that converting pdf files that have no DRM is very easy. I'll try it soon enough, probably using the Mac.


In Mailbag -- January 14, 2008, Peter Glaskowsky, commenting on the Lippmann color process, said:

I'm very impressed by this invention. I'd never heard of it. I'm all distracted right now wondering if it's possible to achieve a similar effect with digital photography.

It looks like there now is -- at least, partially: It's limited to three additive primaries, and, output-only devices, no capture equivalents.

It's the Qualcomm imod / mirasol display. Instead of using color phosphors/emitters/filters, it uses interference artifacts produced by differing the depth of the pixel cells. (I guess it's remotely similar to the Foveon sensor, only in that both systems work via the wavelength/depth relationship, but both of these systems remain limited to a finite number of discrete colors, unlike Lippmann's truly analog color gamut.)

This is a reflected-light image medium, like Lippmann's images.

Some starting points:




"mirasol ™ displays work by reflecting light so that specific wavelengths interfere with each other to create pure, vivid colors."


Photos: http://www.michi-kogaku.com/picsdir

Thanks. Interesting...

Security product idea

I've never used a public Wi-Fi hotspot. I've always been concerned about any other machines within that hotspot. They don't even have to be run by malicious users. They could just be infected with a worm that goes looking for other machines on the LAN.

My idea is: Why not build a firewall into the wireless adapter/chip? In fact, why not position the firewall behind both the wireless and the wired network connections? With today's integration that means putting that functionality on the motherboard.

It shouldn't be very expensive. If a router appliance can be sold for $30 then the increase in the retail price of putting it in the computer should be less.

It wouldn't require a new administrative interface. It would be set up so that as far as the OS is concerned the firewall is an external device. It would be administered via a browser, like a router appliance.

That way, the OS on the computer is never fully exposed to the outside world. It would make everyone's computer automagically more secure. And it would make signing on to public networks more a reasonable thing to do.

I'm surprised it hasn't already been done. Am I missing something?

Drake Christensen

I put this question to the advisors. Peter Glaskowsky says:

This firewall-on-a-chip idea is very old, but it's a good idea and I'm also surprised it hasn't been done by a system OEM.

However, it has been done by a smaller company as a USB plugin gizmo. Not quite as good because the traffic still gets to spend a few microseconds in your computer before it hits the firewall, but it seems to be an improvement over the usual software firewall.

I have no personal experience with this, though.




. png

Security expert Rick Hellewell adds this warning:

Dr. Pournelle:

A "firewall on a chip" will not protect you from a 'man in the middle' hack. That's where you sit in a wireless hot spot, log in, and wander through the 'net. The problem is that your log in was to the hacker off in the corner, who presented you with the login page and passes your traffic through to the net.

The hacker captures all of your traffic (sort of like eavesdropping), hoping to catch your user/password as you log into your bank's web site to check your balances or pay bills. Or as you go to Amazon to order a book, paying with your credit card. All of your traffic is captured: your bank login, your credit card info, etc.

It will not protect the user who surfs to a page that asks to install a bit of software to view the latest humorous video. Or the user who will click on an email link to get their e-card, which installs a virus or keystroke logger.

A firewall on your computer is better (the Windows firewall is better than nothing). The firewall will protect from external scans and attacks. But it won't protect against unsafe computing practices by the user.

The ultimate firewall is the one that is between your ears working in conjunction with following the safe computing practices I've mentioned before.

Regards, Rick Hellewell

I continue to get mail about the proposed ban on Edison incandescent light bulbs.

Subject: fluorescent ratings

Dr Pournelle

Discussion in your Review column of the ban on incandescent lights brings up a question that's been bugging me for years: How is the incandescent equivalence of a fluorescent light derived, anyhow? When I buy a compact fluorescent the packaging says something like, "power consumption 15w -- equivalent to 60w incandescent." The factor is at least 4x, and sometimes more. Yet to my admittedly inexact eye, a 15w fluorescent seems only to give about as much light as a 40w incandescent, if that. The multiplier seems more like 2-1/2x to 3x than 4x. Years ago, when fluorescents were much more expensive, I tried replacing some of the incandescent lights in my home with equivalent-rated fluorescents. The results were so disappointing that I was reluctant to buy more of them. Now the price has come down, experience has taught me to replace 60w incandescents with 26w (100w-rated) fluorescents. I'm still using less electricity, just not as much less as claimed. I don't replace 75w or 100w incandescents with fluorescents, because I haven't found any compact fluorescents with higher power than about 26w.

I've been wondering how the equivalence is measured. I know there's a component of ultraviolet in the output of a fluorescent which is invisible to the human eye. Is this what throws off the measurement? Or is it all just hype?

Edwin Frobisher

What we call "Progress" is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance. — Havelock Ellis (1859 - 1939)

I don't know how the equivalence is measured. GE 6800 Sunlight fluorescent bulbs give off a good reading light with decent color contrast, but sometimes you just want a standard GE 100 Watt bulb.

I have mentioned problems with Vista being able to see a computer on my network but being unable to connect to it.

Subject: PCs interconnecting with each other

[article link]

Happened across this article by chance, remembered you've had this issue before, not sure if you fixed your problems or did a workaround. But this looks like a solid fix for the situation where PC A can connect to PC B but not vice versa.



Joe Zeff adds:

I've mentioned this issue of yours in a Slashdot discussion (Slashdot link) and got an interesting suggestion: next time Vista can't see a machine, or won't connect to one it does, see what happens when you use the IP address instead of the machine name. If that works, it at least tells us where the issue is.

Joe Zeff
The only problem with trouble-shooting is that sometimes trouble shoots back.
http://www.zeff.us http://lasfs.info

In my case the problem was temporary. I did nothing at all and after an hour or so, Vista was able to both see the other machines and connect to them. XP establishes connections nearly instantly, but apparently Vista takes its own sweet time. It does, eventually, connect though.

Subject: Edward Tufte on the iPhone interface


My reaction to the iPhone is that is a device as revolutionary as the Macintosh of 1984 in terms of user interface. It is the first device to seriously address the question of how you do a decent UI on a gadget smaller than a truly type-able QWERTY keyboard. See Edward Tufte's ("Visual Display of Quantitative Information" author, amongst others) take on the iPhone. He praises where praise is due and makes concise and useful criticism in areas of deficiency.


BTW, Tufte does a traveling road show lecturing on how to effectively use graphics to make a point and convey information. Highly recommended. His satire on Powerpoint alone is worth the price of admission.


I have a framed copy of Tufte's masterwork on the Napoleonic invasion of Russia on my wall.

I tend to agree that the iPhone will evolve as will the Kindle and other eBook readers — as will the TabletPC. The three will converge. The only real question to me is when.

Subject: JungleDisk

Someone mentioned Carbonite, and you said (accurately):

As with any Internet backup storage system, the problem is not the technology. That's quite well known. However, you must have confidence that the company will still be there when you need to recover your data and programs.

If you start looking at network storage, I recommend you take a look at JungleDisk, which runs on top of Amazon's S3 infrastructure. If Amazon goes away, it means that the Internet (and the U.S. economy) has experienced a catastrophic event so terrible that I no longer *care* about my backups. Or, possibly, about breathing. :-)

Check them out at http://www.jungledisk.com/compare.shtml.



Stephen Fleming
Chief Commercialization Officer
Georgia Tech

Thanks. I guess Amazon is very stable indeed.

Continuing the energy discussion, I said:

>> As to ethanol and hydrogen, both may be useful as power distribution systems, but there are no ethanol, or methanol, or hydrogen wells; they aren't energy sources. <<

Robert Bruce Thompson notes:

Well, hydrogen is merely a means of storing energy produced from electricity, but alcohols are in fact primary energy sources, or could be. It's true that current ethanol production actually requires more energy input than the ethanol contains, but alcohols can be produced with methods that yield much higher energy outputs than the required inputs.

When you burn a log in your fireplace, you're doing direct conversion of the solar energy captured by the tree into heat energy. It's merely one more step to use that heat energy for destructive distillation of wood scrap and other cellulosic material into methanol. Of course, there are alternatives already available or on the near horizon, such as using engineered microbes to do the conversion.

And it's worth noting that we don't have any gasoline or fuel oil wells, either. Petroleum is just the raw material from which these fuels are produced.

Robert Bruce Thompson

Peter Glaskowsky adds:

I think the point was that the sun is the primary energy source here.

A field of corn or switchgrass or whatever is really just a solar panel; it converts sunlight to a more valuable form of energy.

. png

Actually, my point was that corn, which is the main source of ethanol fuel, is grown with fertilizers that take a lot of energy to produce.

It's certainly possible to come up with biowaste fermentation schemes that don't eat fertilizers, and which reduce the amount of landfill while providing energy that can be used to fuel trash burners and other devices to turn biowaste into inputs for fermentation tanks. I discussed this 30 years ago in A Step Farther Out (available to Subscribers in the closed section of Chaos Manor Reviews).

It is certainly the case that plants collect sunlight in order to grow; but most foodstuffs today consume both water and fertilizers, and often providing those takes a lot of energy. The TVA originated when the War Department needed a nitrogen fixing plant to make nitrates for making artillery propellants, and caused the dam and power plant to be built at Muscle Shoals. TVA was allowed to sell "surplus" power not needed by the War Department. Over time the generation of "surplus" power became its main function.

Nitrates make good fertilizer as well as explosives. The energy released by the explosion had to come from somewhere.

Subject: interesting hard drive docking station

Dr. Pournelle,

The device you always wanted but didn't realize it... A docking station for all those extra hard drives every computer geek seems to have lying around.


This one is SATA only, and I'm not sure there is an IDE version because plugging/unplugging IDE drives requires a more complex power-down sequence than SATA.

Price will be important... As you have pointed out before, there are plenty of USB drive dongles that just use cables and they're cheap. But this looks like it's actually supposed to be on your desk and you don't have to worry about where to place the drive so it doesn't short out on that screwdriver or ballpoint pen you have next to your monitor.

I don't have one and can't seem to find a retailer that has them, but I'm considering hunting one down.


Let me know if you get one. It does look interesting.

We have a lot of mail giving me tips on what to do with my new iMac 20, and we'll start with that next week.