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Computing At Chaos Manor:
September 8, 2008

The User's Column, September, 2008
Column 338, Part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2008 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

I can open with good news. Both my radiation oncologist and my general oncologist tell me I am cancer free. I have some scar tissue and a dead lump in my head, but my blood is free of cancer-indicating proteins. They'll do another MRI later this year and a full body scan early next year, but it looks like the Big C is gone. My remaining problems — loss of hearing, and some balance problems, mostly — are not due to either cancer or radiation sickness, and in any event aren't that serious. I can get my work done, including these columns and my fiction. My voice is back, and you may be hearing me on TWIT again in future — my thanks to Leo Laporte for putting up with me when I sounded so awful.

My intention for the future is to do two columns a month and mailbags as indicated by mail, and now that my voice is back I am looking into the best way to do a monthly podcast. Stay tuned.

Rumors and Promises

I wish I could wait until the Apple announcements next week, but deadlines are upon me. You'll find out as soon as I will. Apple is very good at keeping secrets. Most of us including Leo Laporte are pretty sure that Steve Jobs will announce an iPod with a larger screen so that one can watch movies on it — this despite his ancient conviction that no one really wants to watch movies on a hand held device. For more rumors, see this link; or you can just wait for the announcements.

The other announcements that hit me at deadline time are Google's Chrome web browser, which has highly favorable initial reports, and Electronic Arts new "Sim" type game Spore. I mention these because I have versions of both downloading, and apparently so does everyone else — the estimated time for completion is several hours. In Spore you invent a creature and let it evolve. There are said to be mildly interactive features so that it's neither solo nor massively multi-player, but I don't know a lot more than that. There are both Windows and Mac versions of Spore; the Windows version has copy protection (AKA Digital Rights Management), but as far as I can tell the Mac version does not. I am downloading the Mac version of the Spore Creature Creator. As yet there is no Mac version of Chrome.

I should have both of these running in time for the next column. I continue to do lots of silly things so you don't have to, but in both these cases I don't find them silly, and I'm looking forward to designing Moties in Spore. (Read The Mote in God's Eye to learn more.)

Genius Bars, Gurus, and Geek Squads

I saw in today's Wall Street Journal that Microsoft intends to put Microsoft Gurus in Best Buy and Circuit City. I didn't read the article very closely, and assumed this was a counter to the Apple Geniuses in the Apple stores. I mentioned this to my advisors. A discussion took place.

The problem is that Microsoft's gurus have far more to deal with than Apple's geniuses. As one of my advisors put it,

The range of hardware and software associated with Windows is, what, maybe 20 times wider than that for Macs?

Apple also makes all of the money from its system sales, and has higher profit margins than other PC OEMs, so it has a stronger incentive to keep customers. I believe this is why Apple will occasionally go to great lengths to help out customers at the Genius Bar. I can't see how Microsoft or Best Buy can afford to provide a comparable level of service.

So although I appreciate Microsoft's willingness to try this approach, I'm afraid it may be underestimating the difficulties and costs.

Eric Pobirs added

It won't be that hard. I suspect it'll really be more of a training stage for Geek Squad field agents, at least for Best Buy.

My brother is a Geek Squad agent. He does a lot of server work, so his schedule tends to be pretty full and his range of travel extensive. But less capable agents are expected to return to their home store if they have an hour or more free from appointments. This is for the purpose of helping customers and, of course, trying to drum up more business. Growing the Geek Squad head count a bit would cover a lot of the in-store Q&A needs.

From what I've witnessed, most of the problems are minor stuff that a small amount of Google Fu would quickly answer. It's dealing with another human that is the difference.


My son Alex came in with

Apple can afford to have the loss-leading Genius Bar well stocked, because (1) the range of problems is rather narrower (2) it helps increase self-identified "Mac People", Mac enthusiasts, call it what you will, (3) In the past, there just weren't enough Mac-oriented consultants about to help the masses. This was (4) particularly true when Mac thusiasts tended to be one-person shops, and a Mac in business was such an anomaly as to occasion gang- tackles by the guards upon entry to the building. How well GB-style free advice works when the user base doubles, I dunno. It certainly helps feed the Apple approach of user lockin on hardware, as the only way I see to support GBs, etc.

Windows PC support is, let's face it, an enormous business. I, Eric, and Dan all make something of a living at it, just to name three. On that front, I'll agree with RBT (don't let it go to your head, Robert) that Windows is too fargin' complicated and a support sink. Microsoft can't afford to do much more than make people think They Feel Your Pain. Anything more than that, they'll get the support community, both small and large, up in arms and probably start a flamewar over "Microsoft is stealing my business!" which would be far more deleterious than the immediate effect on MS's bottom line.

Besides, I'm sorry, I've spent 25 years learning how to support this stuff. I can't decide how much of that time was spent learning HOW to fix problems and how much on WHAT the problems are, but the ratio is roughly balanced, I'd say. These days, unless it's a truly knotty question, the cycle tends to be: (1) typify the problem as much as possible, delineate "it seems slow" into "hard drive registry entries completely whacked" (e.g.) (2) figure out what Google search will get me closest to an answer (3) read through the barrels of dross to find the one--often, only one--other person who's ever reported on this particular failure mode (4) hope there's an answer (5) fix the problem. On the rare occasions I've had to enlist MS's help for such, the guys in Bangalore were very helpful, and 18 (!) continuous hours on the phone did nail the problem and put the machine back together.

But mostly, it's taken me, and I suspect it takes others, years to get the kind of experience necessary to fix ugly problems.

Yes, simple(r) problems are the majority of those which occur, and if 5 minutes' free help turns a customer into an enthusiast, bravo. But:

An enthusiast for who? I can't see people buying Windows boxes cuz the guru fixed it; I can only see customers becoming undying customers of the brand they bought--e.g., H-P, not Microsoft.

Oh, and what are the gurus going to do about crapware? "I'm sorry, sir, but that trial copy of Corel Draw isn't part of Windows." Check- minus on the good feeling scale, right out of the box. Where's the win?

And if it IS at all successful, the crush of bodies looking for problem-solving is going to be epic. The number of issues on most people's PCs is far larger than they'll ever tell you at first, and if that nice young man (and SO considerate) down at Best Buy not only fixed my printing problem, but Buffy is eating better and I think her coat is coming back, let's go see him again about why I can't win Solitaire, Minnie.

Not to say it's a bad idea, but they're going to have to moderate the number of 'free' hours pretty fast, or (as Eric suggests) use this as a training ground for Support Slaves, oops, Geek Squadders. And I really don't know how much positive publicity it's going to provide, which is the professed goal. This seems more a shotgun marketing ploy than a new direction.


Of course it turns out that I hadn't read the article very carefully. Microsoft's gurus in the Best Buy and Circuit City stores won't do post-sales support. They're only there to assist the sales staff.

Peter Glaskowsky noted

The reason Microsoft gurus will _not_ provide tech support is probably twofold:

Best Buy already has Geek Squad, which is meant to be a profit center, and doesn't want Microsoft offering free support in competition.

Microsoft presumably appreciates the difficulty of providing tech support across the installed base of Windows software and hardware, and knows better than to get into that business.

. png

All of which illustrates some important differences between Apple and Microsoft, and the analysis is correct even if the premises were — due to me — incorrect. And indeed, it stimulated more discussion of technical support. Eric Pobirs notes:

OTOH, much of what we learned over those years wasn't so much supporting MS-stuff as doing support in general. The technical issues we faced 12 years ago scarcely exist anymore but the human issues are pretty much the same. When was the last time you even thought about IRQs? I can remember when they were at the heart of a problem at least once a week.

Give us a week to study and we can support almost anything. Not because we're gurus on the item in question but because of our hard-earn experience in support and faking it in a way that instill customer assurance. We just happened to latch onto an area where a lot of otherwise functional people have a blind spot.


That corresponds to my experience. For years my BYTE column was built around my personal experiences in getting my work done. I didn't — and don't — "review" equipment and software (at least not very often); instead I use it in my small business — I write science fact and fiction books, maintain a web site with subscribers, do lectures, and do the research needed for all of the above. I've neglected much of that over the past year due to the necessity of getting rid of my brain tumor, but now that it's gone I expect to get back to doing that, and I am actively collecting hardware and software.

Orbits and The iPhone in Alamogordo

Last month I went to the DC/X anniversary in Alamogordo. It turned out to be a big deal with most of the innovators in the aerospace industry there, including NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, General Worden of Ames, and of course Bill Gaubatz, Jess Sponable, and most of the survivors of the DC/X team including Ambassador Cooper who funded the project from his post in SDIO. I had long conversations with each of those. I don't know if former VP Dan Quayle was invited. He should have been. In any event he wasn't there.

My conclusion after spending considerable time with the best experts in this business is that for under a billion dollars (intelligently spent) we could develop both Vertical Takeoff-Vertical Landing (VTVL) Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) and Horizontal Takeoff Two Stage to Orbit (TSTO) systems that could operate at airline operational costs, which is to say a multiple of fuel costs, not the billions per flight that NASA has to spend. As to how the dollars might be well spent, my preference is for prizes: no one gets paid until the required technology is demonstrated.

Development of airline style/cost access to space would dramatically change not just the United States, but the world. I do not delude myself by believing this isn't known to the establishment that makes billions on the present mucked up system of space access and lobbies against any meaningful reforms.

It was a good conference, but getting there wasn't half the fun. To get to Alamogordo from Los Angeles, you go to LAX, endure TSA, fly to El Paso, rent a car, and drive 70 miles. Fortunately I didn't have to do any of that for myself. Larry Niven came to my house, then Henry Vanderbilt picked us both up and did all the driving, having first reserved our airline tickets and hotel rooms. I was still in recovery from radiation sickness and perhaps I looked it, because the TSA gave me no problems about being slow, and I got pre-boarding on the airplane so had no problems finding a place to put my Number Nine roll-on bag.

The problem came when trying to leave El Paso airport. There are plenty of signs telling you how to get into the airport, but there's a paucity of signs telling how to get out of it and onto the road to Alamogordo. Fortunately I had the iPhone. Mine is the older model, with no GPS, but that didn't matter a bit. I turned on the phone, and poked the maps button. The phone told me I was in Studio City, California. I told it to update using cell phone tower data, and a few seconds later the display showed where we were as well as showing the location of the highways. While I had the iPhone out I called home to tell Roberta we had safely landed.

I don't have an iPhone 3G yet. I may or may not get one, but for the moment I don't have a big incentive to do so. Phil Tharp, a silicon valley consulting engineer who works deep down in hardware and has an all Mac establishment — he runs Windows but on Mac hardware either directly or with VMware -- got the new iPhone about the instant they came out. Here's his report:

1. iphone 3G

All the neat new features work as advertised, but, if you leave 3G on, battery life sucks. My own experience: Start at 7AM with 3G on, put in pocket use infrequently, all day, by 10PM battery at read level and blinking.

Result: I turn off 3G except when I need high speed web surfing outside of WiFi, and use Edge. I then get much better battery life - similar to old iPhone.

The GPS works very well, but the application support is not there yet.

Phil Tharp

Of course Peter Glaskowsky has a 3G and comments:

I have never seen anything like that. I've never turned 3G off, and my battery almost always lasts through a long day. I leave WiFi off, though.

The exceptions to that "almost always" usually involve using the Maps function (Maps with Satellite View and live updating as I move around, like in a car, can suck the battery dry in less than an hour. The phone actually gets warm!) or demonstrating the phone to people.

Running a lot of different apps can also drain the battery pretty quickly.

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Dan Spisak comments:

It is quite easy to drain any phone, especially an iPhone 3G if you are in an area where you transition from 3G to GSM/EDGE networks frequently due to marginal difference in coverage between the two networks. This can put the phone in a state of seeking out cell towers more frequently if it tries to get on 3G, succeeds for a while and then finds a better GSM/EDGE signal.

-Dan S.

Which sparked more debate. Peter replies

I've heard that a lot, but never from a cellphone engineer. It may be true, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Negotiating a new tower connection takes only a couple of seconds of transmitting. The iPhone 3G is rated at five hours of talk time on 3G networks and 10 hours of talk time on 2G networks.

Worst-case, then, switching networks frequently should never be able to run the battery down in three hours as Tharp reports.

I think there must be something else going on here. It may be associated with switching networks, but I don't think it's the switching itself.

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Whatever the reason, I have many reports that battery life on the iPhone 3G can be a seriously limiting factor. For that and other reasons I think I will wait a while before replacing my original iPhone. In my case, I usually connect the iPhone to my iMac 20 every night, but sometimes I forget to do that. If I forget several days running, I do take a chance on having the phone run out of juice on the evening of the third day and it will almost certainly be dead by noon of the fourth day. Of course I don't use a cell phone as much as most people do, and I seldom surf the web or do email on the iPhone, so my power requirements are fairly low. I suppose if I needed to use it a lot, I'd get some kind of power cord that would let me charge it in the car, but so far I have no need for that.

While in Alamogordo I charged the iPhone every night by connecting it to the ThinkPad t42p USB port with no problems at all.

My experience with the iPhone is fairly positive. I keep mine enclosed in a Griffin ClearBoost case. This has an antenna boosting feature that works (adds about half a bar), but it is also a very good protective case that makes the iPhone a bit less glamorous but a lot safer — and a lot easier to handle since I can grasp it by the little antenna nib to pull it out of my pocket.

The Griffin case is ingeniously designed to allow all the features including the camera, but I don't use the phone's camera much because I generally carry the Sony DSC T-100. That model is no longer sold by Sony, but it is certainly good enough for anything I need a pocket point and shoot camera for. As I've said many times, the camera that gets the pictures is the one you have with you, and it's easy to have this one with me all the time. A camera built into your cell phone is a lot better than no camera at all, and we get lots of grandchildren pictures taken by cell phone, but the increase in quality from the Sony makes it worth the effort to carry it (as well as the money to buy it).

The bottom line is that I like my iPhone, and one day I suppose I'll get the upgrade, but I am in no hurry to do that. If you do get the 3G, turn that feature off when you're not using it.

Kindle and Other Tools of the Trade

I am one of the judges of the Writers of the Future contest. Fellow judges include Niven, Ann McCaffrey, Orson Scott Card, Fred Pohl, Yoji Kondo and others of that caliber. (Charlie Sheffield, Algis Budrys, and Jack Williamson were also judges.) Every year the contest officials pay for the judges and the contest finalists to come to the award ceremonies, which have been in the Hall of Nations at the UN, the SF Museum in Seattle, NASA Exhibition Hall in Houston, and so forth. I always enjoy getting together for dinner with my colleagues. I also spend an hour or so talking shop with the contest finalists, who under the contest rules are pretty new to writing.

This year the ceremonies were in Los Angeles, so I didn't have far to go, and I could pack up a brief case full of props. I stuffed in my Lenovo Tablet PC, the Mac Book Air, my iPhone, the Sony pocket camera, my Executive ScanCard pocket notecard holder, and my Olympus WS-100 voice recorder. I also packed my Kindle. The idea was to show the tools of the trade I have accumulated over the years.

I then ended by showing my Boorum and Pease logbook and fountain pen, which are really all I absolutely have to have. Incidentally, my log books are Composition Books model 09-9132, College Ruled & Margined & Paged, and I can't find them on line; I buy them in the local stationary store, and I use at least one a year. I carry Scotch tape and fasten in business cards, receipts, and other stuff I don't want to lose; it makes a very useful chronological file.

I showed off the Mac Book Air, which is the best laptop I have ever had for doing production work outside a working environment, and the TabletPC with OneNote which is wonderful for doing research, but made it clear these are something like luxury tools. It's true enough that I have always bought the best writing tools I could afford because this is how I make my living; but when I was starting I made do with what I had. My first books were written on typewriters with carbon paper. It helps to have first class tools, but you don't need them.

When it came time to show off the Kindle I mentioned that I have about 100 books in this device, and they're easy to get to and easy to read; but when I took it out and turned it on, only about half the screen refreshed. It was entirely unreadable. I suspected operator error, but I could hardly experiment with it in front of an audience.

I got through the discussion without admitting that my device wasn't working, and when I got it home I found that it wasn't operator error at all. I could change books, turn pages, and do everything else, and the result was the same: about 2/3 of the page would refresh, but the rest wouldn't. The Kindle wasn't usable.

The Kindle was a Christmas present, so I had no receipt for it. I had no idea how to find out how to get it fixed, and my attempts to find Kindle Warranty on the Internet were not successful. This may well be my fault; August was a terribly busy month, I was distracted by medical matters, and I didn't have a lot of time to put into it. One of my readers advised me to try the general Amazon help line, 1-800-216-1072. I called, got a telephone tree, drilled through that with increasing dread, and eventually got a human being. I told my story about a broken Kindle, and was put on hold. This didn't sound good, but in fact I was on hold for a few seconds at most; at which point Myria answered. From her accent she was in Seattle. Wherever she was, everything went well from there.

She first got me to power up the Kindle, then do a 10 second reset (using a straightened paper clip). When I did that and reported the problem hadn't gone away, she told me they'd send a new Kindle and eventually they would send an email telling me what to do with the old one. (It has been a month now, and I still have no such instructions. The old one is deactivated, and I suspect they don't want it back.)

In any event, that seemed simple enough. I did connect the dead Kindle to my desktop computer and create a folder for it, then transferred everything I could find on the Kindle to the PC. That included books I had bought from Amazon, books I had allowed Amazon to translate for the Kindle, and books I have got from Baen or Gutenberg or elsewhere.

This was on a Thursday. Monday afternoon the new Kindle arrived. It was a brand new one, packaged identically to the original. I took it out, charged it up, and turned it on. It told me it was already activated as Jerry Pournelle's New Kindle.

My next step was a mistake: I connected the Kindle to the PC with a USB cable and transferred all the books from PC to Kindle. All the books appeared in the Kindle book list, but I could only read the non-DRM (Digital Rights Managed) books. All those I had bought from Kindle were unreadable. I deleted them (using the PC) and thought about what to do next, which was simple. I disconnected the USB cable and examined the Kindle again.

The Kindle is so easy to use that I haven't spent much time reading the flipping manual, which is probably a mistake. The Kindle comes with a very good manual on the Kindle itself. I figured I could always RTFM so I continued to fool around on the Kindle.

Eventually I found my way to Content Manager, and Lo! every book I had ever bought from or converted through Amazon was listed right there on the Kindle. Each had a check box. I checked each one of them and told Amazon to do its thing; and about ten minutes later all those books were back on the Kindle, delivered by the Kindle's wireless connection.

At this point the Kindle was restored, and since then it has worked perfectly. I have read several novels, as well as David Friedman's Future Imperfect (reviewed last month). I have a hardbound copy of David's book, but I find it easier to read on the Kindle, footnotes and all; indeed, except for books with many tables and charts, it's easier to read books on the Kindle. I can hold the Kindle in one hand, turn pages with one hand, set it down without having to worry about losing my page — it takes about a week to get to the point where the Kindle is preferable to a book, but not a lot longer.

So: the Kindle is easy to use, and Amazon's warranty support is excellent. It's still very much on my recommended list. I will add that I have a Sony Reader, it works, and I never use it. I'd give it to someone, but it came engraved with my name. I don't dislike it; I just prefer the Kindle experience.

Incidentally, the reissue of Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is available from Amazon both in quality paperback and as a Kindle book. When Inferno first came out it was a best seller (actually outsold Sagan's Contact) and inspired new interest in the original Dante poem, but it has been out of print for a decade. Inferno is the story of a science fiction writer who finds himself trapped in Dante's Hell; I used to call it "C. S. Lewis meets Dante Alighieri"). If you haven't read it, you might like it.

Windows Server 2008, XP, and Vista

For more than two months I have had a basic back-room desktop PC that I haven't even uncrated. Its intended purpose is to become the Windows 2008 server to replace the ancient machinery running Windows 2000 Server that takes care of my Active Directory network.

Of course I have no need for an Active Directory network. Mine was set up back when Microsoft Active Directory was fairly new. We do lots of silly things so you don't have to, and getting an Active Directory Windows 2000 Server system running before December 31, 1999 seemed like a good idea to my BYTE editors and readers. It all worked, too, and while it's a bit klunky, it still does. The hardware is getting old, of course, and it's long past time to replace it. I don't keep anything important on the server itself. If it dies it will be onerous to set up a workstation network with no domain at all — I'll let the D-Link Gaming Router do the name and number assignments — but nothing will be lost.

On the other hand, I do want to test out Windows 2008 Server, which from all reports is not only pretty good, but might, with proper adjustments, serve as a work station operating system as well.

I'd intended to have all that done months ago, but my medical problems put the hiatus on that. Now that I am recovering I'll get back to doing lots of silly things so you don't have to.

Meanwhile, Phil Tharp, the Silicon Valley consultant, has been experimenting. He sends this preliminary report:

A 64 bit windows

I don't want Vista. Windows 2008 server is much better, but is still pre-configured to be a pain in the ass as a workstation. Running XP gets most of my jobs done, but it's 2008, the CPU's are 64 bit now, and memory capacity is way beyond 4GB.

In short Microsoft has lost its edge. The hardware has left it behind. I run XP on VMware under OSX and run multiple copies, but, sometimes I would like a 64 bit native Windows for some applications. In the EDA (Electronic Design Automation) field, 64 bit Linux is way ahead. I'm a Unix guy, but not a Linux lover. Sorry, no time to spend days maintaining things, so the only option is Windows.

I have Volume License Key versions of XP, so I don't have to play copy protection games, but that does not exist as far as I can tell for Vista or 2008 server.

Phil Tharp

As I have reported before, my own experience with 64-bit Vista on Bette, my Core 2 Quad 6600, has been quite positive. It has become my main communications machine, and I abuse it terribly, leaving open multiple copies of Word (mostly previous columns), FrontPage with a dozen pages open, FileMaker, about 60 Firefox Windows, Windows Commander, My Computer (actually Computer; in Vista "My Computer" is a dummy file), and two large pdf files in Acrobat reader. Every now and then I will get a quarter-second delay when I am typing in FrontPage 2003 (never so far when working in Word 2007) and Outlook goes out to bring in a lot of mail. As you will recall, I have a great number of rules that Outlook must apply, and that uses a lot of CPU cycles since Outlook has to read the incoming messages. FrontPage 2003 used to be part of Office 2003, but I'm using a stand-alone version; and apparently now that FrontPage is no longer part of Office, Outlook doesn't know how to play nice with it (as opposed to Word). The glitches are rare, and FrontPage (which is doing spell checking and word completion on the fly) never runs more than two letters behind my typing. By rare, I mean that this has happened about twice in the past month.

I have 4 gigabytes of Kingston memory in Bette. I'll experiment with another 4 to see if that changes anything, but that's mostly curiosity. It's not really a problem.

On his radio show today Leo Laporte told us that Vista is superior to XP for Workgroup networking like file and printer sharing. That's interesting, because my experience with an Active Directory domain under Windows 2000 Server has been just the opposite. XP networking, including cross platform networking to the iMac 20 and the Mac Book Air, is solid as a rock, but every now and then Vista will simply refuse to see computers that have been turned off and back on again since the network mapping was done. It's not often, and it's sometimes cured by the passage of time, but it can be darned annoying.

The problem usually manifests itself when I try to "Save As" from some Office program to a mapped drive on a networked machine: the attempt will fail, it takes forever for the operation to time out, and meanwhile my system is useless. It's usually cured by disconnecting that networked drive (this again can take what seems like forever as Vista retries to make the connection so it can disconnect), then reconnecting. Incidentally, the failure is usually from a Vista to an XP machine. As I said, annoying but not crippling. I have overcome my original distaste for Vista, and as I get used to it I find I am becoming fond of it. Of course it's a lot like Mac OS X, and I am already fond of that.

Leo Laporte recommends that if you have networking problems you should go to http://www.practicallynetworked.com where you will find a variety of tips, troubleshooting guides, and other networking data of use to the savvy, which is to say, to just about anyone reading this column.

As to compatibility, so far I haven't wanted to run any program that 64-bit Vista can't handle.

Nikon D3, Moore's Law, and the Future of Photography

I am not a camera nut. My best camera is a Panasonic Lumix 35-420, and it's really all I need. It looks like a professional camera — useful for getting good placement in press conferences — it has a good zoom lens, and it automatically takes better pictures than I'd get if I had to do my own settings.

It's also pretty near obsolete even though it remains Good Enough; technology has changed rapidly in the few years since I got the Lumix at the last COMDEX.

Last month my friend Phil Tharp got a new Nikon D3 (Wikipedia link) as part of the equipment for a new software project. He was impressed. Here's his report:

The Nikon D3

This is Moore's Law incarnate.

The D3 is taking the professional photography world by storm. When I asked the sales guys at my local pro store (Palo Alto), they said Canon sales (at the pro level) had plummeted since the D3 came out. The reason is not the sensor, other than it is full frame (35MM equivalent), but what the CPU and the software does with the output of the sensor. It's simply amazing. I have both pro level cameras thanks to a customer, and if I compare the images from both, you see that Nikon simply does a much better job of pulling information out of the image. The damn thing takes pictures in the dark! The Canon tops out at ISO 3200 and the Nikon beats it there and goes on to excellent ISO 6400 and is useful to ISO 25000! They are both 10 frames per second cameras, again processing power here. There is also the shutter, but I will take it as a given that mechanicals can be built at that speed, doing A/D conversion and JPEG processing of 12 mega pixel images at that speed is something else again.

Oh yes, face recognition really works in the D3 and it works at 10 frames per second on a moving target. I hate to think how many MIPS are running in my hands.

If this is what professionals get today, then expect some very major changes in consumer camera over the next few years.

Phil Tharp

Captain Morse has recent experience with the D3 and has become an enthusiast.

Back in the 1980's I served a couple of terms on the Board of the Lowell Observatory. Astronomy was just converting from film to CCD imaging, and there were a lot of problems. I was able to get a couple of major companies to donate desktop PC's with 100 MB Winchester hard drives — this was when Shoemaker was keeping his asteroids on a 32-megabyte drive system with platters the size of garbage can lids — but in general matters were in a state of flux, and a lot of observers cursed electronic imaging and the horse it rode in on.

That has all changed now, and while I suppose there are still some observatories that still do film imaging, nearly everything is digital now. My movie making friends still like film, but the processing expenses are killing them. It will take time to convert movie theaters to digital projectors, but I think we have seen the beginning of the end for analog film as a general purpose recording medium.


The book of the month is Charles Murray, Real Education, Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality, Crown Books 2008. I was unable to find it for Kindle.

Education in these United States is in a mess. We are not doing well by the best and the brightest, because by law we spend most of our resources on those below average: this is known as No Child Left Behind.

One problem is that few of us know many people who are below average. It's a near lead pipe cinch that none of you reading this review are anywhere close to below average, and it's not likely that you know many such.

Murray's simple truths are obvious but ignored. One is that we do not live in Lake Wobegon. In the real world, half the children are below average, and no amount of money spent on schools will change that. He also spends considerable time discussing what we mean by above and below average.

No Child Left Behind may be able to move some children from the 10th percentile (bottom 10%) to the 25th, but this is not cost effective. We'd get a lot more for our money educating the 90th percentile group, and most of you reading this know it. In simple language Murray — in my judgment one of the very few social scientists with any claim to the title of scientist — explains things most of us know but have been cowed by the education establishment into being afraid to say. I do not often say a book is important. This is an important book.

The second book of the month is Old Man's War by John Scalzi. I read it on the Kindle, having got my free eBook copy from a Tor promotion: I downloaded the book from the publisher, and emailed it to myself at my Kindle address. It appeared on the Kindle in minutes.

I don't get to read a lot of science fiction lately, and I start more books than I finish. This one I finished. Scalzi has set up an interesting universe that holds together as well as most space opera universes, with mostly believable reasons for something as improbable as interstellar war. He also handles technology better than many do. If this sounds like damning with faint praise I don't mean to; I enjoyed the book. My problem is that I can't resist thinking up holes in his logic and trying to fill them.

Building a consistent future science fiction universe is very difficult. As David Friedman showed in his Future Imperfect (reviewed last month) technology makes a number of futures possible, most of them inconsistent with each other. If nanotechnology turns all the Earth into gray goo, we probably don't have to worry about the revolt of artificial intelligences smarter than we are. If we come up with interplanetary flight — much less interstellar flight — we will be handling so much energy that it's hard to see how an economy would work: with that much energy we ought to be able to make anything in nearly infinite quantities. What's to fight about? Who's poor?

And so forth. Scalzi does a good story with interesting characters, and the action moves fast. Recommended.

The game of the month remains World of Warcraft, but I am toying with the beta edition of War Hammer. My initial impressions are very favorable. I am also downloading EA's new game Spore.

The computer book of the month is Windows Vista Accelerated by Guy Hart-Davis (YoungJin), which is an illustrated guide to using Vista. This starts at the simplest possible level. Most of those reading this book won't find much they don't know, but it does explain things quite well, and giving a friend or relative a copy of this is likely to be an excellent way of getting out of the loop and saving yourself some time; and in fact I found out a couple of things about Vista Ultimate that I didn't know. There are a lot of books about Vista, of course, but this one stands out by being profusely illustrated, and explaining just about everything in very simple terms.

The fright of the month comes from the Internal Revenue Service, which appears to have a number of vulnerable servers that are probably zombies by now. Read this link. Be afraid. Be very afraid.