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Computing At Chaos Manor:
February 26, 2008

The User's Column, February, 2008
Column 331, Part 3
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2008 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


As expected, Toshiba is throwing in the towel. There must be a few companies making HD DVD drives, and there are some specialized uses for them — running test disks for tuning up HD TV to look its best comes to mind — but for the most part we will see the HD DVD format vanish. Technically it was competitive, but it lost in the market wars.

There can be only one.

I'm looking into sources for Blu-ray R/W drives. So far I don't have any recommendations.

Mac Woes

Actually I have had a fairly pleasant experience with the Mac, but there have been two glitches, one possibly a problem with the Mac OS X sound driver. The symptoms are always the same: I am in World of Warcraft, there is action with sound, and suddenly the system freezes. There is a loud sound from the speaker that does not change. The ac is unresponsive to mouse, keyboard, or imprecations. The only way out is the power button: Push that and hold it for ten seconds. Count to ten, and push and hold the power button again. The Mac comes up just fine, I go back to World of Warcraft, and if my character is not dead all is well (and if he is the game plays just fine anyway). Everything works as if nothing had happened. I have experienced this three times now.

The second symptom comes after the first: the reset operation seems to break my remote connections to my Microsoft Window machines. The connections to the XP systems are restored without problems, but the connection to the Vista system took a long time and several tries to restore. I concede this is probably a Windows problem rather than OS X, but the sound glitch seems like a driver problem.

Peter Glaskowsky notes that "Many serious crashes can leave a sound chip with no new input, just repeating the contents of the current buffer, which might be random noise, thus producing a droning or screeching noise. It doesn't have to be a failure of the sound driver." He's right of course. Whatever it is, it has never happened with any Windows machine on WOW. I do wish Apple would look into it.

Two Mouse Warning

I have found that the Mighty Mouse will control my World of Warcraft characters just fine: the little center button act as if I had pressed the right and left mouse keys. It works, and I suspect I could get used to it.

On the other hand, Mac OS X doesn't at all mind having more than one mouse connected, and usually doesn't even notice, so I generally move the Microsoft Redeye mouse over to the control station when I am doing WOW.

Fair warning: if you use two mice, be sure that each is set down flatly. Don't set it on a cable, or the second mouse may be jiggled as you type, and you'll see your cursor drift in crazy ways across the screen. Setting the mouse flat on the table takes care of that.

Mac Transitions

I am accumulating Mac software. I have the new Office 2008, I am getting Adobe software, and there are a number of utilities, some free and some at reasonable costs, all recommended by readers, and I am slowly gathering them for tests.

I am also getting ready to bite the bullet and install Boot Camp, Windows XP, and then installing XP under VMware Fusion. My apologies: I had expected to do that last week, but other things intervened. I will do it Real Soon Now.

The Western Digital MY BOOK works just fine, and the Time Machine connected to the Seagate 500 GB FireWire drive is working smoothly and invisibly. I am now about as thoroughly backed up as a person can be.

Peter Glaskowsky adds: "That's the great thing about Time Machine. You really can't beat it for online backups. But offline backups-- a stack of DVD-R disks or a hard disk that usually remains unplugged-- are still better. The Sentry fire safe I bought right after CES has given me great peace of mind." See this link for more.

I also have the new Seagate Free Agent 4, a full terabyte of storage with a 5 year warranty. That's coming up.

An Old Friend Returns

I have spent more time than I like in waiting rooms last week. (For those interested, details are over on the Chaos Manor web site.) I hate wasting time, so I thought I would try doing some writing. If I were going to try doing email, I'd take a TabletPC, but I don't really want to do that, and the clinic I go to doesn't want cell phones much less wireless anyway. A TabletPC just doesn't work when I try to balance it on my lap and type. Neither, really, does a full laptop like the Lenovo T42p; it's just a bit large.

NEC MobilePro 780 sits on the Mac table with two mice
NEC MobilePro 780 sits on the Mac table with two mice

So I took the NEC MobilePro 780. It's ancient, it's monochrome, and it really works. I should look into what it has evolved into, but actually, for a small computer to carry around in a carry bag and pull out to write on once in a while, it's wonderful. It saves on a Compact Flash card (the one I have is pretty small, 80 mb, but that will hold a lot of documents; I suppose I'll get a larger one, but there's no hurry.) It runs Pocket Word, and saves in .rtf format which exports to Word 2003 just fine.

I used a Kingston USB 2.0 reader to read the MobilePro's Compact Flash card. It mounted just fine, and I was able to see the files and open them. I then saved and closed all the files, and dragged the Kingston disk image to the eject button. When I pulled the USB port out, I was told I had done something awful, and probably destroyed my files, and I should go to bed without supper. Of course it didn't tell me this for about 20 seconds, plenty of time for me to pull the USB plug.

Subsequent investigation convinces me no harm was done to the Mac, the MobilePro, or the Compact Flash card. My nerves are another matter.

Winding Down

I find I have abandoned Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa, the science fiction on line Role Playing Game (MMORPG). It has too many aspects of the clickfest shooter for me, and it's not a good solo game. I am sure some will enjoy it a lot, and in fact I liked quite a few aspects of it, but it wasn't for me. It wasn't bugs: the early glitches were all shaken out, and changing the video characteristics took out the jerkiness I had disliked: Tabula Rasa runs quite well on mid-level equipment, but there are settings that will bring all but the most powerful CPU and video boards to their knees. If you're having an unpleasant experience with Tabula Rasa, try adjusting the video settings.

The problem for me was that Tabula Rasa is sort of like World of Warcraft with guns, plus some shooter features like automatic looting by running over your fallen enemies. The quests are not unreasonable, but the WoW quests are better worked out and better integrated with the backstory than those in Tabula Rasa.

At my age I am not likely to have the reflexes of a young trooper. One of the things I liked about Star Wars Galaxies before they nuked it was that some specialties didn't need to have great reflexes. Some required insight and logic. WoW still has a place for the slower but smarter player. If there is such a role in Tabula Rasa, I didn't find it.

I am a bit unhappy with the state of games in general. The kind of game I like is one that requires strategic acumen, not the ability to outclick a computer. No one can have faster reflexes than a computer. Many modern computer games have what game designer Chris Crawford called "the illusion of winnability." That is, it wasn't hard to make the game impossible to win; what a good designer had to do was make it just possible to win, or at least to fool the player into thinking he could win.

I have always hated that concept. I prefer "the illusion of loseability"; that is, that you get to win but all along you're afraid you will lose. My point here is that it's possible to outsmart a computer; but it is not possible to have faster reflexes. If you doubt that get a one liter soda bottle, empty about half of it, balance it on one finger, and hoist it to the ceiling accelerating all the way. You may be able to do it. You may even be able to do it more or less consistently. A Z-80 chip can happily do it all day while logging every action it takes to do it. I repeat: you can outsmart a computer, but you will never beat it on reflexes.

What I want, then, is computer games that reward strategy, not speed. On a primitive level the old DOS game This Means War had the right idea: it was a "real time strategy" game complete with resource management, but with this twist, you could pause the action and give orders to every unit engaged in combat. When the action started up, your units would do what you had told them to do. That rewarded giving correct orders, not the ability to race from one part of the screen to another madly reacting to desperate situations.

After all, "real time strategy" doesn't mean real time. Even in Total War: Medieval, the "real time" battles happen in under an hour although in the real world that battle might have taken hours, or even days. What I eagerly await is a new strategy game that rewards thought, not reflexes. And on that score I eagerly await the next edition of Medieval Total War, which will allow real naval battles as well as land army battles. I have become somewhat of an expert on the Battle of Lepanto, and I look forward to a good simulation of that. For the moment, I continue to play Medieval Total War, the original not the improved version that uses the Rome engine, with scripts I have altered to make it both more fun and more realistic.

The first movie of the month was a chick flick, 27 Dresses. I have had a number of exhausting medical appointments this month, so it was the only movie we saw until a day or so ago. It's light and fluffy, and like all light comedies mostly predictable, and Katherine Heigl is just wonderful as the somewhat jaded ingénue. They don't give Oscars for roles in frothy amusements like this, but I wish they did; I'd rather see a movie like 27 Dresses than most of the "serious" works that came out last year. Apparently, so would the public.

The second movie of the month was the Spiderwick Chronicles. Niven and I wanted to see what it was like. Call it market research. It's not Narnia, but it's charming, and the young players are very good. Nick Nolte is well cast as the villain. Niven and I enjoyed it, and you will too. So will the kids.

And Enchanted is still in theaters, and if you haven't seen it, you are missing something wonderful.

The book of the month is actually the Kindle reader. I have downloaded several books for this — Amazon ought to give away the Kindle given the number of eBooks that will sell for them — and I find them all very readable. I got Margaret Truman's Murder at the Opera, Trevanian's The Loo Sanction, and Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism. Each took about 20 seconds to buy through the Kindle's wireless system.

The two mysteries are good light reading — actually Trevanian writes serious stories in the guise of thrillers, and while I don't always agree with my old friend (Trevanian is the pen name of the late Professor Rod Whitaker, whom I knew when we were both graduate students), he sure can write, and he's worth taking seriously. It's a good yarn if a bit arch in places.

Goldberg's book is an anomaly: serious students of political science shouldn't find anything here they didn't already know. Alas, I had to say "shouldn't", because a very great number of people who consider themselves serious students of political science will be shocked and astonished to discover that Fascism, Progressivism, and modern American Liberalism have many intellectual roots in common. Roosevelt's New Deal incorporated many elements of Italian Fascism, and in fact before the mid-30's many Western statesmen had admiring things to say about Fascism and about Il Duce Mussolini who made the trains run on time and brought prosperity — or its illusion — to Italy. Goldberg documents all this as well as the Jacobin roots of both Fascism and Progressivism. The notion that human life can be improved by central planning and tinkering with the legal and economic system is the common thread to them all.

Fascism lost any claim to intellectual respectability in the 30's, but this was due in large part to Stalin's change in the Party Line to form the Popular Front Against Fascism. After that, the word Fascism ceased to have any meaning beyond "Ugh, I hate it!" Most Americans today will be surprised to learn that Mussolini was not anti-Semitic, there were high ranking Jews in the Italian Fascist Party and government, and despite Roberto Benigni's movie, Jews were not sent to camps until after the fall of the Fascist government and the German occupation of Italy. There was in Italy a certain amount of anti-Semitism as there has been in many countries, but it was not the official policy of the Fascist party.

I can recommend Goldberg's book to the intellectually curious, but I do warn you that it falls between the cracks being neither a strictly scholarly work nor yet a popularization. It is readable provided that you can accept that Goldberg apologizes every few pages from fear that he will be misunderstood.

The first computer book of the month is by Jon Erickson, the last editor in chief of BYTE, and EIC of Dr. Dobbs. This is the second edition of his HACKING: the Art of Exploitation (No Starch Press). This is a heavily technical book. If you're already a subscriber to Dr. Dobbs, you probably know about it. If you're only interested in a general discussion of exploitation techniques, this is almost certainly going to be too technical for you. On the other hand, if you're a programmer; if you're concerned with how hackers exploit your systems; then this is the right book. Recommended for real code heads.

The second computer book of the month is Facebook: The Missing Manual, by E. A. Vander Veer. Like all the Pogue Press Missing Manual series, this book is exactly what it seems to be. Facebook is becoming a major tool for authors to promote their works. I haven't used it yet, partly due to sloth, but largely because I had no real idea of how to get started. This book, a decent camera, and some determination are all I need, and I intend to get into Facebook fairly soon.