Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
May 26, 2008

The User's Column, May, 2008
Column 334, Part 2
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2008 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


According to my oncologist I am headed for recovery. My blood protein levels are back to normal, and the MRI shows that the mass in my head has greatly shrunk. Since it is inoperable — they don't even want to do a biopsy — it's hard to tell if it's dead or merely knocked back, and it will be a while before we can know, but the radiation treatments seem to have done what was intended. The oncologist doesn't want to see me again for a couple of months.

Most of the symptoms are gone. I don't have extreme tinnitus. I have always had hearing problems (well, since 1950) and it's hard to remember just what my hearing was like prior to getting the tumor; but hearing is definitely better than it was. My voice is a lot better. I don't have problems swallowing. Indeed, I feel pretty good, with one exception.

The exception is that I'm still recovering from the radiation itself. That means I spend a lot of time in bed. I tire out easily. We can hope that will change. Meanwhile, that's why there were only two parts to this month's column. So it goes.

iPhone Update

I have solved the problem of why the iPhone appeared to be logged on to Wi-Fi, but any attempt to access the Internet when Wi-Fi was working would fail. Safari, for instance, would fail with the message that it couldn't find the server. This was annoying, but the iPhone worked otherwise, and indeed if I turned off Wi-Fi it would access the Internet through the built-in AT&T cell phone connection.

I tried turning the phone off and back on. I tried both the Chaos Manor Wi-Fi net that works for all my Windows machines, and the Time Capsule Mac Wi-Fi server that allows the iMac and Mac Book Air to connect to the Chaos Manor network (both Mac and Windows machines). None of that would allow the iPhone to access the Internet when the iPhone was connected to Wi-Fi. Then I had a look at the Mac Book Air. It had no problems with the internal network — all my machines were visible and I routinely worked on documents physically resident on another machine — but it couldn't connect to the Internet either!

Now I knew better. I have used the Mac Book Air in a coffee shop to connect to the Internet by Wi-Fi. It worked there — why would it not work here at home? Come to that, I once had the iPhone connected to the T-Mobile Wi-Fi in the local Starbucks. Clearly there was something wrong with my internal Wi-Fi setup. It had to be Wi-Fi because the iMac connects to the Internet through a direct Ethernet connection, and that was working just fine.

Eventually I set aside some time to look at the Time Capsule configuration. The iPhone worked before I replaced the Airport with the Time Machine. I thought I had tested the iPhone after I installed the Time Machine, but I couldn't find any record in my log, so it was time to investigate (Right click on the Finder, get a New Finder Window. Applications. Utilities. Airport Utility.app). The iMac immediately detected Jerry Pournelle's Time Capsule and offered to configure it.

This is relatively straightforward, if you understand the Mac way of life. If not it can be a bit confusing. It can be done automatically, but there's also a manual setting routine. Either way, what I needed was to get to a screen entitled "Airport Utility — Jerry Pournelle's Time Capsule" with a bunch of icons across the top, one of them being Internet. Clicking on that one reveals the information you would get on a Windows machine by opening a Command Window and invoking ipconfig /all. In particular it shows the current IP address of the Time Capsule, the router address, the domain name, and the DNS Server address(es).

And there I saw the problem. The DNS Server address was wrong. To be sure, I went to a Windows machine and looked at the configuration. Sure enough, the Time Capsule was looking to a different IP address. I changed that to be the same as on Windows and saved it.

The result was that at first the Mac Book Air wouldn't access either the Internet or the other machines on the net. I had to restart the machines: if there is an equivalent to the Windows ipconfig /release followed by ipconfig /renew I don't know it. In any event restarting both the iMac and the Mac Book Air fixed that problem and once the local net was working, lo! the Mac Book Air could connect to the Internet as well. That was fixed.

The iPhone, however, was still behaving as it always did. Time to look into that. Go to the iPhone, Settings, Wi-Fi, and follow all the little right arrows at the right side of the Wi-Fi net the iPhone was using; and lo! there was the configuration information, with the wrong DNS server indicated. Change that (you do it manually with the keyboard), then log on to the network — which isn't easy, because typing in passwords on the iPhone is a pain — and the iPhone connected to the Internet just fine.

In other words, everything is working, and I presume the problem arose when I didn't do a full set of tests when I changed over from the Airport to the Time Capsule. I rather hope that's it: I'd hate to think that the DNS Server values changed spontaneously.

There are several morals to this story. One we've heard before: Macs play nice with other Macs, and if you're working with nothing but Macs the defaults will probably do the job, but when you have hybrid networking there can be problems. Second, Macs try to protect you from details. They don't give you much in the way of error messages. The iPhone appeared to be connected to the Wi-Fi net — well it was, actually — but it would never connect to the Internet and gave no clues as to why that failed. With the Mac sometimes you have to drill in and find the gory details even though the Mac never makes it obvious that you should. The Windows network setup wizard routinely shows you the IP addresses including the DNS server. The Mac protects you from that: you have to go looking.

The good news is that persistence worked: all my Wi-Fi nets are working with all my equipment including the iPhone.

DNS Blues

Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey notes that the message "I couldn't find the server" really means "I can't do DNS." DNS, for those few of you who have got this far without knowing, is "Domain Name System", a sort of telephone book that translates page names into page addresses and vice versa. Brian points out that if a system can see its gateway but still can't connect, it should be able to report that it can't see a DNS server. You would then know that the networking is good but name resolution is broken.

In a sense the iPhone and the Mac Book Air did tell me something of the sort, by showing several bars of net connectivity while being unable to connect to Internet pages by name. I suspect that if I'd fooled around with this a bit longer I would have inferred that. I could, for instance, type in the actual IP address of my home site to see if it would connect to that. If it did, I'd know the problem was resolution. (As to how to find the IP address of a web site, on a Windows machine that has full connectivity get a command line window and do Ping www.google.com or some other site. That will tell you the IP address. Now type in that number (74.125.19.103 for Google) and if you get that page on the suspect system you'll know the problem is resolution, not connectivity.

Bette

The newest computer here is a Windows Vista Ultimate machine. It's a "sweet spot" system: that is, if you examine computer component performance and price, there will almost always be an obvious point at which price goes up much faster than performance. The "sweet spot" is just below that break point.

In this case we had a Gigabyte S-Series Ultra Durable 2 GA-EP35-DS3P motherboard; Intel Core 2 Quad 6600 CPU; and Gigabyte HD 3870 Video Board.

Note that this is an Intel system. The purpose of this system was to test Vista and replace an AMD Dual system. For good or ill, in my experience AMD and Vista don't do well together.

The CPU cooler is a Blue Orb II I got at Fry's on sale. In general I don't like Intel CPU coolers much: it's not the cooler or fan that's the problem, it's the mounting system. The Blue Orb system is not only larger with more cooling power, but also has a far more secure mounting system. It's also BIG; if you are using memory with large cooling fins, it's possible that the Orb heat sink/dissipater is so large it will prevent your filling all the slots. In that case, find a smaller CPU fan system, but look to the mountings; what you want is a mounting system that has a plate to mount on the underside of the motherboard and hold the whole assembly together.

The disk drive is a Seagate 7200 160 GB Barracuda. It's a bit small, and I may use Norton Ghost (Eric recommends Acronis True Image) to clone it to a larger 7200 before I am done; disk space requirements seem to grow to fill disk capacities. Transferring to a larger boot disk is fairly simple now.

Memory is 4 GB of Kingston Hyper-X high performance memory; the Hyper-X memory runs cooler and doesn't cost enough more than the Kingston Value Ram to worry me, and in my judgment was worth it. We set this up as a 64-bit system, and it's reassuring to know that there will be no memory problems.

This was all assembled in an Antec White Sonata Plus 550 case with an Antec RP-550-2 power supply. I have found the Sonata line of cases to be excellent, quiet and easy to work with.

I'd had the components of this system for weeks but wasn't feeling up to putting it together, so I had Eric Pobirs come over to do it. Eric is an old friend and long time Chaos Manor Associate. He's also part of the team that maintains Larry Niven's systems.

Eric's report will be included in the next column. To summarize: Assembly and OS installation took about four hours. Downloading upgrades and utilities took nearly as long again. Eric installed Vista Ultimate from a shrink pack sent to me by Waggoner-Edstrom, and since we had all the proper components for doing it, installed the 64-bit version. I had intended another name, but Eric was building the system and since it was a middle performance system, he named it Bette. Computers don't like to have their names changed, so Bette this has remained.

I'm still testing this system, but my preliminary report is positive: I have had no reason to regret installing the 64-bit Vista Ultimate operating system. So far everything I have tried, including Office 2007, has run without glitches or problems. The system boots fast — much faster than my Core 2 Duo 32-bit Vista Ultimate system.

I will have a full report on this system in future when I have had a chance to try a number of different tests, but for now I have to say I like it. Vista, when it's working properly, is fun. So far my experience indicates that a Quad 6600 and lots of memory have enough performance to let Vista work properly. Microsoft has long relied on Moore's Law and constant performance improvements to bail them out. This may be another case.

We're still testing, but I have yet to give this machine a task it can't perform. The Gigabyte HD 3870 Video Board runs all the games I have and then some. Of course there are games that will overwhelm it, and at some point I'll have to document that, but it will be for testing only: I really have no need for such high frame rates.

I have loaded in some rocket performance Excel spread sheets which used to take a noticeable time to recalculate; that's essentially instantaneous on Bette. We're getting a suite of really CPU intensive tasks to run on our next machine — an Intel Extreme, about the best there is for normal human beings — and once we're done with that I'll have a go at Bette with them.

I haven't quite enough experience to give this an unqualified recommendation, but I strongly suggest that if you want to run Vista, a middler Intel Core 2 Quad 6600 will make that not merely painless but perhaps even fun.

Building Your Own System

It used to be that I always recommended that if you could do it, you should build your own desktop work station; and with the help of Robert Bruce Thompson's Building the Perfect PC almost anyone can learn to build a desktop workstation. I don't recommend that quite as strongly as I once did, but it's still a valuable option.

The advantage of building your own is that you know precisely what went into it. You don't have to worry that the manufacturer got a special on capacitors or other components, only to learn that the price was low for good reasons (and believe me that has happened in the past). You will also understand your system better.

Peter Glaskowsky points out that you don't really have much control over components — you buy motherboards and video boards as assembled units — and you're at the mercy of the manufacturer. This is true enough, but my experience has been that reputable motherboard makers use quality components.

Whether or not you will save money is debatable. You certainly won't if you're looking for low end system. You can't possibly negotiate the lowest prices for components. On the other hand, you don't want to. However, if you're building a "sweet spot" system — which is what I recommend — and you take advantage of sales from reliable suppliers, you can build a considerably more powerful system for no more than you'd pay for a completely assembled system.

Bob Thompson adds:

It's true that you can pay as much for components to build your own as you do for a mass-market consumer-grade system, but that consumer-grade system is a pile of junk: shoddy motherboard, cheap memory, underpowered junk power supply, junk monitor, etc. Even the cables are shoddy. That's why consumer-grade systems have such hideously high failure rates. Even those that don't die in the first few months typically start having severe hardware problems within a couple of years at most. If you want a fair comparison of relative costs, compare a BIY system against a business-class system.

Robert Bruce Thompson

If you build your own you can also get a more rugged system, with a better chip fan, and a more rugged case and power supply. Bette, for instance, is quite rugged, runs cool, and is the quietest system at Chaos Manor.

On CPU fans: I mentioned that Eric maintains Larry Niven's systems. They are straight Intel systems and originally employed the Intel CPU fans. One developed an intermittent problem that turned out to be caused by improper CPU fan thermal contact. The Intel CPU fan was good enough, but the mounting system isn't optimum. Better to get an Orb or some other system that holds the CPU cooling system to the motherboard with a backplate and screws. This is one thing you probably won't know if you buy an assembled system.

Here is Eric's report on that situation:

My own Core 2 Duo system has the stock Intel heat sink and fan that has held up fine but it isn't my main system since I like to keep it available for the more heavy duty jobs. Thus it hasn't got nearly as much run time as Niven's system. Although the real issue is gravity. I found the mounting posts on the Intel setup difficult to use and very easy to damage if you don't get it right the first time. Eventually, it came loose in Niven's machine and hung away from the CPU just enough to cause an overheat shutdown if the CPU usage stayed above 80% for a few minutes.

For reasons that defy explanation, the software performing weekly backups to an external drive had very high CPU usage. Thus, every week Larry's system would die. The backup app was part of an integrated Anti-virus/Anti-spyware/maintenance/backup package and I've become fed up with the whole category of product.

For backups, Acronis True Image 11 now has the job on Larry's system. My interactions with this product have all been positive to date. Seagate/Maxtor uses it as the core of the utility package bundled with their consumer hard drive kits. Bette was built with what is nowadays a dinky hard drive. If it becomes desirable to put a bigger, faster drive in place of that one, Acronis is what I'd use to perform the cloning process.

The heat sink and fan in Niven's system today is from ThermalTake, who also make the Blue Orb used in Bette. I went with a smaller, less showy model for Niven because the case has a plastic tube attached tot he side panel that provides a direct air flow channel for the CPU. It also makes a taller than stock cooling system unusable. It's primary virtue was the underplate mounting system that should keep the assembly properly in place long after some other vital component of the machine has died or the whole works hopelessly dated.

Eric

Another advantage to building your own is that you get precisely the case and power supply you want. That can be important. I have not seen any system of comparable power that runs as cool and as quiet as Bette.

All told, I know there are a number of arguments against building your own white box. Eric points out that the bad old days of bottom feeder systems are pretty well gone, and hardware failures due to bad components are not common.

Both my brother and myself deal with consumer boxes a lot in the course of our jobs but hardware failures are rarely the problem, especially after the in-store replacement period. Most of the hardware failures I do encounter are the result of mistreatment by the owners that would just as readily have killed a box with top of the line parts. People who understand the difference also tend to be more conscious of things like ventilation and clearing out the dust bunnies before they evolved into something worse. The spontaneously appearing giant monster in Cloverfield? Started as dust bunnies, I'm telling you...

Eric Pobirs

I fancy that those who build their own systems are more likely to maintain them: in particular, to remove the dust bunnies before they mutate. Overall, I still prefer Build It Yourself to assembled systems but then I generally like playing with computers. Your mileage may vary.

Intel Extreme

We have an Intel DX48BT2 motherboard and Q69770 Extreme Core 2 Quad, and I have assembled most of what I need to turn that into a very powerful system. I am still looking to acquire a video card worthy of this power.

We're getting Kingston memory, and I have both Seagate and Western Digital hard drives that will be more than suitable. I have an Antec case and power supply. Mostly what I need now is a good CPU cooling system and the energy (or enough of Eric's time) to put this together. That shouldn't take long.

The Mac World

I have an embarrass d' riches; the new Windows systems, and a plethora of really good Mac stuff. On the Mac front I have the Mac TV, which needs a high speed Ethernet connection to the room where we keep the High Def TV; and a Mac Book Pro that stares at me accusingly because it's not even properly installed yet.

I am writing this on the iMac 20, and I often carry the Mac Book Air when I go places, such as to medical waiting rooms. The Air is easy to carry and fun to work with even if it has to sit on my lap. I can't recommend it as a desktop replacement, but it's sure a convenient system to carry with you; and like cameras, the computer you have with you is the one you will use.

I'm still learning the Mac way of life — that's hardly too strong a term — and I keep having to go back and do things with Windows. Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages, their joys and their annoyances, and all I can do is rejoice that there's now some real competition in the operating system department; and that's very good for all of us.

Winding Down

The book of the month is The Cult of Mac, by Leander Kahney (No Starch Press). This book is not for everyone. If you hate Macs you'll hate this book. If you're a Mac fanatic, you probably already know about it, but if you don't, you'll love the book. For the rest of us, its utility depends on just how badly you want to understand the Mac phenomenon, and how it generates fanatics.

There's every kind of story in here. There are Mac World gathering of the clans stories. There's the story of how Steve Jobs wasn't allowed back into a Mac World because he didn't have a badge. There are Bill Gates/Steve Jobs stories, pure fiction with altered photographs, and if you don't know what slash fiction is, I won't be the one to tell you.

There are stories of Mac tattoos, modifications of the Mac including some very odd ones indeed, and a great deal more. As Steve Wozniak says on the back cover, "This book is about what it is to be a Macintosh person." If you want to know about that, this is the book.

The Computer Book of the Month is also a book for serious Mac uswers. It's The Big Book of Apple Hacks by Chris Seibold. This is a book of 131 technical tricks — hacks — for serious Mac users. They range from ways to improve the Finder to command line tricks. Anyone seriously interested in understanding and getting the most out of a Mac will find this book both interesting and profitable. Recommended.

A last minute book of the month is by my friend and neighbor Ed Begley, Jr.: Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life; Potter Press (an imprint of Crown). This is an odd book for me to recommend: readers will understand that Ed and I may be friends, but I don't agree with everything he does. On the other hand, he certainly practices what he advocates. His house is covered with solar cell panels, and now, given the rising costs of energy, he may well have broken even on his 20 year investment in getting off the power grid: indeed, his electrical meter spins backward.

There's a lot more, about rain barrels, transportation, his fence which is made from some 32,000 recycled plastic milk bottles, compost heaps, and many other ways to "live green". There are also hilarious stories by his wife Rachelle, who has nothing against green but a lot against ugly, and who starts one of her contributions by saying "Every time I leave the house, I risk coming back to some weird contraption."

If you want to know what it's like to live green, this is the book to read; it's well written, generally accurate to the best of Ed's knowledge — which is pretty good compared to most environmentalists — and good humored. I enjoyed it, and I intend to get both Ed and Rachelle to sign my copy.

The first movie of the month is Iron Man. I suppose I may have a few readers who won't like this movie, but there won't be many. Robert Downey Jr. is perfect for the role of the billionaire nerd who becomes Iron Man after he is kidnapped by a would-be Genghis Kahn. Gwyneth Paltrow is a perfect Pepper Potts, a perfect ingénue part for the 35 year old actress. (How many 35 year old mothers can find a good part as an ingénue?) As usual, Paltrow delivers a convincing performance for the character she plays; and indeed the entire cast performs very well. There's action, there's a story, there's glamor: what more do you want for the price of a movie ticket? See this one. You'll love it.

Our second movie of the month is Narnia — Prince Caspian. I am very much a C. S. Lewis fan, and this splendidly made movie follows the book quite well, with some necessary deviations to get the whole story into a two hour movie. You don't have to have seen The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to understand Prince Caspian, but it would certainly make this movie more enjoyable. The four children, who previously were adult kings and queens in Narnia before returning to be English school pupils, retain all their memories and skills from their past trip to Narnia. Susan is frighteningly competent with her bow, and Peter is a highly skilled swordsman. It's a great adventure story. There are a couple of scenes that perhaps could be cut back, but I have to think like a critic to identify them: there weren't any parts I wanted cut back.

My neighbor Peter Dinklage was as usual highly professional and utterly believable. I don't suppose it astonishes you when I say he has the part of a dwarf — although if you know Peter at all, you soon forget that he's not very tall. Dinklage has a great stage presence: his performance as a mob lawyer in the Vin Diesel Find Me Guilty is astonishingly good.

All the special effects are startlingly good. Indeed, even the centaurs are believable. New Zealand remains a wonderful place to film stories of pristine forests and streams.

If you don't like this sort of story I suppose you'll hate Prince Caspian, but since I can't understand not liking Lewis's Narnia Chronicles, I don't have a lot to say about that. Highly recommended.