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Computing At Chaos Manor:
April 3, 2008

The User's Column, April, 2008
Column 333, Part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2008 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


I thought for a while I'd have to write this on one of my XP machines; for a few hours last Sunday, networking between Macs and PC's not only entirely ceased to work, but there was an interaction that caused the PC machines not to work with each other.

Literally nothing worked. The MacBook Air couldn't see anything else. Imogene the iMac couldn't see any PC. Eventually Roberta got tired of my muttering, and said that clearly the machines were telling me to take a break. Sable, our red Husky, rather loudly suggested it was time to walk the dog. So while Roberta changed shoes, and Sable fussed at the delay, I went up stairs and shut down every machine including the Windows 2000 Server that hosts my Active Directory Chaosmanor domain. I didn't just reset them. I shut them down, PC's and Macs alike. Then we went for our walk.

When we came back I turned them on one by one, and Lo! As they came up, the networks were restored! The Macs saw the PC's. I was able to open this file, which resides on Roxanne the Core 2 Duo Vista system, over here on Imogene where I am writing this column; and it all works.

Thus I am writing this in Word 2008, which I find I prefer to previous editions of Word. It is true that I sometimes close the document, move over to Roxanne, and run Word 2004 so that I can apply some of my macros for formatting. That will continue until I am able to write those macros in AppleScript. With luck that won't take too long.

The moral of that story should be obvious. Clearly something was messed up in the name/IP Address assignments, and turning everything off forced everything to get a new lease. One presumes that doing ipconfig /release followed by ipconfig/renew for each machine would have accomplished the same result. Maybe, and maybe not. What is certain is that power cycling them worked very well.

Robert Bruce Thompson says

Given the description of the problem, it likely had nothing to do with IP, so renewing the DHCP leases on the IP addresses would have no benefit. It sounds like the problem was more likely something to do with the master browser and WINS, which is to say purely a Windows problem. After all, if your Windows machines stopped seeing each other, it probably didn't have anything to do with your OS X machines. They were just collateral damage.

While that's possible, I don't think that's the answer. The PC side of the net was working fine until I removed one Mac wireless and installed the Time Vault wireless. Alas at the same time I also tried getting to the PC net from XP in VMware on the iMac. There was a progressive failure through both the Mac and PC nets until neither was working properly.

I don't know what the cause was; but the remedy was to shut them all down and take my dog for a long walk.

Switching to the Mac

If you are contemplating changing from a PC environment to Mac OS X , your first move should be to get David Pogue's Switching to the Mac: The Missing Manual, Leopard Edition, O'Reilly . This is truly an indispensable book.

You will also want Mac OS X Leopard Edition, The Missing Manual, O' Reilly.

Between them these books provide most of the information you will need. Note they are big books, handbook size; you won't be using them for light reading. Moreover, neither was able to explain the progressive failure of my networks with cascade failure from Mac unable to see PC's to the PC's unable to see each other. On the other hand, they do tell me how to proceed when things are working, and that's important too.

Way back in the early 1980's there was a flurry of enthusiasm for the LISP language. It was very hard to learn. Those proficient in LISP used to say that you just had to keep at it, until you had "the LISP experience;" you would then be enlightened, and you'd be able to do things without thinking much about them. That never happened to me, but there were many I respected who swore it was all true.

Learning Mac OS X is a bit like that: you just have to keep doing it. You learn that the menu bar changed up at the top of the computer, not at the top of the window where you are working. You learn to use the dock, and the rather arcane file structure, and as you get used to it things not only get easier but more natural. There is a Mac Experience, and that inclines me to believe that had I kept at it long enough I might have had a LISP experience.

I won't claim to be entirely enlightened in things Mac. I certainly have not mastered all the software that comes with a Mac, much less the huge variety of third party software I look forward to. I am getting comfortable using the iMac as the main writing machine, and I don't regret the shift at all.

Brain Tumors and Hard X -Rays

About a year ago I began to develop some odd symptoms, but they were mostly joint pains. CAT and then MRI scans indicated arthritis in my neck, and treatment was largely a prescription form of Alleve, a non-steroidal inflammation reducer, and aspirin.

More symptoms developed, including problems swallowing, and then Bell's palsy: inability to control the right side of my face. Drooping right eye, and inability to close my right eye without closing both eyes (I have no problem winking my left eye). Asymmetrical smile.

And then I lost the ability to talk. That is, I spoke in a gravel voice and very hesitatingly. I could and do think in perfectly good sentences and paragraphs, but when I try to speak sometimes nothing at all happens, or else I get a hoarse whisper ... and a few ... words come out at a ... time. It sounds ghastly and it is. And it is very frustrating.

That triggered more scans of my head. Meanwhile I began to develop problems swallowing. In addition to the scans we had extensive blood work done. The result was a suspicion of a tumor, and the first suspicions of cancer.

The original suspicion was multiple melanoma that had metastasized into my head. A bone marrow biopsy and other tests and scans including whole body MRI and CAT scans showed this was not the case. I didn't have any cancer below the neck.

The head scan did find something. There was only one tumor, in the interior of my skull, in a thoroughly inoperable region near Broca's area. There was no way to know what the tumor was: benign or malignant. The neurosurgeon did not want to attempt a biopsy. Attempting it would, he said, "raise quality of life issues."

The doctors conferred, and came up with a strategy of radiation: a series of Hard X -Rays to kill this thing, whatever it is, without knowing precisely what they were killing. No one really liked the idea of treating something when they didn't know what they were treating, but when I asked what they would do if they knew precisely what it was and was told they'd likely do the radiation, it seemed pretty clear to me what ought to be done next, since the symptoms were getting worse: blurred vision, impaired balance, staggering, impaired hearing, Bell's palsy, difficulty swallowing, constant taste of brass, and very loud tinnitus (ringing in at least the right and sometimes in both ears). That couldn't go on.

The result was a month of being Zapped with the X -Rays five days a week: thirty treatments in all. Daily I would drive down to the Kaiser Sunset Treatment Center, lie on a table with my head immobilized in The Mask ( see picture ), and they would hit me with one, two, or three Zaps of Hard X -Rays. Then I'd get up and drive home.

Laid out on the table, wearing the mask...
Laid out on the table, wearing the mask...
The mask at the ready
The mask at the ready

It wasn't painful, but there were consequences, and most of that is logged over at http://www.jerrypournelle.com in the View From Chaos Manor; those interested should go look about over there, because this is not a normal topic for Chaos Manor Reviews.

The bottom line here is that I have finished the radiation treatment series, and it is now time for doing — nothing. That is, the dead tissue has to clear away, and that will take considerable time. My next appointment is in three weeks, and after that they will do more scans, and see what's left of the tumor. Then we can decide what to do next.

Meanwhile I am riding a kaleidoscope of symptoms and mood swings. This particularly applies to energy levels and what I would call initiative — perhaps even courage. That is, a theme of this column has always been "I do these silly things so you don't have to." That means I undertake tasks that may fail; take apart working systems to look at ways to improve them; take chances. The mood swings impact that: I find myself highly reluctant to do anything new or different or take chances.

Add to that swings into abysmally low energy levels so that I don't even want to get up, much less do anything useful, and the result has been delays in getting the columns out. I am a bit late with this one. You now know why.

The good news — certainly to me — is that things are getting better. The lows aren't as low and the normal periods are longer, and at the moment I am in a low period but able to override that and write.

The better news is that I don't seem to have lost all my smarts. I still can't talk, but there isn't any problem with writing. I still think in sentences. I still pretty well understand what I am reading, and when I do have conversations with smart (and arrogant) people I seem to hold my own in intellectual discussion.

The bottom line is that I seem to be coming out of all this. I do beg some indulgence in meeting deadlines. I'll try never to miss a drop dead deadline, but I can't promise even that. And the moral of the story is that if something like this happens, keep counting your blessings. It gets you through it better.

Thanks for listening to this.

New Machines and New Projects

We have all the ingredients for a new Core 2 Quad 6600 Vista Ultimate system. The goal is to set it up and install a shrink wrapped version of Vista Ultimate SP-1 and see if the problems I have had with Vista on Roxanne persist. Roxanne is a Core 2 Duo Vista Ultimate with Vista from MSDN.

MSDN is the Microsoft Developer Network and is indispensable for developing and testing Microsoft software, as well as for writing Device Drivers. It's not cheap, but those who need it need it badly. As new versions of Microsoft applications and operating systems emerge, they appear early on MSDN.

I confess I didn't always scrub Roxanne to bare metal as we transitioned from beta to release candidates; and this may be the cause for some of the problems I have had with Vista. I had hoped to get that done by today.

Our second project is to install Windows 2008 Server on a small server that will reside in the cable room and take over as host of the Chaos Manor domain from the ancient Windows 2000 system that now performs that office.

Upgrade Your MacBook Pro — Or Don't

Third is to set up and test the as yet unnamed 15' MacBook Pro. We have already upgraded that machine to 4 GB of Kingston Memory; it came with two sticks of 1 GB memory, which is the usual way Apple ships memory, so that none of the original Apple memory is aboard.

The memory upgrade was intellectually simple but mechanically more difficult than it ought to have been. Apple uses #0 Phillips screws with extraordinarily short slots; and they have driven those screws in very tightly. I actually stripped two cheap "precision" #0 screwdrivers before I got out a set of tungsten hardened precisions and got the screw loose. Once that screw was loosened, and the cover plate removed, removing the old memory and inserting the new Kingston Memory was simple as was reassembling the MacBookPro.

I had originally intended to upgrade the disk drive in the MacBook Pro, and I have a Western Digital Scorpio WD3200 laptop drive (link) which I was going to install; but research has convinced me that the task is beyond my present abilities. There are 15 of those short slot #0 precision Phillips screws, and the operation probably voids the warranty on the machine. A disk upgrade on the MacBook is fairly simple, but I decline to try it with the MacBook Pro, and I do not recommend that you try it. I am aware that a number of readers have done this with success, but none have reported it to be easily done.

Mac Pro

The final major project will be to replace both the Communications and the Writing main machines here with a dual quad Mac Pro running both Mac OS X and either XP or Vista, and possibly both, under VMware and Parallels. This will take a while.

A number of friends including Leo Laporte run their establishments with a Mac Pro loaded with memory and drives, using XP or Vista under VMware or Parallels where a PC is needed, and doing everything else in Mac OS X . Some have elaborate establishments with dual 30" screens. I contemplated such a setup, but my present vision situation requires me to sit pretty close to the screens, and I'd have to turn my head often to make use of even one 30" screen; two of them would certainly be fatiguing. My initial setup won't be twin 30" flat panels.

For those who do find 30" panels intriguing, look into Dell 30": the electronics are the same as the Apple 30" and the screens are at least $500 cheaper than Apple. The Apple screens are of course lovely and cool, but if you need two 30" you may decide to save a grand by going to Dell. It's at least worth looking into.

Speaker for the MacBook Air

Apple speakers are seldom loud enough, and generally you'll need earphones or an external speaker to listen movies or music with any Apple laptop. It was true of my PowerBook, and it's doubly true of the MacBook Air.

A good speaker to carry is the X-mini Capsule Speaker (link). It folds up into a ball that packs in an included small black bag, and takes up almost no room. It gets power from the USB port, but plugs into the earphone jack, and it was certainly loud enough when I tested the MacBook Air as a movie system.

X-mini Capsule Speaker
X-mini Capsule Speaker

The X-mini has a battery, and as long as that lasts you won't need to plug in the USB to get power. Fully charged the battery might last through a full movie, but probably not. If it fails, plugging into the USB port makes it work instantly so little has been lost.

Of course it will work with just about any laptop, but the X-mini is a pretty neat accessory to the MacBook Air. It takes up little room in the carry bag. Recommended.

D-Link Gigabit Switch

This overdue: I have had a D-Link 24-port Gigabit Switch in operation for over three years as the main collection point for all communications at Chaos Manor. Not only has it never failed, it has never given me any reason to think about it.

I have several other brands, and most of them have at least one dead port. Some have just failed. The D-Link never has.

I tend to collect brands that I can rely on. Kingston for memory. D-Link for routers and switches and wireless. And so forth. I know there are other good brands, but I can't work with all of them and when I find a brand I can rely on I stop looking.

Robert Bruce Thompson adds

I also swear by D-Link. I don't know if this is still true or not, but several years ago when I was looking into the matter, I was told by several people from D-Link, Intel, and other companies, that the two main D-Link competitors, LinkSys and Netgear, were both basically just labels that got stuck on products produced by whatever Chinese factory had made the lowest bid. D-Link, conversely, actually owned or partially owned the factories in Taiwan and China that produced their gear.

Captain Morse comments

Linksys is now owned by Cisco...all of their stuff comes with a Cisco logo proud on the fascia. They may be just branding low-ball stuff, but that's not my impression and if they are their standards for fit and finish are pretty high.

I've been using a Linksys WRT300N Wireless Access point/router and a NSLU2 NAS controller for almost a year and am happy with both.

Ron Morse

As for me, I have used Linksys as well as genuine Cisco equipment for years without problems, but given the choice I tend to choose D-Link.