Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

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

February 11, 2008

As expected, there's a lot of mail about the new Mac, which we'll get to in a bit. First an observation from Francis Hamit.

Dear Jerry:

Back in December 2006 we bought two flat screen monitors at Costco. One was a ViewSonic, which is still working fine, thank you and the other was a Princeton, which died shortly before the warranty was up. We sent it back in and were promised an immediate replacement (allowing a charge to my debit card to expedite same) which did not come. We FedExed the old one to Princeton. They were having problems, but finally, after about a month a replacement arrived. We then started having problems with Leigh's computer which was that e-machines unit rather than the one you built for us. The monitor would not start, unless replugged repeatedly. We figured it was a bad video card or power supply, but our local tech informs us those are working fine and it is the replacement monitor that is the problem. So tomorrow we are taking it back to the store.

Why did we buy this piece of crap in the first place? They had only the one ViewSonic and we didn't want to make an extra trip ( 150 miles and $35.00 in gas). This particular Princeton, like the eMachines main unit is something custom made for Costco and designed to be sold on the cheap. Lesson learned, these will cost you much more in the long run than a slightly more expensive machine from someone who actually knows something about computers.

We'll get a ViewSonic this time or cash back.

Sincerely,

Francis Hamit

I can recall when Princeton was a reliable source of monitors, and I used Princeton monitors both here at Chaos Manor and down at the beach house; but Princeton hasn't been on my recommended list for a decade or more.

I do continue to recommend ViewSonic monitors, and when I set out to buy a monitor that's generally the one I get. Having said that, here at my main workstation I have the iMac 20" for the Mac, a LaCie photon20visionII for Alexis the XP communications system, and a HP f2105 wide screen for Roxanne the Vista system that was my main writing machine until I got the iMac.

I have never had good experience with low cost consumer computers. I know many have, but I have always found that with computers you may not get what you pay for — you can always waste money — it never pays to buy by price alone. This is particularly true for authors and writers. Professionals should never buy the tools of their trade on price alone.


A comment on a report on Windows Genuine Advantage in last week's column:

Subject: "WGA ... must ... be able to reach the WGA servers at Microsoft."

Jerry,

"The WGA product-key changer application must ... be able to reach the WGA servers at Microsoft."

And therein lies the rub.

Reliability and connectivity issues notwithstanding, there's a not-so-trivial question: What will happen when Microsoft decides to *really* drop *all* support for older versions of the operating system?

My investment in Windows 2000 is increasingly looking like not only the best money I ever paid to Redmond, but the *last* I'm apt to toss their way.

For some odd reason, I am really creeped-out by the realization that a computer using a "no longer supported" OS -- one that does its job perfectly well -- will become a boat anchor should it need to have the OS reinstalled, IF the vendor has turned off the authentication servers for "no longer supported" versions.

I am not willing to place the ultimate decision to KILL my operating system in the hands of a remote vendor -- a vendor who can kill my OS, *not* by taking any active steps, but simply by no longer accepting authentication requests.

In a world where nontrivial pieces of critical banking infrastructure are still running on OS/2, because, "If it works, don't fix it," the idea of being placed in a position in which I will be *coerced* into upgrading not only my operating system, but the *hardware* too (to newer/fatter/hotter iron *needed* by the "upgraded" OS), is somehow less than compelling.

The ability to turn off my OS -- by an act of "benign neglect" (rather than via any *active* steps) -- makes my decision to *keep* using Win2K a no-brainer for me.

I think I have fairly solid "street cred" as a NON-MS-basher. Some of the stuff in my VBScript book, and my various VB articles over the years has been vociferous in *support* (and even admiration) of the company. They even put my WinCE article on the MS website for a couple of years, give or take.

But, apparently, that was then.

Granted, they *could* kill even Win2K, via a "seppuku upgrade" slipstreamed into the "Windows Update" during the last days of "support" for that version, but somehow I think *that* sort of gamesmanship would be something beyond even the most Machiavellian product manager. (Presuming, of course, that "Risk Management" maintains veto power over such things.)

Can you imagine the, ahem, repercussions, should they receive a simple message along the lines of, "We just lost a carrier group; it seems that one of the machines went down -- in the heat of battle -- and it refused to come back on line. The authentication servers refused to reactivate the "obsolete" OS that ran the fire control systems, and, well, the rest is history."

I guess that if backed into a corner, I'll take the Linux way out, even though I am NO fan of *nix. I must say, though, that I'm less than impressed by the service I've received from Ubuntu. It must be going on close to a year since I ordered their distro on CD. Their website said it might take several weeks or so, but I have concluded that it just ain't gonna arrive, period. So why even offer it, if they won't ship it? (Download is NOT an option out here in rural "modem country.")

Ron

You are not the only reader to reach that conclusion.


Last week's column commented on Microsoft's offer to buy Yahoo. Chaos Manor Advisor Robert Bruce Thompson says:

>>Moreover, there's nothing stopping Apple from developing a good word processor and office suite. Meanwhile, MAC OS is a perfectly viable alternative to Windows.

If I were Gates and Ballmer, what'd have me trembling is the fear that as the market share of OS X peaks, Jobs will start looking elsewhere for growth.

The obvious new market is running OS X on third-party Intel boxes. There have always been two arguments for not doing that; the need to support so much additional hardware and the presumed impact on sales of Apple hardware. I don't buy either of those as real roadblocks. Apple could sign a deal tomorrow with Dell or HP (or both) to sell OS X on their systems, which could use only specific hardware that OS X supports. And I doubt OS X on Dell and HP PCs would cannibalize Apple hardware sales noticeably. People who buy Apple hardware are paying a premium for the cachet, which they'd continue to do.

Peter Glaskowsky disagreed. So did Eric Pobirs, who said:

We should never forget that the guy who runs Apple today did away with licensing of the platform as one of his first acts when he returned to the company. Jobs made it very clear then and since that he has no interest in expanding the reach of Apple platforms on anything other than Apple branded hardware.

I doubt the massive regime change that would be needed to make Apple amenable to licensing is going to happen any time soon. They like having very close control of the platform and know full well that this limits market reach. This is why Mac purchasers can count on their new machine coming out of the box without massive loads of crapware pre-installed.

Eric


Last week we discussed building a router or other firewall into the motherboard of laptops or desktops. Drake Christensen who brought the subject up says:

re: Security product idea

The product that Peter Glaskowsky pointed out is mildly interesting. But, it doesn't compete well price-wise to what I had in mind. Especially since it requires an additional subscription.

As for Rick Hellewell's comments, it's very true that a firewall-on-a-chip doesn't provide complete protection. What I was proposing provides precisely the same protection as current firewall appliances. Those provide protection against the ubiquitous threat of worm attacks. A threat that Aunt Minnie's unpatched computer (any OS) can be quite vulnerable to. Building that protection into low-cost machines aimed at that market strikes me as a Good Thing. And, it doesn't hurt to put it into everyone's machine, methinks.

BTW, doesn't a secure https connection protect against man-in-the-middle attacks? Albeit, not all sites asking for passwords implement that protection.

Drake Christensen

P.S. Off-topic: My girlfriend was getting error messages from her printer about its ink cartridges. She reached the same conclusion you did. It's more cost-effective to replace the printer than to troubleshoot with a replacement ink cartridge. We saw multiple models of Lexmark printer/scanner combos that were cheaper than a color ink cartridge.

I am always loathe to trust any unsecured wireless connection with important data. Hackers are getting very sophisticated now.

And another comment:

Subject: man in the middle

I just read about the man in the middle issue and a firewall in hardware at the network interface, and an airport WiFi or similar.

I am not a hardware guy, but it strikes me that it would be fairly simple to add code that looks at who the first hop is via traceroute when one is logging on to some secure site, and at least warn the user that they may be vulnerable if the first hop is on the same segment and not ending in 1 or over 250 or so?

Warm regards, Gary

It might be simple to do, but I am not sure it has been done. We can continue this discussion next week.


Regarding the evolution of the PC and eBooks:

The Ideal World.

>>In the Mailbag, you said: 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.

My idealized answer: Mac Air upgraded to be the first Mac Tablet with a profile equivalent to a "standard" trade-sized paperback slightly undersized page-profile. This will undoubtedly require some ruggedization but may be easy given Apple's current experience with metal casing. It will have built in reader and iPhone capability (probably with the left hand side of the keyset toggled to iPhone via speaker or headset - earbug, offered at an initial cost profile (assuming debut in two years) equivalent to the current entry-level Mac Air for roughly equivalent capability.

Ability to pull up iPhone while browsing via wireless. I would accept for the initial capability accessing the tablet software functions using XP or Vista Tablet in Parallels or equivalent (probably necessary to maintain concurrent iPhone functionality).

Transportable rugged profile, take notes by hand or keyboard (as a plus, if it could be packaged with an upgraded expanding keyboard like some of the early ThinkPads had, so much the better). There might need to be some accommodation of selected iPhone functionality via external controls on the perimeter of the system chassis.

Steve and Bill, are you listening?

Jim


Two Views on the Mac:

Using The Mac PowerBook and Windows

Jerry,

I'm based in the UK and have worked with PCs and PC networks using a variety of operating systems for many years.

It was with some trepidation I bought my first Mac PowerBook about 3 years ago having seen a variety of models of different specs on display for potential purchasers to play around with at the local PC World Store.

I was amazed and intrigued at the capabilities of the new Mac OSX operating system which was just moving over to the 'Tiger' version, compared with the earlier Mac OS. Having grown up on a variety of Unix versions, the Unix roots of Mac OSX had me captivated at the possibilities for virtualisation and a host of other technologies which the Mac could potentially take benefit from.

I decided to take the plunge and purchased a 15" display model with the DVD Superdrive, 100GB HD and 1GB RAM. At that time there was a significant price premium to be paid over an equivalent spec PC Notebook, but the build quality is superb and the machine has been faultless in operation under 'Tiger' until recently when I upgraded to 'Leopard'. The machine continues to operate faultlessly although I have discovered one or two applications which seem to have slight niggles under 'Leopard' which didn't exist under 'Tiger'.

One of those applications is Open Office.org which seems to have issues remembering logon details to a Samba Server and on loading for the first time during a session, produces a timeout error in some unidentified process. Once the error box has been cleared the program loads and functions normally, but I have a growing suspicion that the error message and the printer behaviour may be linked.

On the first occasion I installed Virtual PC on the Powerbook, the machine was running 'Tiger' and the installed faultlessly as did the Windows operating system. I was then able to install the Windows version of several applications including my accounting software, all of which performed perfectly.

I found that the best method of setting up the networking was to use the shared networking option through ethernet which required the Mac installation to be using DHCP to provide its IP address.

Despite the limitation of 1GB RAM, performance is quite acceptable although I have intended to increase the installed RAM to 2GB in the near future.

Operating under the Virtual Machine environment means that I can switch easily between Mac and Windows applications on the same desktop and cut and paste information between them as the need arises.

I can access all my network drives on the several machines which run here, most of which run Linux these days, or Windows.

Virtual PC has shown no problems under 'Leopard' although I did need to reinstall it due to the disk image being altered during the upgrade.

The reinstallation was very quick and again the networking and application setup took only a short time.

I find the 'Time Machine' application provided in Leopard to be very useful for performing scheduled backups automatically without intervention to an external HD. I presently use a 300GB Maxtor HD. The application will initially perform a complete backup and thereafter an incremental backup every hour provided the drive is still connected.

The disk utility application which allows a disk image to be created to an external device is still provided and is still very useful for taking a snapshot of the drive which can be used for a restore operation in much the same way as you might use ghost on a windows machine.

I notice that you are about to embark on the Mac experience and I have very confidence that you will have a very rewarding experience. I now use the Mac daily in preference to a PC based machine. On the desktop I use Linux for most things I do with Windows used for a few specialised applications which can't be found elsewhere.

Regards,

Hugh

And an entirely different view:

Subject: Macs and My Experiences

Jerry,

This is only the second time I have felt the urge to communicate to you but, since you are about to start putting a new 20" iMac to use, I thought you might find my experiences of interest.

I am not quite 60 and have been using computers of various types and sizes for 38 years and was lucky enough to be starting in the computing field when the Intel 4004 arrived (1971 ish, I believe). I have watched with some amusement the circular conceptual path that technology has taken with respect to computing architecture. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I am pretty agnostic when discussing computers and operating systems. I am not a PC addict or a MAC addict or a Linux addict etc. but I have 1 or more of each persuasion operating at home.

Due to my perception that my XP or Vista based machines are unreliable and take a lot of time to maintain, I decided to purchase a new 24" aluminium and glass iMac with the 2.8 GHz processor and, like you, I upgraded the memory to 4GB, attached a couple of firewire drives for Time Machine and got down to using the machine.

Set up was a dream. I moved my contacts from my PC using my iPhone and I used my .Mac account to bring across my email. I made do with iWorks until Office 2008 arrived. Transferring my very large iTunes library was irritating since I wanted to move my playlists. My iTunes library is 120 GB. The official way is to back it up on the source machine and then restore on the new machine. However the back up can only be done to CD/DVD. This was the first black mark. If I abandoned the playlists, I could simply consolidate the library and copy it across the network. So I abandoned the playlists and took the easy route. It all worked and I managed to connect to the iTunes store to authorise my purchased music and TV shows.

Now came the bit that really has me beaten. iTunes will not connect to the iTunes store reliably. Now, not only is this ridiculous (my XP and Vista machines work with no issue and my other iMac and PowerBook Pro work fine) but also I had purchased this new iMac to be my media controller. I have an AppleTV and we watch all the TV shows by downloading from iTunes store. We have abandoned cable and satellite since the advertising was driving my senseless and there seemed to no alternative for someone like me who will pay for shows without advertising except via iTunes and my Apple TV. I need this machine to connect to the iTunes store and keep all my shows up to date. I think there is some dramatic irony here. An Apple machine cannot connect to an Apple site..... However a dreaded Vista machine can connect.......

What do I do now? Well I started with the forums. The problem appears to be endemic and there are more cures than you can believe, but not one of them works for me. I go to Apple's support for iTunes and they tell me exactly the same thing as the forums. I uninstall and reinstall. I beat my head. Bottom line is that after putting up with this problem for nearly 3 months I am no closer to solving the problem. It was then that I remembered one of you comments that (and I paraphrase here) "Apples either work or they are impossible or very difficult to get them to work". In other words "They just work or they just do not work". I have an example here....

What is telling about this is that using this Apple machine is as problematic as using a Windows based PC and on top of that Apple support is the same old support story you get with every manufacturer. I have emailed them, I have called them but each time they take me through the same steps and they tell me it is my network (what it is, they cannot help me with and, since my other machines work, they cannot explain why this one machine has the problem) or something else which it is not. I am now left with, wait for it - reinstall everything (this was actually suggested by Apple - heard this one before?) or take it to one of their shops and get one of their experts to look into it...... I have been building, repairing and maintaining my machines for as long as I have been able to own one (at least 30 years) and an Apple beats me.....

So my whole experiment was a waste of time and failed miserably. The machine is beautiful but it is does not work properly, and I give up. I have had this machine for 3 months and, if I could, I would return it. I hope your experiences are better. The bottom line is that the Mac is fine if it works but, if it does not, you are left where every other manufacturer leaves you, a partially working and, in this case, beautiful paperweight.

Best regards,

Dr. Peter M. Jackson

I have had no experience with iTunes although that is on my list of things I must learn.

I have run into many bewildering experiences while learning the Mac. It is not the easiest learning curve I ever encountered. However, I am determined to continue the experience, and so far no problems have been insurmountable; indeed, much of this has been pleasant.


Subject: Word processing on the Mac

Dear Dr Pournelle,

Word and Pages are not the only word processors for the Mac. Nisus was the choice of many academics for years, and they now have a ground-up rewrite using the Cocoa frameworks, Nisus Writer Pro (for some reason, Microsoft decided to stick with the legacy Carbon frameworks for Office 2008, rather than migrate to the native Cocoa). I rather like Nisus Writer Pro, although I rarely use WSIWYG word processors (any document longer than a page is formatted using LaTeX). Anyhow, you could try it out (there's a free demo):

<http://www.nisus.com/pro/>

and a review at:

http://www.maclife.com/article/nisus_writer_pro

I hope that the medics manage to sort you out so that you can enjoy Imogene properly.

Best regards,

Alun

Dr Alun J. Carr
School of Electrical, Electronic, and Mechanical Engineering
University College Dublin Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland

And my old friend Holly Lisle tells me that Scrivener is the cat's pajamas for writing. For now I am content to master the Mac and find that hard enough that I am not ready to complicate the experience by bringing in a new word processor; but stand by. Once I am confident in things Mac I'll try new editors as well.

Thanks for the kind words, and I am already enjoying Imogene...


Last week we had some difficulties with formatting. A number of readers called attention to this, but one stood out in giving some details. This letter gets technical and won't interest everyone, but if you maintain web sites it's worth reading.

Character Set Issues

This is a bit technical. You seem to have some character set issues on your February 5th column. I do not know how your web site content production works but I suspect this is a side effect of your move to the iMac.

Most of the errors are with double quoted strings. ASCII only has a simple double quote character where as various extended characters sets have different characters for beginning and ending double quotes. MS-Word automatically adjusts quotes to this style as you type.

The page is encoded UTF-8, but by default Firefox is displaying it with ISO-8859-1 (View / Character Encoding from the menu). If I force it to UTF-8 from the menu, then the page displays just fine.

There are two ways to specify the character set of a web page: 1) The HTTP Content type header 2) An HTML meta tag in the page header.

Your site is doing both, but they are in conflict. HTTP header: Content-Type: text/html; charset=ISO-8859-1

HTML Meta Tags: <meta http-equiv="content-type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-8"> <meta httpequiv="ContentType" content="text/html; charset=iso88591" />

The second meta tag is malformed (Note the missing dashes).

What is needed is to determine which character set you want to use (or is easiest in your production environment) and then make your headers consistent with that. Note: either IS0-8859-1 or UTF-8 are probably sufficient for your purposes. UTF-8 is an 8 bit encoding of UNICODE and is better if you want to support non-western alphabets. The down side was some of the Web based email programs (yahoo etc...) did not support it. This may have changed since the last time I checked.

-- Bryan White

Bryan is used to being beast of burden to other people's needs. Very sad life. Probably have very sad death. But, at least there is symmetry.

And thanks.


I had learned how to do this before I got this letter, but it does tell how to solve a problem I did have and may be of interest to new Mac adopters.

How to change Imogene's name

In case you haven't already heard, here is a method that also illustrates how helpful Mac OS X is:

Open System preferences, and in the little search box on the top right, type "computer name". You will notice that as you type it gradually narrows down the possible options until you are left with a "spotlight" on "Sharing". Click that, and the system name should be the very first option - bob's your uncle! Incidentally, this also works with the Spotlight search on the far right side of the menu bar.

On a peripherally related note, when I saw you were searching for a name, Imogene was the very first thing that popped into my head.

Monty Hayter

I did that, and the name "Imogene" now appears on the list of machines that can be seen and accessed on the Chaos Manor internal network. Thanks.