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Computing At Chaos Manor:
June 9, 2008

The User's Column, June, 2008
Column 335, Part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2008 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


Schedule Change Announcement

This column was originally a monthly column of 5500 words in the print edition of Byte Magazine. When Byte changed from print to Internet publishing, I continued to send in the column monthly with a deadline of the first business day after the 7th of each month, and the editors broke it into weekly segments. I didn't think that worked well: the segments were too short, so I began writing much longer monthly columns, and when I didn't like that result, I began sending in the columns weekly.

Meanwhile my agreement with the overseas editions was to send in about 5500 words by the first business day after the 7th. In practice this meant that I put together the first two weekly columns, added "Winding Down", and sent it on the night of the 7th of the month; then when I did the other weekly columns I sent those along to Japan and Istanbul, etc., as a courtesy.

I am doing more fiction now, and I find I can't keep up the weekly schedule. In future I will do a first column of at least 5500 words (this one is considerably longer) plus "Winding Down" to be completed by the 7th of each month. That will be posted soon after the 7th. I will do one more column, of no fixed length, before the end of the month. In addition I will do the Mailbag segments as needed, which in practice probably means every other week.

This is the first column done under the new schedule.

iPhone

A fairly well supported rumor is that Steve Jobs will announce the iPhone 2 at the Worldwide Developers Conference Monday June 9. It's also pretty certain that there will be announcements of a number of applications for the first iPhone. My friend Phil Tharp finds that the iPhone SDK (http://developer.apple.com/iphone/program/) released in March is quite complete, and a number of developers have been busily converting the iPhone from a smart phone to the pocket computer it can be.

I have a list of those, and I'll be trying them out when I get a chance. Of course some of them may be incorporated into the iPhone 2; but it's pretty astonishing what the iPhone (1) can be taught to do. I suppose that at some point I'll have to get an iPhone 2, but I'm in no hurry: first I want to see my iPhone realize some of its potential. As an example: I am told that the iPhone 2 will have a GPS. While that would be nice, I am not sure we need one. With a few exceptions, I have found that my iPhone can find itself within a minute or so from cell tower reception, and the locations it shows me are always within a hundred yards of where I really am. I charge my iPhone every night, and it always has half a charge left when I do it; adding new features often cuts battery life.

I'll be very interested in the new iPhone 2; my experience with the iPhone 1 has made me appreciate the pocket computers I described in The Mote in God's Eye back in 1972 — but my advice is that you wait to see what the geniuses have done with the iPhone 1 SDK before you rush to buy the 2. "Be not the first by whom the new is tried, nor yet the last to cast the old aside," remains good advice.

Peter Glaskowsky tells me he will buy an iPhone 2 as soon as they're available. I can remember when I would have done that too.

Handsfree

Meanwhile, as of July 1 it will no longer be legal to use a hand held cell phone while driving in California. (For teenagers it's even more severe: no cell phones or texting devices of any kind while driving in California.)

I do not normally use any kind of headset with my iPhone. I have found that the iPhone with the Griffin ClearBoost case (http://www.griffintechnology.com/products/clearboost) works quite well as a cell phone. The ClearBoost case not only protects the iPhone while giving it another bar of AT&T signal, it also makes the phone easier to handle. The little antenna extension is a convenient way to pull the iPhone out of my shirt pocket, while the rubberized backing makes for enough friction to keep the phone from sliding out when I bend over. Highly recommended. But of course I will now have to get a headset.

I have several Bluetooth headsets that work with the iPhone, and I don't really use any of them. Of the lot, if I had to use one I'd choose the Plantronics Windsmart Bluetooth Headset Voyager series. I have a 510, and the noise cancelling feature works very well. My hearing is awful but I can hear on the 510 just fine, and people tell me they can understand me when I talk. It's also easy enough to put on and take off, and while I know it's there, it's not really uncomfortable to wear. If you like Bluetooth headsets, I recommend that you look into the Plantronics line.

I have two objections to Bluetooth headsets. First, I think even the most handsome of them is ugly. I confess that when they first came out and were still rare, I thought I looked cool wearing a headset with a flashing blue light that told the world I was in communications wherever I went. I think that feeling lasted about two days. Then I saw other people wearing them and realized that they didn't just look geeky — I am a geek and I don't mind being taken for one — but, well, more like geek theater than real geek. It occurred to me that a real geek didn't need to advertise.

My second objection is that it's hard to keep the darned things charged. I suppose that wouldn't be a problem if I wore the headset all the time, or even carried it in a pocket — and that presents a problem, because it's hard to know where to carry one safely, and while getting the Plantronics (or any Bluetooth headset) on and off isn't all that difficult, it still has to be done when the phone rings, and when you're in a hurry it gets awkward, at least for me. The bottom line is that I generally don't carry the headset with me — and while they hold a charge for a week or so, if left in the car, I have more than once found that its battery died just when I needed it.

My iPhone came with earbuds, and they work, but I certainly don't like them; and besides, wearing both is illegal for driving in California. Wearing one and leaving one dangle doesn't look like a great idea.

My recommended solution to the car headset problem is to get a decent one-ear corded (wired) headset. You can find good cheap headsets at Radio Shack or nearly any electronics store. You may want one of the modern headsets that look like Bluetooth sets with cords, in which case have a look at the Plantronics web site; their noise cancellation is good and worth having. I prefer a regular old one-ear set with a headband, but then I've been using those as an auxiliary to my telephone for years.

Whatever you do, if you're in California or coming here, if you're going to use a cell phone while driving, you should get a headset before July.

IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad Technical Support

The IBM/Lenovo technical support system is wonderful. Orlando, my ThinkPad t42p died last month. The symptoms were weird, having to do with what was happening on screen. The displays were dim, and if I brightened them they went dim again. I could use an external monitor just fine, but after a few minutes the display on the ThinkPad's screen would vanish. I could change the video settings and things would be all right for a few minutes, but soon enough the ThinkPad's screen would dim out again.

It was all very frustrating. I was trying to work on that problem when Orlando refused to boot with the message that the hard disk wasn't found. A look in the BIOS showed that it didn't see a hard drive. Clearly the hard disk was dead.

Long time readers may recall that this was not Orlando's original hard drive: it was a Toshiba I bought from New Egg and installed myself. (That turned out to be very easy to do.) I then transferred everything including the Windows XP operating system and all my applications and files with Norton Save and Restore. After that I periodically used Norton Save and Restore for backups to an external hard drive.

I could, I suppose, have installed a new hard drive and used Norton to set it up from a backup. I would have done that, except that I had been having those other troubles with Orlando before the disk drive died, and I was worried that they might start again. Of course it was also possible that the problems had to do with the hard drive: I don't know where the video settings are stored. Had I been feeling a good bit better I would have tried installing a new disk and doing the Norton Restore just to see what happened — I do a lot of silly things so you don't have to — but I really wasn't feeling up to it. Given all of Orlando's problems it didn't seem unreasonable to let the IBM experts take care of it.

Orlando is of the last generation of IBM ThinkPads before the company was sold to Lenovo, so the first step was to Google IBM Tech Support. Going to that site and choosing laptops got me transferred to Lenovo Technical Support. I fed in the ThinkPad "type number" and serial number (both are shown on the bottom of the computer), and found that my warranty was still in force and would be until June 30, 2008; so all this happened just in time. This would clearly be my last warranty service...

I also found my first surprise: it may be that the tech support telephone number (800-426-7378) is somewhere on the Lenovo site, but I sure couldn't find it. Fortunately, I had that in my log books from the last time Orlando had to go off to Atlanta. I called the number, got a very pleasant young American — male this time — who listened to my problems, asked for Orlando's Type and Serial Number, and instantly offered to send me a new hard drive. I thought on that for a second and declined: I really wanted to be sure Orlando was in good shape, and he'd been giving me those video problems before the drive failed. I wanted the resident geniuses at IBM/Lenovo to look at him while he was still in warranty.

That wasn't a problem. He'd send me a box with instructions. The box came the next day, the instructions were complete, and all I had to do was pack up Orlando and either call DHL to pick him up, or take him to a DHL pickup station. Since there's a pickup station about a block from here and I had errands anyway, I did that latter. This was on a Thursday.

The following Tuesday DHL tried to deliver Orlando but no one answered the door. Possibly we were out for our walk. On Wednesday they tried again and this time I was here, and yes, under warranty, they had replaced with a new drive the disk drive I had installed myself.

Once I got him unpacked it took about five minutes to get Orlando up and running again.

Setup or Restoration

Well, up and running after a fashion. The operating system was XP, and I had to activate it. No problem with that. After that came restoring Orlando to our local network, setting up my user account, and registering my fingerprint for logging on. That was followed by a perfect orgy of downloaded updates.

At this point I had two options. I could get out Norton Save and Restore and use that, or I could get busy and reinstall applications.

Decision factors: Like most computers Orlando has over the years got cluttered up with lots of stuff no longer needed. Laptops tend to do that, and it slows them terribly. Moreover, while installing everything new was likely to be tedious, on reflection there weren't all that many applications that actually had to be installed. Much of what I wanted could be copied from another computer: Norton Commander (which I find indispensable and is the first thing I put on any new computer) and Golden Bow's VOPT defragmenter, another indispensable, can both be copied over. So can almost everything I use.

Everything but Office. That has to be installed. So will OneNote, if I decide to install that, and I probably will. I can use Word to collect notes, but OneNote is more versatile. Orlando will need FrontPage. I know there is a far more modern system for building and maintaining web pages, but my View from Chaos Manor (www.jerrypournelle.com) has always used FrontPage and I see no reason to change. Good Enough is Good Enough.

There are probably other indispensable applications, but I will probably have them on the Mac Book Air, and that always goes with me now. Orlando used to be the main transportation laptop, and will still be important, but the Mac Book Air is usually "the computer I have with me".

Which Office?

After a bit of dithering I decided on reinstallation. That went well enough until it was time to install Office. Then came the question, Which Office?

Before his collapse, Orlando had Office 2003 Professional. One reason I decided on reinstallation rather than restoration from Norton Save and Restore was that I thought I would install Office 2007; but when it came time to do that, I realized I didn't want to. I don't like Office 2007. In particular, I don't like Word 2007. Come to that, I am not sure I like Word 2008 (for the Mac) either. Microsoft has "improved" Word to make it less useful, at least to an author like me.

There are several reasons I don't like Word 2007. The new ribbon and tool bars are not the killer factor: while they take getting used to, they are in fact more logical than the haphazard old arrangements in earlier editions of Word. The decision to bite the bullet and organize the menu in a more orderly manner was a good one. The implementation left something to be desired, and the new help files need a lot of work, but that part of Word 2007 is mostly on the right track, and once you learn the new organization it's fairly logical. I have other minor objections to Word 2007 "features" but I could live with them.

Then I discovered something odd about Word 2007 and special dictionaries.

Microsoft Word 2003 has the capability of accepting multiple special dictionaries for spell checking. Every instance of Word has an unchangeable main dictionary and the default special dictionary, custom.dic. When you encounter a word not in the main dictionary, you can add it to the custom dictionary, and for most people and most purposes that is the right thing to do. Over time custom.dic accumulates your name, the names of people you know, and so forth. It also accumulates product names, new words added to the language since the main dictionary was compiled, and specialized terms and technologies that you use. This is just fine.

Novelists have a slightly different problem. The problem is acute when you write science fiction. We tend to use words that no one else will ever use — and neither will we for most of what we write. As an example, in my Janissaries series I have a number of odd names for people and places and titles, as for instance, Wanax Ganton of Drantos (Wanax roughly means King). Wanax Ganton appears in many scenes, and it would drive me crazy to have Word's little wavy red lines everywhere. The solution to that is to add his name and title to a dictionary; but which dictionary? I don't really need them in custom.dic, because it's not likely that Wanax Ganton of Drantos will ever appear anywhere but in a novel I am writing. Moreover, many novels will have characters who speak in dialect; that is often indicated by deliberately misspelling word. I sure don't want those misspelled words in custom.dic.

The solution is simple. Suppose my current Janissaries novel is Mamelukes. I then create the text file mamelukes.dic in the same folder in which I keep mamelukes.doc, and make that the default dictionary. I can then import janissaries.dic into mamelukes.dic and all's well. Alternatively, I could copy janissaries.dic, and rename it to mamelukes.dic. I make that the default dictionary and collect weird names and deliberate misspellings into it. When I'm working on a different project I remove mameluke.dic from the list of custom dictionaries.

And, indeed, that has been my practice for years: every major work has its own dictionary. If I am working with someone else — Larry Niven, for instance — when I give him the latest copy of the work I can also pass along the dictionary for that work.

The problem is that Word 2007 and Word 2008 do things in a somewhat different way from Word 2003, and neither has a HELP file that is much help. My first problem was that it took a while to find out how to add a dictionary at all.

At this point I have a confession: apparently I haven't really got used to the World Wide Web. When I want to know something about a program, I try the manual. Well, most programs no longer have manuals. Then I try help files, which clearly illustrates the triumph of optimism over experience: few programs have decent help files. Then I look at third party books, such as the O'Reilly "Missing Manual" series. If none of those do the job, I tend to give up.

That, of course, is silly.

For instance, I wanted to see how to add a special dictionary to the Mamelukes file on Word 2008 on the iMac. I tried the help file — well, it was the only help file visible at the time — and of course since it was the Microsoft Word help file I got nothing useful at all. As it happens, Dan Spisak called while I was doing this, and I mentioned the problem. He said, "Wait a moment." Then in about thirty seconds he told me what to do.

"All right, how did you find that?" I demanded.

"Well, I have this thing called Google..."

Dan has a rule. If a program doesn't cost many thousands of dollars, he assumes the Help files will be useless, but if it's a popular program you may well find out how to do what you want by going on line and using Google. That certainly turned out to be the case here.

In any event, I was able to add mamelukes.dic to the Word 2008 custom dictionaries list. It turns out to be quite similar to the way Word 2003 does it, except that you have to start with Word > Preferences and drill into Spelling and Grammar. You can then put the dictionary into a Microsoft Applications folder, or in the folder where you keep your text files. It's not really all that difficult once you figure out how to use it, and it's consistent with the Mac Way Of Life. If Word 2008 understood macros I'd have no difficulty choosing Word 2008 as my main writing editor.

Adding custom dictionaries was more complicated with Word 2007 for Windows. First, you have to know where to look: that turns out to start with the "Office" Button, then a small button at the bottom called "Word Options" then Proofing. It then looks as if it's similar to Word 2003, but when you try to add a dictionary like mamelukes.doc you get an error message: "Files without Unicode encoding cannot be added to the dictionary list. Save the file as a Unicode file to add it to the dictionary list."

Of course it gave no hint as to how one might save a dictionary file as a Unicode File, nor indeed any clue as to what a Unicode File might be, or why one would ever want a Unicode file on one's computer. Naturally I opened the .dic text file in Word and did "Save As," expecting to be given a "Unicode" option, but of course there was no such option. Word 2007 (Windows) expects me to figure this nonsense out for myself.

A quick Google on "Unicode files" produced nothing immediately helpful. I gather that converting a text file to Unicode inserts some header material, and Unicode files are said to be twice as large as the originals from which they were made. Since I already knew that Word 2008 (Mac OS X) and Word 2003 (Windows) were compatible for both documents and text dictionaries, and it was unlikely that either would be able to eat Unicode files, I didn't need to know more.

It was at this point I decided I was done with Office 2007. Office 2008 will import text dictionary files — they can be stored in the "Office 2008" folder or in the folder where you keep the main document — and I have already done enough work using the Mac Book Air and the iMac 20 to know I can use Word 2008 to write books. I can make my living with 2008 on the Mac. Or most of my living.

Alas, in addition to my novels, I have to write these columns. That involves moving information from one place to another, and sources like mail contain a lot of different formats. To change those into formats I can work with, I have built a number of Word 2003 macros. They work very well to, for instance, remove the space between carriage returns in documents written by people who do "<return> <space> <return>" when they write. (Don't ask me why they would do that; but I get a number of documents done that way.) There are other macros to deal intelligently with line feed characters and other peculiarities.

Office 2008 for the Mac won't run any of the macros I have built up over the years, and since I still have to format mail and other documents I'll have to keep a copy of Word 2003 and a Windows computer to do that. Of course the Windows computer can be a VMware virtual Windows XP machine on the iMac. That's going to take some getting used to, and in my present state I am not quite up to changing over to the Mac system and having done with it; but the temptation grows every time I have to fight Windows again.

Back to Office 2003

Since I haven't yet gone over to Mac OS X — I still use Outlook, and will until I am certain that the Mac can manage all my complex email streams and rules — I need both fixed and portable Windows systems. Orlando the T42p ThinkPad is my preferred portable, and will hold that position at least until the Mac Book Pro is set up properly to include a virtual Windows machine.

I found the original copy of Office 2003 Professional that had been installed on Orlando. The installation went perfectly. When it came time to activate I had anticipated a problem, but in fact the activation went flawlessly: apparently Windows Genuine Disadvantage or whatever mechanism Microsoft uses to police Office installations doesn't believe that replacing the hard drive on a ThinkPad makes it a different machine. I am pleased to find that out.

ClearType

After I installed Office 2003 I moved all my document files, including Mamelukes, over to the ThinkPad, and next afternoon I carried him upstairs to the Monk's Cell.

Regular readers will know that the Monk's Cell is my son Alex's old room. It contains some book shelves with books relevant to my fiction, plus some ancient high school texts, and no others. There is no telephone, and it is in the back of the house where I will not hear the doorbell. The door is thick and the lock stiff enough that the dog can't open it (she knows what doorknobs are for). There are no games available. For a long time I resisted Internet connections in the Monk's Cell, but the T42p's built-in wireless connects flawlessly to the Belkin pre-N wireless router (we have a Belkin "N" wireless router and one day I'll get around to replacing the pre-N, but the pre-N has worked flawlessly for years, extending wireless coverage all over Chaos Manor, so if it ain't broke why fix it? Meanwhile, let me recommend Belkin wireless routers). At first I was horrified to find I had Internet in the Monk's Cell, but then I needed to do considerable research on Sylvia Plath and other people who appear in Inferno II Escape from Hell (Tor Books, January, 2009) and it was very convenient to use the Internet for that research while I was writing fiction scenes; so I have learned to discipline myself, and use the Internet very sparingly when I am in the Monk's Cell.

I lugged Orlando up the stairs and set him on his LapWorks (link) stand — I do not often use Orlando as an actual laptop, but the LapWorks stand is useful when I do, and the rest of the time it keeps him nice and cool by holding the computer up a bit from the smooth table surface — and connected the power, wireless keyboard/mouse USB, and VGA video cables, and turned him on, exactly as I used to do before he went on his trip to Atlanta.

My ViewSonic 19" flat screen informed me that I needed 1280 x 1024 resolution. I set that.

Everything worked just fine until I brought up the Mamelukes files. There are two for each of my major projects: a "record" file in which I log daily progress (chiefly number of words, but sometimes other incidents, plot problems solved, etc.) and the document itself. In both cases the text looked horrible.

I mean truly horrid, the letters weren't well formed, and everything was just ugly. I checked the screen resolution. It was correct. Tried a different screen resolution. Needless to say the text got worse. It was awful, and while I have worked under less pleasant conditions, I sure didn't want to have to do that. I thrashed around changing fonts, zoom, and font size. Nothing helped. The text was ugly, ugly, ugly.

At this point enlightenment occurred. I am not sure what caused me to think of it, since I have not thought about it for years, but I remembered ClearType. Right click on the screen; properties> appearance > effects. It showed "standard". I changed that to ClearType, and Voila! My text looked clean and neat again.

I haven't thought about ClearType for a long time; I am guessing that all my machines — mostly built here — have come up with ClearType as the default smoothing option. For some reason Orlando came back from Atlanta with "standard", and wow! What a difference that makes. In any event all is well now, but if you have ugly text on your screen check the appearance > effects option to be sure you're using ClearType. The difference is dramatic.

HD TV

We've had a Samsung HDTV set for about a month now, and I'm still learning about how to use it and the set top box that Time Warner Cable provided. I also have an Apple TV box which I haven't even connected up yet.

In part this is due to sloth — well, I am recovering from radiation treatment and I find myself wanting to sleep a lot — but in the case of the Apple TV box, I don't have network connections in the back room where the HDTV resides. We'll get that taken care of Real Soon Now, but until we do, it's pretty pointless to connect the Apple TV box.

When we first got the HDTV, we used it in large part to watch the Los Angeles Lakers conference finals. Those were definitely in HD, with a wide screen. I didn't pay much attention to the set, it just worked, but the games were great.

When we got the HD TV I had to get a new set top box from Time Warner. We have two more TV sets, both digital of course, neither HD, connected to the same cable input. Those boxes didn't change. In both cases the connection from outside was coax, and the connection from the box to the set was also coax.

The new box had a number of output capabilities. One was a set of 5 RCA cables, which came with the set top box. The TV has a similar input — five jacks — so that's what I connected up first. I then had to tell the TV that the input was from "Component"; at which point everything worked, and that's what we used for the first couple of weeks. Given that during this time the Lakers got into the playoffs, I wasn't about to experiment. Roberta is a big Lakers fan and watches every game she can.

When I got the Apple TV box it came with two DVI cables. I have been told that using a DVI cable would improve the picture; RCA cables don't have great impedance matching. The DVI Cables look like heavy duty USB cables, and one of those will do the same job as the 5 RCA cables. I left the RCA cables in place, connected a DVI Cable from set top box to Samsung TV, and told the Samsung TV that its input was now DVI-1. That worked just fine. Or did it?

Square Picture

I hadn't paid a lot of attention to the TV before, but of course I did now. It was about half an hour before the Lakers game, and I wanted to see if I had improved the picture. I went to the game channel.

And saw to my horror that although the TV Guide said the game would be in HD, what I saw was a square picture (well, actually 4/3), not wide screen. Previously the games had been in 1080i 16/9 wide screen format. I concluded I wasn't watching HD at all.

I switched sources, going back to the Auxiliary input. No change. The picture was still square. I went to other channels (2, 4, 7) that said (in the show guide) that they were in HD. No change, from either source.

Now I was getting frantic. There must be some way to set the TV set resolution. Isn't there? I had two remotes, one for the TV (which was what I used to tell it the input source) and one for the Time Warner set top box. I pushed buttons. On both monitors. I managed to accomplish exactly the wrong result: wide screen green blob, no picture, although there was sound; and it didn't matter which input source I told the TV to use. It was moments before the game, and I not only didn't have an HD picture, I had no picture whatever.

I have no idea what was wrong or how I accomplished that result. I did fix it: when turning the power off on both TV and set top box didn't fix things, I pulled the plugs on each one, counted to 100, and plugged them back in. Voila! I had a square picture on the game channel, and I decided that had to be Good Enough. We could at least watch the game, although not on the wide screen.

I did learn one thing: the square picture on the big Samsung HD TV looked a lot better than on the bedroom 30" non-HD flat screen.

What's going on?

After the game was done and I could risk having the TV stop working, I started fooling around with the controls again. This time I used the guide to find a channel that said it was HD — not in the TV guide, but in the channel name itself. I switched to that channel — and lo! the picture automatically changed to wide screen, and the picture I saw was unquestionably High Definition. When I went back to another channel that said it was HD in the Guide, but not in the station name, the picture automatically went square again.

After that I asked around, and discovered: when the TV Guide tells us something is HD, it means it was filmed in HD, and if it's a broadcast station, it is broadcast in HD. Alas, that doesn't mean that Time Warner sends it out to cable subscribers in HD. In fact, it's highly likely that if you live in Studio City, fewer than 10% of the channels come to you in High Definition. Nearly all those that have HD in the channel title will be in HD; other than that, Time Warner seems to act purely by whim. Some movies are in HD. Some are not.

Note I say if you live in Studio City: today I found that in parts of the San Fernando Valley, while the network channels 2 (CBS), 4 (NBC) and 7 (ABC) are broadcast in HD but sent to cable subscribers in standard definition, there are also channels 402, 404, and 407 that will be in HD. Unfortunately, in Studio City channels 402, 404, and 407 have precisely the same picture as channels 2, 4, and 7. If I want network television in HD, I will have to get an antenna, bring the signal in, and connect it directly to the Samsung TV, bypassing the cable box. I then could tell the Samsung to use "Antenna" as the input signal. Since I live in a lousy TV service area, that doesn't seem a worthwhile thing to do.

Well, that's what I thought when I wrote this, anyway. Turns out I was dead wrong. It turns out that even in Studio City, where Time Warner sends fewer programs in HD than to other places, channels 202, 204, and 207 really are in HD. The problem is that by sheer bad luck they weren't in HD when I looked at them. Usually they are, but commercials often are not in HD, and sometimes remote feeds from field reporters aren't either. Then that happened the screen collapses from 16/9 to 4/3 (square). It does it automatically and without fanfare, and when HD comes through again, it expands automatically.

HD Summary

I expect many of you already knew all this; but if I don't know it, there will be some readers who don't either. The bottom line is that just because you have an HD set the picture you get isn't necessarily going to be in High Definition. Even if the show is broadcast in HD you may get it in standard def, if you're using cable as your source.

Cable companies are bandwidth limited. They can't send all channels out in HD. They have to make selections, and the selections they make may or may not square with what you wish they'd done. Moreover, if the cable company has a method of telling you which channels are sent in HD and which are not, I can't figure it out, nor did the tech support chap who answered the phone. You just have to try the channel and see what you get. And, of course, the channel you try may normally be in HD, but not just now when you're looking at it.

Moreover, all that can change. Sometimes Turner sports events are sent by Time Warner in HD; another time the same channel will be in standard. Again there's no way to tell, because the TV guide may well say that both events are in HD. So it goes.

HD television is addicting. Your eye will very quickly get used to the higher quality pictures, and standard TV will look lousy. Fortunately, after a few minutes you get used to standard again. If you get your TV input from Time Warner cable, you'll just have to learn to live with that.

Formats

My first instinct on dealing with HD was to try to find a way manually to control the screen resolution. Fortunately I didn't have to do that, because it would have driven me nuts. In fact it turns out there's no way for me to do it.

HD is in an early stage of development: there are standard formats, all right. As many as seventeen of them! All Standard! Now as a practical matter few places use all those resolutions and formats, and most use only two: 480p and 1080i. The p stands for "progressive" and means that the picture is not interlaced; the i stands for interlaced, and you can infer the meaning for yourself. The 480p format, incidentally, is 4/3, which is not wide screen; some of my problems stemmed from my not realizing that just because a picture is not wide screen doesn't mean it necessarily is not HD. In addition to those two often used formats, there exists a 1080p format, which I am told is gorgeous, but uses so much bandwidth that almost no one uses it just yet. Stand by.

Some HD TV sets come with a ‘formatting' button that will force wide screen even if the signal is 4/3. As it happens, the Samsung doesn't have that feature, so I can't tell you much about it; I have never missed it. My concern about "wide screen" was that I thought it indicated I wasn't getting HD, and I panicked. It turns out all was well, and what I needed to do was relax and trust that my HD TV knew what to do with the signals it was receiving. It does.

Monitors

Incidentally, the Samsung would make a perfectly good monitor with 1920 x 1080 native resolution; it has additional hardware and software to make pictures look good even if they come in a non-native resolution.

This led me to wonder why I can't just take the output of the Time Warner decoder box and pipe it into one of my computers. I should be able to record the output and watch any time I like. I asked an RF engineer that question and got this answer:

The industry that surrounds your house has gone to great lengths to prevent what you want. HDMI has HDCP which is a low level copy protection. It is possible to build a recorder with the appropriate HDCP decoder in it, but most companies that do business with the USA are afraid of being sued out of business by that industry nearby your house.

The High Definition TIVO (Series 3) will take a cable connection in (coax) and uses cable card decoders to let it access the encrypted digital TV signals. I forgot to mention earlier that as well as MPEG, the cable companies add encryption so that only enabled cable boxes or cable card enabled 3rd party devices like TIVO can decode their signals. That industry that surrounds your house has again gone to great lengths to scare the hell out of everyone and insist that only certain things can be done inside the cable card equipped 3rd party boxes like TIVO. So TIVO now stores its internal recordings in an encrypted manner that cannot be shared. This is especially true for high definition.

The cable card decoders are actually microprocessor equipped little empires that run their own private code that execute the decode function. Must not touch, mommy will spank!

Cable card decoders are PC card sized and form factor.

You can get a cable card slot equipped PC. It's called a media PC. However, here is the catch. Currently the cable company sends a tech to install the cable card. Part of the process involves running a certification program or at least it did last year. They want to make sure your system is locked up and that you cannot "hack it". This did mean Vista etc. Which means in all of its glory that Vista will stop you from doing anything with the recordings but watch them on the one PC.

Of course none of this will stop determined hackers. It probably would not stop me if I wanted to do it. So far, I'm not all that interested. I don't watch reality TV and there are less than five shows a week I watch. They only make 20 episodes a year or so, so not much total time. If I really like them, I wait and buy them on Itunes or DVD.

Phil

In other words, there are no technical reasons you can't get HD TV and display it on your 1920 by 1080 monitor, and as long as that's all you do there's no problem; but if you want to record the show in any duplicatable format, there are serious objections from the movie industry. They believe that users will distribute worldwide anything not protected with Digital Rights Management. Given that a French translation of the last Harry Potter book appeared for free on the Internet months before the official translation was in print, this is a reasonable assumption.

Given the history of small computers and computer users, I expect this state of affairs to change, but that's a new discussion we don't have time for. There are two views of DRM: that it's doomed; and that the hardware makes it inevitable that there will be "good enough" Digital Rights Management for years to come. There are very smart and very competent people on both sides of this argument.

Observations and Conclusions

Eric Pobirs notes:

HD is in its toddler stage. It can walk around, talk a little, and do some amusing stuff but it still requires a great deal of adult supervision. The transition is much more complex than going from B&W to color everywhere because there are so many more variables in play.

In 1955, RCA brought out the first color set for the equivalent of about $3800 in adjusted dollars. It was a good decade before a solid majority of new programming was in color. I still recall those little announcements touting a show's color status teasing us on our B&W box, just as shows announce their HD availability status today whether or not they're being seen in HD.

On big difference is content choices. Besides broadcast TV (by which I also mean cable and satellite delivery) we also have access to Blu-ray disc content and games in HD. For the former, my recommendation is to get a Sony PlayStation 3 and connect it to your network. It and the Xbox 360 have lots of nifty non-gaming functions for media playback. Comparing these to the Apple TV is worth some column space to justify the investment.

When you add content on disc and gaming, an HD display becomes a far more attractive purchase. Folks who just watch a few sitcoms and the occasional CSI: Des Moines should wait until they really need to buy a new screen. The price will only become more favorable and the hassle factor lesser if they wait.

Eric Pobirs

All of which makes sense to me, and once I get a gigabit connection into the room where we keep the HD TV and get the Apple TV box connected, we can compare that with the Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Sony PlayStation 3.

I will say again that it's easy to get used to HD TV, and once you do, you'll get weary of standard TV rather rapidly. I doubt that conclusion astonishes anyone.

Just before sending this in I got this message from Rick Hellewell:

Discovery Channel now showing 1st of several shows on Apollo mission. Shows full screen but some 480p content from historical footage. Seems interesting so far

On now on west coast on Discovery HD channel.

Rick

It turns out that even back in the 1960's they were filming some of the history in HD resolutions. I'll have to watch that series. I may be in it, but if so it will probably be just my luck that they filmed that part in standard definition. Of course I won't recognize myself if I am in there.

Winding Down

The Game of the Month is Sins of a Solar Empire. For a full description, see the Wiki. For a longer review, try this link.

Sins is a space-based real time strategy Game For Windows from Stardock Entertainment and Ironclad Games. It's not a clickfest: it's a real strategy game requiring considerable thought. Your choices will have long term consequences. For instance, you can put out a bounty on your enemies. This will induce the pirates (non-player characters) to go after your enemy — but when the pirates collect their rewards, they invest them, strengthening the pirate fleet that you will one day have to deal with yourself.

In other words, any choice you make has both an upside and a downside, and you have to make a number of such decisions in a way that advances your cause.

The story isn't all that original as science fiction themes go, but it's easy enough to suspend disbelief and get into the mood of the game. If you are tired of shooters, and of the "real time strategy" games that require you to run all over a huge map and out-click either a computer or another player, you may well like this one. It reminds me a bit of the late and much lamented Masters of Orion (the original, not the ill-conceived sequel).

The book of the month is War and Decision by Douglas Feith, but having said that, I am not really recommending that you go buy and read it. The book is important, no question about that, but its importance will be to historians trying to understand just how the United States got itself into a long and terribly expensive war in Mesopotamia. After all, the Iraqi region has been hard on empires from pre-Roman times on. Our experience in the First Gulf War should have convinced us that while it was easy to win formal wars in the region, it was a place with a culture that we did not understand; and that any operation in that region would take longer and cost more.

Feith was present and took part in many of the critical decisions. Those who are seriously trying to understand just what happened will find the book invaluable. It is also important for understanding just how decision processes work inside the Washington Beltway. Feith is a policy wonk, and from his point of view the most important product of the Office of the Secretary of Defense is well drafted and coordinated policy papers. Those who question the value of this kind of wonkery will probably find justification for their suspicions; another important feature of the book.

Feith is of course eager to make strong the case for the decisions made, and to lay the blame for the resulting disappointments on others. Even when he is doing that he gives us a great deal of information. Being a lawyer, Feith is writing a brief; alas, long parts of the book are about as interesting as legal briefs. On the other hand, for those seeking to understand the decisions made at that time it is valuable.

The second book of the month is a Gadget Nation, by Steve Greenberg "The Innovation Insider." (Amazon link) This is a big coffee table sized illustrated work crammed with gadget reports complete with patent number, price, how much the inventor spent to develop it, and how much profit the gadget has made. Products range from the HeadBlade, a gadget that makes it easy to keep your head shaved and is reported to have made millions, to Sexy Big Bow, a whole-body gift ribbon for girls (one presumes it could be used by men as well) to wear in making presents of themselves, which cost about $14,000 to develop and is not yet profitable. If you like gadgets you will love this book.

The computer book of the month is Windows Vista Accelerated, from Younjin publishing, but apparently distributed from O'Reilly since I got my review copy from an O'Reilly editor (there is no mention of O'Reilly on the copyright page). This is a well organized and highly illustrated guide to Vista. I have already found several features I didn't know Vista had (they're in Vista Ultimate; the book has a section on Ultimate features). I am really fond of this book; but it's written in a way that would make it useful to Aunt Minnie as well. If I ever convert Roberta's system to Vista, this is the book I'm going to give her. Recommended.

The Movie of the month is the second movie of the month for May; that is, readers of the International Edition of this column have not seen it before, but others have. Apologies: this is a one-time artifact of the schedule change.

The 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 the Lewis Narnia Chronicles, I don't have a lot to say about that. Highly recommended.