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Computing At Chaos Manor:
January 9, 2009

The User's Column, January, 2009
Column 342, Part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2009 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

This is the traditional Year End/Year Beginning column with the Chaos Manor User's Choice Awards and the annual Orchids and Onions Parade. For those who wonder why I do this in January rather than December, or wonder how the User's Choice Awards, Orchids, and Onions are chosen, see last January's column.

CES and MacWorld Expo

I didn't go to either CES or MacWorld Expo, both of which began about deadline time for this column. Friends and associates went to both conferences. I didn't expect any revolutionary developments.

Steve Jobs didn't present the keynote at the Mac show this year. It's said that he has a hormone imbalance which is causing his inability to gain weight, which is a bit like saying that a person with a backache has lumbago or a person who can't sleep has insomnia: it's accurate but conveys no information. My wife Roberta has become something of an expert on Celiac disorder, and she suspects that is Jobs' problem. Celiac is an auto-immune reaction to gluten; not just wheat, but all gluten. There are many foods that are wheat free but have gluten, and some are not only not obvious but quite obscure: blue cheese, for example. Because Celiac is a true allergy, it takes only a tiny amount of gluten to trigger a week of intestinal disorder, and if during that week more gluten - again even a very small amount - is ingested, the damage is renewed. One effect is inability to absorb food values. There's no real treatment for Celiac, but it is certainly possible to live a gluten free life. That takes care, but a sizable percentage of the population is learning to do it. Despite Celiac's prevalence in up to 1% of the population, a lot of doctors have no experience in diagnosing it.

For those looking for more information, Celiac disorder is also known as "Coeliac disease", and there are other spellings. At Larry Niven's New Years Party last week I discovered that an old friend and colleague has discovered that he has Celiac and has had it for perhaps as long as I have known him; he only found out a few weeks ago and is without a stomach ache for the first time in a decade. His physicians - he is a full professor at the University of California - never even suspected it; his biologist wife figured it out, and specific tests confirmed her theory. There are certainly far more cases of Celiac than have been reported, and new evidence suggests the rate may be more than double what we thought it was. If you have mysterious digestive problems, or can't gain weight, or "fail to thrive" without obvious cause, you might want to be tested.

In an upcoming book on evolution and society, Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending demonstrate that adult lactose tolerance is a relatively new adjustment, the lactose tolerance gene appearing only a few thousand years ago after the discovery of agriculture; to this day something like 10% of the human race become lactose intolerant after childhood (for example, a majority of Chinese are adult lactose intolerant). I propose the hypothesis that gluten tolerance is not a great deal older than lactose tolerance. The gluten tolerance genes may have appeared no more than 15,000 years ago and perhaps a great deal later than that. This would explain why Celiac is a lot more common than most suppose. In any event, it is only recently that physicians look for Celiac in adults, and many physicians, including some otherwise very well educated internists, to this day do not look for Celiac when adults present the symptoms that Steve Jobs is said to have. I know that some readers are friends with Jobs; perhaps a suggestion is in order. It can't hurt. One can live with Celiac but you have to know to do it; otherwise the problems can go on for decades, and they only get worse, never better.

I do miss not going to CES. I miss the Press only events like Showstoppers and Pepcom's Digital Experience, and I particularly miss Pat Meier-Johnson's Lunch at Piero's, which this year features new Via notebooks among other products. I'll have more to say about notebooks/netbooks later in the column. Peter Glaskowsky reports from Las Vegas:

I can say that there was no sign of an economic downturn at Digital Experience last night, except in occasional comments by individual attendees. The room was every bit as big and busy as it has been every year. There may have been more broadcast news crews, in fact, and almost all of them seemed to be focused on the product introductions rather than looking for evidence of a downturn or doing more general cultural anthropology kind of coverage.

-- PNG --

I also regret missing MacWorld Expo since this was the year I began to convert much of my operation to the Mac (some in Windows but running on Mac systems) and it would be fun to compare notes with the others coming to the show.

2008 Personal

I spent most of the year 2008 on auto-pilot. Apparently I have a pretty good autopilot because I managed to meet all my column deadlines. I also did some consulting for the Department of Homeland Security Research Branch, and they want me back for more. Niven and I finished Escape from Hell (Tor), which is a pretty good book if I do say so; and I managed to keep my daybook going well enough that I'm getting new subscriptions and renewals. Thanks to all who stayed with me.

The reason I was on auto-pilot was that in late 2007 it was determined from blood work that some of the symptoms we had attributed to degenerate arthritis were probably due to some form of cancer, and in early 2008 it was found that I had a tumor near Broca's Area in my head. More tests showed that it had not metastasized.

Kaiser's top neurosurgeon determined that it was inoperable; he didn't even want to do a biopsy because boring onto that part of my head could raise "quality of life issues." There were more tests, and it was decided that they'd burn out The Lump with hard X-Rays. Every day for about six weeks I went down for a treatment; the total was 50,000 rad, which is a lot. Somewhere in the middle of that I went totally on auto-pilot and about the only things I can remember from that period are what I wrote in my log book.

Radiation sickness is subtle. There are the classic symptoms: Many tiny sores and wounds that won't heal. Blood not clotting. Complete lack of energy coupled with difficulty sleeping. Lack of initiative and inability to start new projects. Recovery from the radiation sickness took most of the summer. Then in late Fall the CT scan, MRI, and blood work all indicated the same thing: The Lump was gone, and I was cancer free. I began full recovery, and by November I was pretty well back in business. The residual effect is random loss of balance, enough so that I often carry a cane, and I still have some short term memory losses which I'm learning to overcome by keeping a better log book. I have some problems recalling people's names, but in fact I am better at it now than Niven has been for the forty years I've known him, so I expect I can live with that. Otherwise I'm in pretty good shape.

2008 At Chaos Manor

This was the year that I seriously began using the Mac. I have had a Mac PowerBook for years, but until Apple changed to Intel CPU chips there were many Windows applications you couldn't really run on a Mac; even the best emulations were just too slow. Macs using Intel CPU chips can be booted into Windows using the Bootcamp program that comes installed in Mac OS X, and will then run any programs that run on any other PC's; think of a Mac booted into Windows (Vista, XP, or any other version) as a good grade of PC shading up at high end to a really excellent PC. The Mac "PC" will cost a bit more than you'd spend for a comparably-performing PC built by a consumer grade company, but you get excellent quality, and the latest versions of the MacBook Pro are good candidates for the best laptop/desktop replacement machines available. My son Alex uses a 17" MacBook Pro as his only machine, and he still mostly runs Windows programs. Extreme gamesters aside, it's unlikely that anyone would want or need a better PC than a good Mac.

Better news, though, is that you can boot the Mac into OS X with all the advantages of that operating system, then through Parallels or VMware run any Windows program not requiring extreme graphics. This capability got better over 2007 and was pretty well good enough by early 2008; and like everything else about the Mac, things just kept getting better. Apple improves its products on a continuous basis, stimulating third party developers to do the same. The ferment reminds me a bit of the early days of the computer revolution.

It was clearly time to give Macs a serious look. Others thought so too, and the result was that I got an iMac 20 and MacBook Air. I already had an iPhone. I later got a MacBook Pro. My intention was to convert most of my operations to the Mac. That didn't happen, largely because one of the effects of The Lump and its extirpation by hard X-rays was a great loss not only of energy but of the will to undertake new activities. I mostly wanted to go to bed with the covers over my head. With the help of David Pogue's "missing manual" Switching to the Mac (O'Reilly) I got part way into the conversion, but it was never completed. I do play World of Warcraft on the iMac, and I do some writing with both the iMac and the MacBook Air.

One reason I didn't fully convert to the Mac system was Intel's Core 2 Quad processors. I built two PC machines around those chips, one with the Quad 6600, the other with an Intel Quad Extreme CPU. Meanwhile, Microsoft began to clean up its act. There were continuous Vista updates, sometimes as often as four a week: and about midsummer Vista lost most of its glitches. I would never "upgrade" one of my older machines to Vista, but with my Quad systems Vista, and Office 2008 (including Outlook 2008), run more than acceptably well. Of course this is an instance of perhaps the strongest trend of the past few years: hardware is improving so fast that even clumsily written and designed software runs acceptably.

There's a whole essay in that last sentence: what does "efficiency" mean now in this age of computing plenty? There was a time when the ability to run on slow machines with limited memory and limited disk storage was highly desirable, but that's hardly the case now. Hardware capability has improved so much that "efficiency" doesn't have much meaning nowadays.

The reverse of that is that the new hardware bails out bad software, but no one seems to be writing software that takes great advantage of the greatly expanded hardware capabilities.

Another major change at Chaos Manor is that at the end of the year I got rid of my eight year old Windows 2000 Server Active Domain network. All of my systems are now in a workgroup. There are disadvantages to this. Active Directory has some very useful and helpful features, and while complex to set up, once set up works pretty invisibly - so long as you are working with Windows XP. Vista has some problems with the version of Active Directory I was using - hardly astonishing - but it will tolerate it and again, once set up properly, it all works pretty well.

That's so long as you are dealing with Windows systems. The problems start when you add one of more Macs to your network. Mac OS X and Active Directory have a relationship of mutual loathing. You can get them to communicate with each other, but that's not only very difficult, but pretty unstable. Even worse is trying to get a Virtual PC running under VMware on a Mac to communicate with a Vista PC. It's barely possible, but it almost drove me nuts.

Another problem with using a server-based networking system is that it assures that you have a potential point-failure source in your system. If that server dies, your network is gone. The server can fail in a number of ways, including trivial failures like allocating insufficient space for the event log. I was in that situation after my backup PDC died a while back.

For those and many other reasons I abandoned the Active Directory server system and converted all the machines to a Workgroup, with a D-Link DIR-655 Wireless Router to allocate addresses. The entire story is given in last month's column.

2008 Trends

The major trend in 2008 was the collapse of the economy, and that's far too large a topic for this column. The implications for the future extend to education choices, career choices, and a great deal more. I had a good bit to say about that in a previous column.

Probably the most important development in small computers in 2008 was Apple Computer. Apple built on its great success with iPod and iPhone to gain a significant increase in the Mac market share. At year end Mac had about 10% of the small computer market, the greatest market share Apple has had since the early days of small computers. I can recall a West Coast Computer Faire in which there was an Apple Hall and a PC Hall, and they were about equal in size; but that was a long time ago. I expect Apple's market share to increase again in 2009. I do hope this doesn't inspire the bean counters to compromise on Mac quality and try for some kind of "mass market Mac." That won't happen so long as Steve Jobs is in control - yet another reason to wish him well.

Finally, 2008 was another confirming instance of Moore's Law. Moore's original observation was based on trends in chip design and fabrication. It's now more an empirical observation, but our computing capability does seem to double every eighteen months to two years. Exponentials can't go on forever, but this one doesn't seem to be leveling off.

Netbooks and the Cloud

Both Windows and Mac made significant moves toward "network computing" and operating in The Cloud. I covered much of this in the column following the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference and in the mailbag that followed, and there's not much to be added here. That's an advantage of on-line publishing: I can reference previous columns without having to do a lot of explaining. Of course that comes with the disadvantage that I have to do more actual writing: I can't fill space by quoting previous work. Oh. Well.

At PDC Microsoft announced "Azure" and demonstrated some of its features. So far this hasn't had much impact on the computer industry, but it's early times yet, and there are some who think Azure and "the Cloud" were the major announcements of the year.

A week later Microsoft showed some features of the upcoming (Real Soon Now) Windows 7. There was some pre-alpha Windows 7 released, and a few of the press corps got it sort of running on their laptops in the press room, but there was no real story about Windows 7 because they didn't show enough of it. What they did show made a good impression, but there's no certainty as to what will be different from Vista by the time they're done updating Vista. By the time of WinHEC in late Fall, Microsoft had fixed many of the most vexing problems causing Vista complaints, and there have been more since then. No one I know is holding their breath waiting for Windows 7.

Peter Glaskowsky comments

I think there is much more eager anticipation of Windows 7 today than there was, say, a month ago. At least, it would be worthwhile to say that more recent feedback from users of the latest private beta has been unusually positive (for performance, memory usage, the user interface, etc.) and that Microsoft will be releasing a public beta of the OS on Friday. There will be a limit of 2.5 million copies in that version of the public beta, so interested users should grab them quickly.

-- PNG --

Vendors report rising sales of notebooks and their smaller counterparts netbooks, and that trend will probably continue as batteries get better.

Another development that contributes to the trend toward netbooks and small notebooks is continuing improvement in memory cards. Back in the 1980's I postulated that silicon is cheaper than iron, and spinning metal disk drives would be replaced by chip devices. Alas, while I was right about dramatic improvements in non-disc memory - you can buy thumb drives bigger than any of us had in any of our machines less than a decade ago - the improvements in spinning metal drives have been even more dramatic, and a full terabyte of disk storage can be found in sales for under $100. Another instance of Moore's Law, of course: not only do better computers make it easier to do precision metal work, but faster chips allow more data to be stored in smaller areas.


Last month I said that Belle Boyd, the heroine of Francis Hamit's historical novel The Shenandoah Spy was sometimes known as Belle Starr. That turns out not to be the case. Belle Starr was an entirely different person, and my confusion stems from a very old and very bad movie. Apologies.

The Chaos Manor User's Choice Awards

I've already explained why I haven't done much experimenting with new stuff this year, and thus my User's Choice Award list is much smaller than usual.

My number one User's Choice award goes to Apple Computer for their whole line of Mac products. I doubt there's much controversy over this. This goes with it:


An orchid to Apple for an almost trouble free update to OS X with version 10.5 Leopard. Compared with Windows this update is trouble free. While I and my clients have experienced no problems there have been some reports of glitches with some application from early adopters.

Apple continues to provide an out of box experience that is the equivalent of the best consumer electronics. If buyers of consumer electronics had the out of box experience provided by Windows PCs, sales would plummet.

Bob Holmes

I have to agree, and I will happily add a Chaos Manor Orchid to the User's Choice Award.

For many years I have used massive "clicky" keyboards, and in particular the Ortek MCK-142 Programmable keyboard. These have a great feel, and the programmable keys feature is extremely useful. The only real problems I have ever had with the MCK-142 are (1) the lettering on the most frequently used keys wears off and I have never found a way to replace it that lasts more than a couple of weeks, and (2) every now and then it loses all its programming and I have to reprogram those keys. Both those problems are relatively trivial. Alas, the manufacturer discontinued this line in 2007 and I have found no reliable source of new keyboards nor a repair facility, so I have had to find a substitute.

The substitute I found was the Microsoft Comfort Curve line 0f keyboards. These come in both wired and wireless varieties. The feel isn't as good as the clicky Ortek keyboards, but the key layout is very good. Another advantage is that they come in both PC and Mac varieties, so I don't have to use a different keyboard when I use the iMac 20. I now have Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboards in the monk's cell - the upstairs room where there are no books, games, or telephones to which I retreat to write fiction; on Emily the Intel Extreme Vista Ultimate system that I use for PC games and PC video editing; on the iMac 20; and down at the beach house in San Diego. In both the Monk's cell and the beach house I connect a Microsoft Wireless Comfort Curve keyboard to the ThinkPad t-142p laptop. The ThinkPad has a good keyboard for a laptop, but I can work better with the full size Comfort Curve. At some point in the near future I will set up the MacBook Pro to take over the t-42p's functions, and while the MacBook Pro has an even better keyboard than the ThinkPad, I find the Comfort Curve more productive.

Therefore, the User's Choice Award for keyboards goes to the Microsoft Comfort Curve line. I'm sorry to lose the Orteks, but I guess nothing lasts forever.

I acquired an Amazon Kindle in February, which is odd because it was a Christmas present; it took Amazon that long to deliver it. I have since used it nearly everywhere, and I love it. I give the Amazon Kindle the Chaos Manor User's Choice Award; but see below.

I have used the D-Link DIR-655 Wireless Router as the main gateway to the Internet for years now; it has never given me any problems, and once again the D-Link DIR-655 Gaming Router wins the Chaos Manor User's Choice Award, and D-Link gets one of my Orchids. The Gaming Router has the ability to discriminate among packets of information and give those of high priority - like on-line games - precedence. This helps a lot with not only games but e-mail.

The Annual Orchid and Onions Parade

Each year I ask for nominations for Orchids and Onions, and I generally get several hundred, so most of my nominations come from readers. In many cases I have no choice because I don't spend much time with iPods and music and the modern fetish-like demand for constant entertainment. My criteria for selecting those I publish is purely my opinion.

This year I got a great number of political onion nominations. While I agree with some of them, this doesn't seem to be the proper place for that sort of thing.

Herewith the Orchid and Onion Parade:

First, I have more than a dozen nominations for an Onion for Vista; more for Vista than for any other product, and almost as many as for certain political figures. While a year ago I might have agreed, I don't agree now. Vista isn't an OS for slow or memory-light computers, but given a good machine it works well. It took me a while to get used to it and learn its ways, and it took even longer for Microsoft to fix a number of defects, but it's all right now. I won't go quite so far as to hand out orchids - I didn't get a single Orchid nomination for Vista - but I won't give it an Onion either.

My one complaint about Apple computers is that they are more geared to people who use earphones (or earbuds) than speakers, and speaker sound is often inadequate when playing movies or for that matter games. This is most easily corrected with an external speaker. I have used the Altec-Lansing Soundbar FX-3020 with my iMac for much of the year, and It Just Works. It doesn't quite fit under the monitor and I wish it did, but I give it a Chaos Manor Orchid anyway.

A huge Orchid for Handbrake (link). It's an indispensible piece of software to convert DVD's (and almost any other video format) into iPod-compatible video files.

Available on both Mac (its native platform) and Windows, it just works. And it's free.

Doug Lhotka

This is one of this I'm not qualified to select, but I have other reliable information from Mr. Lhotka.

Dr. Ed Hume likes the iPod Touch:

ORCHID - iPod Touch

We gave one to our younger daughter for Christmas. It Just Works. She was onto our 802.11n wireless network with no fuss - just the passphrase and off she went. Direct connection to YouTube - no browser needed. She had no trouble downloading her iTunes collection.

I do recommend going online to find a charger. We found a kit on Amazon that filled our need. It has a Travel plug-in Charger, a Car Charger, and a Retractable USB Charger/Data Cable for iPods and iPhones for $3.89 + 2.98 shipping (link), where all our local stores wanted $17 to $30 for the same or for just the plug-in charger alone.


Again this is outside my experience, but long time readers will recall Dr. Hume, who used to be one of my companions at AAAS meetings in Galaxy days.

Nomination of Sony reader PRS-700 for Orchid.

Touch screen is great. Doesn't need chiclet keys. Unit feels substantial. Made of metal, not plastic like the Kindle. Still only 10 oz. 6" screen. Page turn is swipe of finger on page. Has slots for both Sony memory stick and SD cards.

Simple to make fonts bigger. Nice and smooth. LED illumination for night reading seems hokey but actually works better than you think. I just read a novel (Arthur C. Clarke "Time's Eye" series #3) that way and it was a fast read. The page refreshes are very fast. Tons of supported formats. Works as advertised, or better.

Supposed downsides (lack of wi-fi) are meaningless to me and I suspect it is likewise for others. I prefer it how it works. Your mileage may vary.

In sum Sony got it right and this is competitive with the Kindle.


Gary Alston

I completely agree that the Sony Reader is excellent. I have a Kindle, and that has been the reader in use at Chaos Manor; but I have heard nothing but good about the Sony, and I'm pleased to hand them an Orchid.

On that score:

I know you love your Kindle, but I think these will be more of a game changer than the Kindle. Stanza and eReader are both excellent, and now BookshelfLT has a built-in link to the Baen Free Library... and all of them are free.

Read this link.

Stephen Fleming

I am not convinced that this will prove more influential than the Kindle, but perhaps so.

Prices on eBook readers seem to have held longer than I would have supposed, which has limited the number of them in use, but they'll get down to commodity pricing reasonably soon. I expect to live to see them more popular than paperback books for casual reading. They won't replace hardbound books in my lifetime.

I have dozens of nominations of VMware Fusion, and I am pleased to award VMware a very large Chaos Manor Orchid for making it easy to get Windows running as an application on an OS X Mac.

I also have a dozen nominations of the iPhone 3G for an orchid. I don't have the 3G but I am very pleased with my first edition iPhone, and both versions deserve (and get) a large Chaos Manor Orchid. The iPhone isn't quite the pocket computer I described in The Mote in God's Eye, but it's very close. My version of the iPhone is at its best only when I have WiFi access; but since I generally have WiFi in my village that's most of the time. The 3G iPhone has less battery life but can function as a pocket computer over a much wider area. Once you get used to having the Internet in your pocket, you will wonder how you lived without it.

Stephen Fleming, whose title is "Chief Commercialization Officer" at Georgia Tech, is obviously in a good position to see new technology as it develops. He has sent me a number of nominations.

I don't think you've gotten infected by Twitter yet, but it really does change the way I use the Internet. In some cases, I find myself checking Twitter before I check email.

It, or something much like it, is going to be a VERY big deal.

-- Stephen Fleming (on Twitter)

Leo Laporte is another Twitter advocate. I have tried it a couple of times, and I fail to understand the attraction; it would, I think, depend on the willingness of interesting people to keep up their postings, and I suspect the novelty of having people look over your shoulder while you write short textings will wear off. Perhaps I'm merely displaying curmudgeonly tendencies.

On the other hand, I can go for a good part of the day without checking email. My late friend Poul Anderson had better self discipline than I, though: Poul could ignore a ringing telephone on the theory that if it were important they'd call back, and he had better things to do just at that moment.

Orchid - Google Mobile App -

Amazing iPhone app that lets you lift your phone to your face and ask a question, then Google searches for the answer. No buttons required. Location aware, yada yada. Google did a lot of cool things in 2008, but this is the coolest one.

Stephen Fleming | Chief Commercialization Officer | Georgia Tech

I have to agree this is pretty cool, all right. Thanks for telling me about it. They definitely get an Orchid.

Orchid - JungleDisk -

A simple mechanism to backup and store gigabytes of files to Amazon S3 without requiring technical wizardry. Mac, Windows, and Linux versions. Ridiculously cheap. Has saved my bacon more than once; I now have installed it on my wife's and sister's computers. Also a nice place to stash files from one computer and pick them up on another. Very well done.

From their website at http://www.jungledisk.com:

> Jungle Disk has a great automatic backup system, and can easily be  
> used for basic data backup, but Jungle Disk also gives you a  
> complete network drive that you can use from multiple machines -  
> like an unlimited size USB drive that you can connect to from   
> anywhere. The exclusive caching features in Jungle Disk make it so   
> that using your network drive is as fast as a local drive, and you   
> don't need to constantly transfer data from the server.  This also   
> allows you to use your favorite 3rd party backup tool such as  
> ChronoSync, SyncBack, or rsync to manage your data if you prefer -   
> something no other online backup service offers.

-- Stephen Fleming | Chief Commercialization Officer | Georgia Tech

I don't use online backup services, largely because I have many terabytes of storage here. I probably should look into a system that makes it easy to do off-site storage just in case, and this looks to be a good one. Thanks.

WEB Onions

A big onion to sites that disable the back function. Another onion to sites that have links that leaves you at the same page when you click on the link.

John Abshier

I could use up this column and two more on web sites that do awful things, like refuse to close, or use the close bar to launch spyware. The first time that happened to me I was astonished. (Vista doesn't fall for that sort of thing: it asks if you initiated the installation before doing it. But it's still scary.)

I nominate the computer language Python for an Orchid for 2008. This last year, Python broke through into worldwide popularity. The volunteer team led by BDFL (benevolent dictator for life) Guido van Rossum released "Python 3000" (Python 3.0) before year's end as well as releasing the next production-line 2.x version, Python 2.6.

Python -- and Linux (the kernel) with its "BDFL" Linus Torvalds -- show that benevolent dictatorships are great forms of organization which can easily beat out other forms of cooperation in software development unable to escape Pournelle's Iron Law, whether proprietary *or* open-source software (cf. The Mozilla Foundation as an example of an Iron Law'ed open-source project).

Richard Hanson

I completely agree with this. Python deserves a large Orchid. It's useful, well structured, easy to learn, and powerful. I use it to write quick filter functions among other things. I'm pleased to hand Guido a big Orchid. I'll also reserve a smaller one for Firefox, which does tend to vex me with its insistence on controlling its own updates, but I do use it.

Subject: Onion Nomination

I nominate SanDisk for an onion.

I bought a SanDisk jump drive that advertised a mail-in rebate. I chose that brand only because of the rebate, as the drives on display appeared to be pretty much the same. I submitted the UPC, proof of purchase, sales receipt, etc. At least six weeks later, I received an email denying the rebate because my submission was "incomplete". Fortunately I had scanned copies of all the items I had sent in. I carefully examined SanDisk's requirements and the copies of what I had sent, and could not find that anything had been omitted. I wrote a letter asking them to tell me exactly what was omitted, and enclosed my copies. At least two months after that, a check arrived by mail, with no word of explanation nor apology. I would not like to think SanDisk planned to refuse the rebate to those who couldn't prove they had met all the requirements for submission, but if I had a suspicious temperament, it could sure look that way.

I am a freelance editorial assistant (compiling indices, tables, etc) who is paid by the hour. I figure between time spent, postage for two submissions, and general aggravation, it cost me more than the rebate paid. I do not intend ever to buy any SanDisk product again, and any offered rebate must be quite large before it will influence my purchase decision.

Edwin Frobisher

I suspect SanDisk is only secondarily guilty here: that is, they hired a rebate fulfillment company that is unsatisfactory. There are many of those. Oddly enough, I have never had a bad experience with rebates. I send in the required stuff - Fry's is very good about supplying all that is needed - and eventually money appears in the mail.

I'd like to recommend an Orchid for Dell's Mini 9. This Netbook is a "Modder's" dream. You need not worry about memory size. For $22 you can get a 2 gig stick and physical access to the memory is simple.

I cleaned out all the crapware and installed Office 2007 Student and Home, OneNote 2007, and Vipre AntiVirus. The Office programs run fine.

I bought mine from the Dell outlet. I got the 16gig SSD. There is plenty of room for applications and data. I use my Passport drive to hold music files and other data. There is no need for a hard drive on these systems.

If you reference this link you will see some interesting modifications. One person disassembled the whole unit so he could paint the cover red.

Other individuals:
  added a disc activity light
  took apart his USB GPS module and added it internally to the Mini 9.
  Installed Mac OSX
  Installed Vista Ultimate "Light"

Bud Pritchard

This is not the only nomination I have for the Dell Mini 9. Your selection of software is about what I'd put on one for a research and writing system. So long as you are careful to clean up needless files, there is, as you say, no need for a hard drive at all.

I nominate the AOL Windows software for the biggest stinkiest Onion of 2008. This goes double for version 9.1.

I do not believe that I have ever seen a bigger resource hog in my 45 plus years in the computer business. It appears to have been designed and implemented with absolutely no thought to the wide range of resources available to AOL users. Almost anything short of the latest system with 2 GB of RAM can be brought to its knees by this stinking pile.

But wait, there's more...

The most egregious of the many glitches and incompatibilities of the last year was the Adobe Flash fiasco. This was brought about by the AOL software demanding an updated version of Flash and then choking on it.

The only way out of this was to download and run a special uninstaller from Adobe and then download an updated version of Flash. It is not clear that this is ALL AOL's fault, but it certainly looks that way since there were no problems with Firefox or version of AOL software earlier than 9.1.

It would be in everyone's interest if AOL simply got rid of its proprietary software and had all AOL users access AOL using "standard" browsers.

Bob Holmes

I have no experience with AOL and never have. Niven was using AOL for a while, but gave up because they made it nearly impossible to email novel-sized attachments to him; but that was years ago. Since then I don't think I know anyone who uses AOL.

Received my Clarifi from Griffin Technology. It's an iPhone case that includes a sliding macro lens. Check out the difference with and without the lens in the photos above. Click the image to see the full- size version. (Random scrap of paper from my desk; no deep philosophical significance.)

[see images at http://rainingsoup.com/clarifi...]

Well worth thirty bucks from J&R. With Evernote's OCR capability, this could make business-card scanners obsolete...

-- Stephen Fleming | Chief Commercialization Officer | Georgia Tech

I will go further and give Griffin Technology another Orchid on general principles: they make a lot of nifty Apple products. I am still using my Griffin iPhone case that has a small external amplifier function that adds about half a bar to my telephone signal - and also makes the iPhone much easier to handle. Hurrah for Griffin.

Winding Down

The movie of the month is Australia. It's too long, there are some cliche homages to political correctness, and the Japanese never landed ground forces in Australia during World War II, but I'm not sorry to have seen it.

The game of the year is, as predicted, Fallout III. It's a time sink. It's also about the best role playing adventure game I have ever seen. The puzzles are difficult but not impossible, the scripting is good, and the story line is cleverly done. Recommended.

I've already mentioned the book of the year: David Pogue's Switching to the Mac. Any PC user who is contemplating going over to the Mac side needs this book, and badly.

A second book of the year is Jim Efferlink's Office 2008 The Missing Manual, O'Reilly. Microsoft Office 2008 is what I use on the Mac.

In accord with the Orchid award to the Python programming language, I recommend the O'Reilly Python programming books. There are several, and if you're serious about learning Python you'll need at least Learning Python.

The book of the month is Christopher Booker and Richard North, Scared to Death with subtitle From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares Are Costing Us the Earth. This is a terrifying book: in matter of fact, almost dull, language it describes how children were taken away from their parents and badgered into accusing adults of ritual Satanic abuse - even flying on broomsticks. People were jailed for long terms on this evidence, in both the US and the United Kingdom. There are other stories of misuse of science by "social scientists". There is the story of asbestos, the truth of which will surprise you. There is the story of Listeria Hysteria in which decrees from Brussels nearly ruined a Scottish cheesemaker. In all these cases we have partisans pretending to be experts.

Booker and North are British journalists, and most of their stories are about scares in Britain; but it can and does happen in the United States and elsewhere. We do not seem to have mechanisms for making decisions on scientific evidence. Unfortunately, I don't think the year 2009 will get us any closer to having them.

Happy New Year.