Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2009 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

February 22, 2009

ESCAPE FROM HELL, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, is now shipping. This is the story of a science fiction writer who finds himself in Dante's Inferno. It might be subtitled Vatican II meets Dante...


Hi Dad--

One comment on your column re FileMaker:

Until recently, a tribute to FileMaker's robustness could be seen at the UC institute where I used to be managing editor. Back when the web was brand new, about 15 years ago, myself and a student intern (political science major, not a compu-whiz) set up IGCC's website to run off a FileMaker feed. We picked FileMaker then because of the cross-platform interoperability (it really does Just Work), but also for the idiot-proof ease of use, always essential in a multidisciplinary academic community where whatever you use needs to be comprehensible to clerical staff, freshmen of any major, and luddite faculty alike. To post updates, nobody needed to know a thing about the web. They just filled out a form in a FM database, and presto.

This year one of my successors finally migrated the website to a .php server--but 15 years wasn't a bad run! You can still get a feel for it though, because the site format has not changed. Go to [http://igcc.ucsd.edu/ ]. Anything you see there (concatenated lists, individual pages, What's New items, etc.) can be served on-the-fly from a FileMaker database--a handy thing indeed if you need to keep a website up-to-date from existing records.

-- Dr.Jennifer R. Pournelle

Thanks. I have used FileMaker for years, and each revision gets better - although a bit more complex to learn, I fear. Still, I know of nothing I like better.


Kindle 2 and February 12 Review

Jerry

As a long time reader I just read your February 12 Review comments on the Kindle 2 with great interest. As someone who's struggled over the last several years with deteriorating vision, the gift of a Kindle 1 this last Christmas has been a great blessing. For the first time in quite a while I can engage in casual reading without the support available in my home office or the hassle of opening a laptop to kill a couple of minutes while waiting for someone. One of the nicest features is the ability to utilize a single device for both e- and audio- books,depending on lighting conditions or just my mood. Even a limited text-to-speech ought to further expand those options, especially if one can switch back-and-forth in a reasonable way. Amazon has done many folks like me a real service!

That said, the Kindle is not perfect for those in my situation. The current font maxes out at a purported (?) 20 points. Larger options perhaps linked to a way to rotate the screen orientation 90 degrees would surely help. Alternatively, reversing the screen image would be a real boon The one area that Amazon has not handled well are the battery issues so many folks have had. Replacement batteries remain on an at least 4+ month delay even as new units are sold. Does the improved battery life of the kindle 2 suggest a solution or will Kindle 1 users be "orphaned". So far I've been unable to get an answer to these questions from Amazon.

Brian Belleville

I do not yet have my Kindle 2 so I can't be definitive here, but I expect you are correct. The Kindle is a signpost toward the future, but we aren't there yet. I remain fond of my Kindle 1 and use it daily.


Correlations

"This would allow new correlations to be found, and those may lead to scientific breakthroughs by generating new falsifiable hypotheses to be tested. Note that discovery of a correlation isn't itself a breakthrough, just as finding improbable events isn't necessarily a new discovery. "

I really enjoyed this part of the column because I recently reread James Blish's CITIES IN FLIGHT series. There's one scene in which, as a political misdirection, Mayor Amalfi tells a bunch of other mayors what a great project it would be if they hooked up all the City Fathers and pooled data so the correlations could lead to fantastic scientific discoveries. In the next scene Amalfi privately explains to his city manager why this great-sounding idea is bogus -- for the very reason that finding correlations means nothing without analysis and interpretation, which he knows would take more years than the other Okie cities would sit still for.

Sounds like another instance where real life has finally caught up with art.

Best wishes,
Mike

Thanks. It's remarkable how well some of the older science fiction has held up.


Feb. 12th column, Filemaker, Bento...

Jerry

Great columns as always - no chance of me forgetting to renew my subscription - but I have to take issue with you regarding your comment:-

"If all you need is a good data base for a single Mac, and you're not going to try data mining in collaboration or across platforms, I suppose Bento would do..."

as I can only surmise that you have never tried to use Bento for anything useful. I have a good database on a single Mac; it's called AppleWorks and has its roots from around 20 years ago, when it was called ClarisWorks. I had high hopes for Bento (and Bento 2), expecting it to be a slicker, updated version of the venerable AppleWorks database module (itself a stripped-down version of FileMaker of the time) but instead we were served up with this bewildering mish-mash of iWeb-alike templates, pointless 'themes' and an almost unusable 'print' facility; woe betide you if you want to do anything but massage data on-screen. Don't take my word for it (as if...) :-

http://forums.filemaker.com/fmbnto/board?board.id=contsugprin

Databases are wonderful, but they actually need to be able to do real things; even the secretary of a 'two men and a dog' social club needs to be able to mail-merge the occasional subscription reminder, print tickets for a fund-raiser and produce a newsletter now and then. Filemaker's a fantastic product, but it's too much for people like me with relatively simple requirements; Bento's limitations don't push me towards Filemaker - I don't need, want, or would spend that much on FileMaker - they just make me determined to stick with what I have (AppleWorks) or make-do elsewhere (Excel, Numbers...)

Seriously, this is a lost opportunity for FileMaker Inc.

Best wishes from London, Peter Millard

I confess I have never tried Bento, since Chaos Manor continues to use both Windows and Mac, and even if we convert to all Mac we will be running Windows under VMware on the Mac, so we'll have to have data bases compatible to both operating systems.

The conversion goes slowly: I am working on fiction, I keep the daily commentary up in my View from Chaos Manor, and I have found they aren't putting as many hours in a day as they used to.


Apple and video editing

Jerry,

In your last column you wrote "On the other hand, I have a lot of incentives to do some video and audio podcasting, and from everything I can see, Mac software is much better for doing media recording and editing - better in the sense of ease of use, of course. I'm not qualified to comment on final quality of products, but then I don't have to be. Good enough is plenty for what I need to do."

About once a year I need to do a video for a small family business. I don't have time to become an expert in creating video, I just need to get something done in a presentable format in a fairly short amount of time. I've been doing this video for several years now and had been using Windows to do the video. Last year I used a new HD based camcorder for the first time. I quickly found out that a lot of the existing software is designed for DV camcorders. HD & flash based camcorders create a separate mpeg file every time you start & stop recording. This can create a lot of small files. The problem then comes in that the file format for DVDs is limited to 100 individual files (if my memory serves correctly). After nearly pulling my hair out I finally did accomplish creating the video using Windows but it wasn't something I really wanted to try again. Last fall I bought one of the new MacBook Pros after they came out and then upgraded to iLife 09 when that became available. iMovie 09 was much improved over the 08 version from the reviews that I read so I gave it a try. iMovie 09 in combination with iDVD is so much better than anything I tried that runs on Windows that it isn't even close. While I'm sure there is software available on the Windows platform that would probably work as well I am not aware of what it is. I didn't want to spend a lot of time learning how to use the software, I just wanted to make a presentable video that I could then burn to DVD. iMovie and iDVD not only did that fairly easily but also made creating some extra bells & whistles almost invisible to me. That this is all bundled as part of iLife for $79 is a price point that was acceptable to me.

Best wishes and continued good health.

Tim Werth

Thanks


Dr. Pournelle -

I have had a Windows Home Server for around a year now and agree it "Just Works". One of the features I love is that it lets you know if anything is not right such as a failing hard drive, or a machine that has not been backed up for more than a few days. You can even hook up a drive and tell it to back itself up to that drive. Redundancy for your redundancy :>)

Thanks for all you do!

Ray A. Rayburn

I have been running the HP Windows Home Server for nearly a month now, and it Just Works.


Vista Disaster

Last week, I followed your example and went to the beach for a short vacation away from winter. I had intended to do a little work on upgrading a program I had written about 10 years ago. Unfortunately, my new laptop running Vista will not run VB5 so I had to dig up my old laptop with the bad battery to do any work. Vista is useless for most of my real work. In fact, Windows 98 still does everything I need and I still have an old computer running Window 98 as a backup and to compile PDS7 programs when I need to work on one of my old programs.

I gave up on Macintosh about 20 years ago because so many of my programs would not run every time Apple upgraded anything. Now it looks like Microsoft has fallen into the same total disregard for their customer's needs. I note that you are running Microsoft software on your MAC using VMware. By any chance, do you know if software written in VB5 and PDS7 will run under VMware? And how about Q&A? I still have a lot of my old business records in Q&A and occasionally have a need to look up something.

Chuck Anderson

Your experience is not mine, but I confess I have not tried to make do with such older equipment. Also, alas, I pretty well gave up VB programming some years ago; actually I don't do much programming at all now. There just isn't time.

If you have the installation disks for older versions of Windows you can install those on a Mac under VMware. I haven't tried to get a copy of Q&A running, and I suspect that the floppies I have of Q&A are defunct. It's a pity, because Q&A was an excellent program, well ahead of its time.

Any software that doesn't require special hardware ought to run under VMware. It's a very well done program.

Incidentally, I suspect that you are addicted to ancient hardware, and many of your troubles would go away with some modernization. Moore's law continues, and much of what we used to do just isn't necessary any longer. We don't really have memory limits and disk space limits now - although much of the cleverness of older software was a way around precisely those limits.


Chaos Manor Advisor Rich Heimlich sent this note that sparked a discussion among the advisors; I found it interesting.

Authors Guild irked by text-to-speech on Kindle 2

Do these people ever learn? Technology evolves and putting up artificial road blocks to inhibit these advances never works and does little to help the current market.

Jerry, as an author of traditional books that might have audio versions, what are your thoughts on this?

NEW YORK (AP) -- The guild that represents authors is urging writers to be wary of a text-to-speech feature on Amazon.com Inc.'s updated Kindle electronic reading device.

In a memo sent to members Thursday, the guild says the Kindle 2's "Read to Me" feature "presents a significant challenge to the publishing industry."

The Kindle can read text in a somewhat stilted electronic voice. But the Authors Guild says the quality figures to "improve rapidly." And the guild worries that could undermine the market for audio books.

It is telling authors and publishers to consider asking Amazon to disable the audio function on e-books it licenses.

Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener said the company has the proper license for the text-to-speech function, which comes from Nuance Communications Inc.

My view was

Given the mechanical nature of the "reading" voice, I cannot think this a real danger to audio book sales. Perhaps one day it will be, but even Apple's "Victoria" and other extremely good computer generated voices based on human physiology -- Apple certainly led the world in such software the last time I looked at it -- even the best in the world will be wearying after a few pages. As an aid to the handicapped this is a boon, but those who read for enjoyment will prefer the actual audio book. I suspect I will lose few audio book sales to electronic text to speech generators.

Rich Heimlich replied

I am surprisingly mostly in line with your thinking. Good audio books include professional readers who know how to present a story well and add flavor to it that no computer voice is likely to match anytime in the near (or likely not-so-near) future.

I've been thinking that there's a bigger issue where. Why hasn't the industry figured out that a book is a book? As the author don't you get paid regardless of my choice to buy the Kindle version, the audio book version or, god forbid, the old-fashioned paper version?

What am I missing here? Frankly I've been wondering what would happen if, when I bought a paper book, it came loaded with a DVD of the audio book and a file on that DVD that had the digital version. I'd feel a lot more intrigued by the various mediums in that case. In fact, I have to believe it would drive a LOT of sales of Kindle's and push the number of audio book listeners to new heights. As the author I have to think that you really don't care what medium I use to experience your story as long as you get paid for my doing so.

Peter Glaskowsky added

> What am I missing here? Frankly I've been wondering what would happen
> if, when I bought a paper book, it came loaded with a DVD of the audio
> book and a file on that DVD that had the digital version.

Since it costs a fair amount of money to produce a quality audiobook, what would happen is:

A) The paper book would be more expensive because of the costs of the DVD and the costs of producing the audio book

B) So sales of the paper book would be lower, further increasing the markup for that extra production work

C) The audio-book industry would be destroyed because audio books would be transformed from high-margin products sold to people who want them into low-margin commodity products sold mostly to people who don't.

Similarly, if all paper books come with a digital copy readable on the Kindle, that undermines the commercial ebook market, and thus the Kindle, and eliminates any reason for any ebook reader to include wireless broadband.

Now, one might eliminate the lost sales opportunity and the costs of the physical DVD by binding in a sheet or sticker with a unique code so that the buyer of a paper book gets a discount on the purchase of the audio book or ebook-- but where does that discount come from?

Publishers aren't going to accept reduced returns on their production and marketing investments. Would you ask the authors to give up their royalties on each sale of the book?

Some trivial discount, analogous to ordinary sale prices, could be covered by increasing sales volume, but that's about it. Would it really be worth the trouble to give people discounts they could get anyway by looking for sales?

. png

Which got me to thinking. For now, though, the best speech to text programs do not make books enjoyable. Mrs. Heinlein's eyesight got so bad she needed a book reader to read aloud to her, but it wasn't all that pleasant an experience, just better than not being able to read at all.

There may come a time when computers can read books in a way that people will like, but we certainly aren't there yet.

Peter also noted that our copyright laws were written without contemplating what computers can do, and revisions will be needed. I can certainly agree that revisions will be needed. Alas, they are likely to be made by people who haven't given as much thought to the problem as my readers and advisors have - indeed, given the way the Congress works, by people who haven't thought much about the problem at all, and may not have read the law they passed.

Most of my advisors agreed that the Kindle auto-reader is no real threat to author profits, and the Authors Guild is probably over-reacting. Beyond that we will just have to wait and see.


Jerry

Hope you are keeping well.

A request, could you email your subscriber list when you post a new Chaos Manor review or mailbag - this would be very useful to prevent multiple unnecessary visits now that you publish less frequently.

BTW I have now found a good reason for having Vista - I have just got a Fujitsu Siemens Lifebook T5010 with a P8400 processor, 120gb HD and the DVD/RW swapped out for an additional battery pack - with fairly unaggressive power settings I can get 6 hours plus out this machine.

The reason this makes me praise Vista? The T5010 is a convertible tablet and the handwriting recognition in Vista works like voice recognition in that you can optionally enroll your personal style to improve recognition accuracy, unlike XP where you had to learn it, it now learns you. My handwriting is quite poor and yet Vista makes a pretty good fist out of turning my scrawl in journal into generally accurate text.

Regards Andy Gibbs

Alas, there are enough subscribers that it's not so easily done. What I really mean by that is that Outlook won't mail to a very long list, so I have to break the list into parts in order to mail to all the subscribers. I expect there are programs that I can use - FileMaker among them I suspect - that I could use to build and mail out such notices, and I need to look into them.

When I started the web site, Outlook was sufficient to manage everything and I keep the subscriber list as an Outlook contacts file. Alas, using Outlook to mail to that large a file just doesn't work - and I found that out about the time I became a bit less than competent. You spur me to look into what I should do; I make no doubt there are many programs that will allow me to mail to several thousand using an Outlook contacts file to do it, and I just have to look into which ones do that.

Outlook won't; it chokes up when you get near 1,000.


[[A possible solution is to use an RSS-to-eMail bridge. A brief visit to Google brought me to Feed My Inbox which looks useful, I'm sure there are others. Just find a way to get the CMR RSS feed to send you email. - Brian]]


DBase

Some years ago I was faced with a similar problem in that my trusty Paradox based accounting system was getting old and creaky. One of your correspondents mentioned WordPerfect and Paradox is, or was, part of the WP package. Corel did a lousy job of Paradox bug fixes and updates and Paradox was never client-server. Paradox and Vista are barely on speaking terms. I discovered that Borland-Codegear-Embarcadero were giving away Delphi for .Net 2006 and Interbase 2007. The Delphi has some restrictions but the Interbase appears to be full power. There is freeware called DataPump which converted all my data at high speed (100,000 records in the main table, 10 fields per record, 20 seconds) after I defined the appropriate databases in Interbase. The Delphi VCL forms I have created are great. Delphi's Pascal derivative object oriented language is very powerful, especially with full access to .Net. Interbase is client-server and I've gotten my forms to access my office computer's Interbase server over the net, at quite good subjective speeds. I'm not sure what Mr. White means by "direct data manipulation", but the package is very powerful with plenty of direct access to Windows tools. Main weakness: Very bad report generation. Non-existent as far as I can see. Possibly something in the package you pay for. I had a trial Crystal Reports download and I never even got it to work. Happily Delphi can easily output text and communicate with WP. I am very grateful to Embarcadero for the free software. I was a professional programmer many years ago but now am a hobbyist and it's fun to play with something near the cutting edge without paying an arm and a leg.

Fred Zinkhofer Canada

Thanks! I expect many readers will find this interesting.