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Computing At Chaos Manor:
March 11, 2009

The User's Column, March, 2009
Column 344
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2009 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

I let Microsoft update and reset my computers. I have thought of changing those settings, but since I'm not likely to say "No, don't reset," it seems pointless. Usually that works out all right, but the last two updates have done something strange: the updated software took my XP laptop entirely off the local network. I had to log back on using the password. I have no idea why, and other than inconvenience there were no consequences. It's another symptom of the rapid advance of technology overwhelming yet another level of user. I used to be at the edge of technology. Now I'm just trying to hang on. I know that the benefits of the new technology far outweigh the difficulties, but sometimes you have to stop and think about that.

iPhone 3G

The new 3G iPhone moves us a long way toward the pocket computer Niven and I described in 1973 in The Mote in God's Eye. Of course that book was set a long way into the future, and the pocket computer in the book was something out of my imagination; I certainly didn't expect to have anything like that in my lifetime. In those days computers were large monsters that lurked in air-conditioned rooms and were tended by a priesthood. Science fiction stories of the time envisioned huge computers; Isaac Asimov had one the size of a planet. The notion that ordinary people might not only have, but depend on, personal computers was considered plain silly, and the notion of pocket computers even more so. Yet here they are.

The 3G is a better telephone than the iPhone. It's still AT&T which has particularly bad coverage at my house, but even so I find I have fewer dropped calls with the 3G than I did with the original iPhone. Better yet, anywhere that I do have telephone service I have fast web services as well. I don't have to be connected to Wi-Fi to get fast web access.

I had honestly thought that wouldn't make much difference, but I was wrong. I find myself using the new 3G iPhone a lot more than I ever used the older one. It takes very little time to look up a word, or find a web site. It's now an interesting world: there are essentially no arguments over facts. It's too easy to look anything up, from sports statistics to historical facts. Want to know when slavery was ended in England? For reasons not important now I did want to know that the other night, and it was easy to find out. The 3G makes web surfing and emailing reasonably fast and fairly simple wherever you are.

The new iPhone has GPS, but I keep that turned off for battery life. Actually, the old iPhone used cell tower locations to find out where it was, and it was pretty accurate. The GPS system is more so. I just used the iPhone to find a route to my San Diego book signing, telling it to start at present location and giving a street address and zip code for destination. It took almost no time to find that. The local phone service had faded out, so it was using my Wi-Fi network to connect to the web; but it's about as fast when I don't have a Wi-Fi connection.

The new iPhone 3G, like its predecessor, will work with a local wireless network if given the chance, so I can use it to access the web at home even when I don't have much in the way of telephone service, which is pretty often. I've taken to wondering whether I should get a VoIP app going for the iPhone 3G; there are several, (see this link), including, surprisingly, a free app from the iTunes store. I hadn't thought that Apple/AT&T would allow that.

Of course the new iPhone will interfere with your regular phone, and most other electronic devices, but most all phones do. For years we heard how superior the rest of the world's cellular was to the US: we had TDMA, CDMA and iDEN (think Nextel), three competing standards, while Europe had GSM. AT&T and T-Mobile adopted 'real' GSM a few years ago - and inherited the GSM gallop, characterized by a galloping sound in local phones and electronics. Every now and then you'll hear it on the TV news as someone's cell phone interacts with the broadcast audio pickup. I have heard it in interviews and even a Presidential news conference. When it first started happening here - that was back when I had a Nokia cell phone that was a cell phone and nothing else - it was driving me nuts until someone told me what it was. I had thought it was something wrong with one of the computers. The GSM gallop was worse with the iPhone than it had been with the Nokia; the new 3G iPhone seems about the same as the old iPhone. If it gets within a couple of feet of a landline phone (at least my ancient TIE key-system phones) it will interfere, and it does that with the audio system of the iMac, where, alas, I tend to put the iPhone for charging. The connection doesn't matter: whether the iPhone is connected or not, every now and then I hear the gallop in the Altec Lansing external speaker I have connected to the iMac.

As an aside: I've always been a bit hard of hearing, but I don't think it's just me: I've never had a Mac that had adequate speakers. My old Power Book needed an external amplifier, and so do all the new Intel Macs from the iMac through the MacBook Pro. They're fine with earphones (or earbuds, I suppose, although I never use those), but I don't want to be tied to the iMac when I'm watching a movie or playing a game. I can understand the low volume from a portable: energy, and cranking up the audio output wattage would cut down on battery life; but I don't really see why they can't put adequate audio in the iMac. Ah, well.

On charging: my original iPhone came with a cradle. I didn't use it much because I kept the iPhone in a Griffin case; the case featured a small antenna that gave me about half a bar boost in bad coverage areas. The new 3G won't fit in the older Griffin case, nor can it make use of the older iPhone cradle. Apple sells a cradle for the 3G, but I didn't bother getting it; I've got used to connecting my iPhone to the iMac with a USB connection, and it's just as easy to do that with the 3G. Incidentally, I got the incase Slider Case for iPhone 3G from the Apple Store where I got the iPhone 3G. This case makes it much easier to handle the iPhone, and it's said to be compatible with the 3G cradle (that I don't have). I charge the 3G every other day; it has never been less than half charged.

Installation Quibbles

I got the 3G iPhone from the local Apple Store in Fashion Square. I hadn't been to the mall since Valentine's Day, and it was a little disconcerting to see how few people were in the stores. I didn't have to wait to get service, which was all done at one of the display computers. There was a minor problem with AT&T which thought I had an overdue telephone bill and insisted that I pay that before they'd activate my iPhone. Considering that I've been an AT&T customer for 40 years, and the bill was about a day late (the check was quite literally in the mail; I'd just paid the bills) this seemed a little odd, and it's a pretty good commentary on the nature of monopolies.

I also made a mental note to look into replacing two of my AT&T land lines. One is a fax line and we never call out on it except to send a fax every now and then, yet it costs some outrageous amount every month, and in looking at the bill I find a bunch of inexplicable fees, some mandated by government and some apparently just stuck on to help fuel the AT&T executive jet. I can't remember the last time I got a fax that I wanted. Surely there are programs that let me receive faxes on either Windows or the Mac? Or even via e-mail? I did send a fax of my expenses for my last trip. I don't have a scanner (other than my fax machine) but I bet there's a way I can do without the fax number - or perhaps it's time to look into ways to send and receive fax through the Internet. And while it's worth while having one AT&T line for emergencies such as power outages, I could convert one of our other lines to Vonage or another VoIP unlimited calls service that works through ordinary telephones. I find I don't use Skype much because I'm not in the habit of telephoning through my computer - although given what AT&T's rates have crept up to I could learn new habits! In any event, I stayed with AT&T through inertia because it was convenient; now that I know they treat a long-established customer like a deadbeat they've lost both convenience and any trace of customer loyalty. I'm told that Vonage will work just fine with my ancient TIE internal telephone system; something about replacing trunks. I'll have to see.

Once I gave AT&T a credit card number to pay my two-day overdue bill my 3G iPhone was activated. Of course it wasn't synchronized with my old iPhone, so when I tried to make a phone call to report success, I had to look up the number. I looked it up on the old iPhone, which still works just fine as an iPod: it has all the contacts, applications, books, maps, music (or would if I had any), notes, and even web browsing assuming that you can connect through Wi-Fi. The only thing missing from the old "deactivated" iPhone is the telephone itself. (I guess it's just the same as an iPod Touch, just older.) Of course that gets me wondering if I can find a VoIP application for it; I could use it to make calls from anywhere I have Wi-Fi, and after my AT&T experience I might well get into that habit. In any event, I now have a Wi-Fi connected iPod as well as an iPhone 3G.

I was able to look up a number in the Contacts on the old (and now iPodded) iPhone, then make the call on the 3G. It worked fine; my hearing is lousy, but I think the voice quality is a little better.

I suspect I could have used Apple's Mobile ME to synchronize the 3G with my Apple accounts, but I didn't know how to do that, and given that I wasn't more than a few minutes from home there wasn't any need to. When I got home I connected the iPhone to the iMac and let them synchronize away. It appeared to be successful.

Most tests showed that the 3G knew everything that its predecessor knew, but there was a surprise when I tried mail: it demanded a password for the mail account. So far as I knew, the old phone had known that password. On the other hand, I wasn't sure I knew it. I mean, clearly the iMac knew the password for the account, but I wasn't entirely sure which one I had used when I converted my account from @mac.com to @me.com - and the iPhone only knew about the @mac.com account anyway. It didn't seem to have been told about @me.com.

The simplest solution to the problem was to change the password. After all, I had access to the @me.com account on the iMac. The Apple procedure for changing an email password is pretty simple - unlike Windows, Apple help files are often helpful - and I did that. Now that I was certain that I knew what the password was, I deleted the @mac.com account - actually accounts, there were two of them, identical - from the 3G iPhone and created a new one using @me.com. The only email account I have on the iPhone is the Mac account; I may or may not put my main Chaos Manor mail account onto the iPhone when I'm more used to dealing with email by phone, but I probably won't. There would be far too much for me to deal with. In any event, the new email account works just fine.

That was pretty well all my conversion problem. The transition from the older iPhone to the new 3G iPhone wasn't entirely without incident but it was pretty simple.

iPhone Applications

There are literally thousands of iPhone applications, with more being added daily. You've all seen the TV advertising campaigns built around them, and it's all true. There's an app for nearly anything you might think of doing with a iPh0ne. Most of them are either free or under two bucks; a few cost more. You can spend a whole day just looking through the available apps, and I suppose you could spend a good bit of money on them if you were careless.

Which ones you want depends on what you do with your iPhone, of course. There are games and distractions, ways to find things from restaurants to hotels to taxis in nearly every major city in the world, puzzles and tricks, news and amusements, and utilities galore; and as I said, more are being added all the time.

I had already installed YouNote and Stanza. YouNote is a complex program that lets you gather notes, photos, observations, and other data; think of it as OneNote for the iPhone. I don't use it as often as I thought I would, because I seldom have ideas I need to record while I am out with my iPhone (and when I do I have a notebook and pen I tend to use anyway). Even so, if you have an iPhone it should be one of your first apps, and you won't be wasting time if you play around with it to learn what it can do. It has been useful to me when I needed it.

YouNote is primarily for those who use their iPhone for everything. For computer users who also use iPhone there's a better program, EverNote. EverNote doesn't do as much as YouNote, but it does some of what it does much better. If you're interested, there's a comparison review on CNET that's worth your time.

While I prefer the Kindle, you can read almost anything you like on an iPhone. To test that I bought several books, including Edgar Rice Burroughs A Princess of Mars. Actually I didn't buy that; it was free. When I got the book on the old iPhone I opened it and read a bit of it. It was quite readable. The text images are sharp, the illustrations are visible, and moving about the book is easy enough. Burroughs remains interesting as a fantasist, but I was busy, and the story didn't hold my attention long enough to finish it; but the real test was readability, and the iPhone had certainly passed that test.

Then I got Stanza, which is a free book and periodical reading and ordering program. The big feature is a large catalogue of available books, some free and some for sale. It was easy enough to order a book, and I found a number of free works including one by Sabatini I hadn't read. I figured that would do as a test, so I downloaded Bardelys the Magnificent. Navigation was intuitive and easy to learn, and I could adjust the text size to suit my vision. Navigation in Stanza is a bit different from navigation in the books I got from the iTunes store, but not so different that it's confusing.

That was all on the old iPhone, and all this was happening when I was busily trying to catch up from a year of less than optimum activity and output, so I didn't do much reading at all, and even less light reading; and what reading I did was on the Kindle. I didn't have a lot of experience at reading books on the iPhone. Then, about the time I got the G3 iPhone, the Kindle 2 came out, and I got that; and a new iPhone app came out that allows you to read Kindle books on the iPhone.

This free app instantly makes all your Kindle books available for download onto the iPhone. It doesn't automatically bring them over, for the obvious reason that you do other things with the iPhone and you probably don't want to use all that memory. It also takes some time to move them, and each time you look at a Kindle book on the iPhone it goes out to the cloud to look up where you left off reading. That too takes time, not really all that long but it seems long if you're used to the instant response of the Kindle itself.

Reading Kindle books on the iPhone takes yet one more set of navigation habits. Instead of touching the screen to turn a page, you need to actually slide the page back or forth. I had to poke around to find out how to add bookmarks. If there's a way to mark text I haven't found it, nor does there seem to be a way to make notes as you can with the Kindle. You can put in bookmarks, which the iPhone Kindle app remembers and can find (and which will appear on your Kindle if you go back to that). As to readability and clarity, the Kindle iPhone app is as good as any other iPhone reader application.

I'm not the only one: My daughter-in-law Dana installed the Kindle reader on her iPod touch and promptly picked up a book she wanted to read. Five minutes from decision to reading. Another sign of what we call "passing the Aunt Minnie test" at Chaos Manor: Could my (theoretical) Aunt Minnie figure something out without a 3AM support phone call? So far, the iPod Kindle reader (and thousands of other App Store downloads) truly are ready for the rest of us.

Kindle 2

I have the new Kindle 2, which is just as well because my Kindle 1 died just as the new one arrived (presumably from jealousy). The electronics are working fine: it's just that none of it gets to the screen. Well, some of it gets to the screen, but not in a readable form; but what does get there makes me believe that the electronics are just fine.

I'm still trying to work out whether I'll get a new Kindle 1 under the warranty. Meanwhile, most of what I had on the old Kindle transferred to the new one. Note I said "most". I had a number of free books which I had sent to my old Kindle address, and which transferred just fine. I could and did read them. My problem is that I couldn't find them on Vista. The Vista search function isn't really very good, or perhaps my ability at using it isn't very good, but entering the title or author into Vista search and then telling it to look everywhere didn't get me much.

Eventually I figured out that I ought to be looking at the sent items folder in Outlook. To get a book from your computer to the Kindle, you email it as an attachment to an email to yourself @kindle.com. Amazon does the conversion and sends the book to your Kindle, where it arrives within a few minutes. All the books that hadn't automatically appeared on the Kindle 2 were books I had sent to myself that way, so a search for sent items to my Kindle address did the job nicely. All I had to do was forward those items to my new Kindle address, and lo! There they were.

Sometime last year there was a big "sale" of ebooks at Baen Publishing, and I downloaded several of them. As to where I put them after I downloaded them to this computer, I can't imagine; it's a complete blank, and searching by title has produced nothing. I thought perhaps I had done this before I began using this machine - Bette, an Intel Core 2 Quad 6600 - as my main communications machine; in which case I have a problem because that machine won't boot. I've removed the disk drives, and they're readable, so one of these days I'll try looking there. I may find the files. On the other hand, I did find them by searching sent items for @kindle.com, so I suppose it's a moot point. All that happened last year, and my memories of last year are pretty fuzzy; mostly I remember being tied down to a table and being zapped with hard X-rays.

It's an interesting side effect of cheap mass storage: I keep everything, and while I can't figure out where I put the downloaded copies I attached to the emails I sent to myself @kindle.com, I never erased those attachments because there was no need to do it: and thus I have been able to find them and forward them, and they are now on the Kindle 2. If we were back in the days when a few hundred megabytes were important, I'd have had to clear that stuff off my drive. One day I suppose I'll have to do that anyway, but so far I still have plenty of space here. And I also suppose I've taken a step toward "cloud storage", since I care not WHERE the data are stored, merely that they are. Peter Glaskowsky finds the concept of the chaos in my Great Hall "a cloud" amusing.

About the only Kindle usage I'm unlikely to engage is blogging. The Kindle (1 and 2) don't directly support blogging but some tools are available through a web browser. They are certainly not replacements for FrontPage, still my web layout application. Given what I hear from the few hardy souls who have attempted blogging via Kindle, I'm certainly not missing the feature.

Kindle App to iPhone Problems

You can't buy Kindle books from the Kindle app on the iPhone. If you want a new book, you have to go to your Kindle and order it, or, alternatively, exit the Kindle app, go to Safari or another web browser, and order it directly from Amazon. Either way, shortly thereafter it will be available on both Kindle and iPhone.

That sounds simple and it is; but as I said earlier, when I turned on the Kindle 2, I discovered that books I had forwarded to myself @kindle.com for the Kindle 1 had not made it to the Kindle 2. I remedied that by finding those items and sending them to myself at the Kindle 2 email address. That turned out to be no problem although I suppose Amazon will charge me another dime for each of those.

Alas, they did not make it to the iPhone Kindle app, and if there's any way to get them there I haven't been able to find it. That is, Amazon keeps track of Kindle books you've bought from them, and will forward them to a new Kindle, or to your iPhone 3G or iPod Touch; but it doesn't keep track of books it has converted for you and sent on. I can understand that, and I don't expect them to do it for me. If they tried keeping a copy of every book and document they converted, they would end up needing Google sized server farms. What I do want is an application that allows me, one way or another, to get something other than an Amazon-bought Kindle book into the Kindle application on the iPhone. Failing that, getting any random eBook into the Stanza application would do; for that matter, I'd be willing to pay the iTunes Store a small fee to convert a book without DRM into one of those free standing books you can get from the iTunes Store.

Note, incidentally, that each iTunes Store book is a separate application. You click on the book title to open it. What that actually does is open a small reading program that is attached to the book. Peter Glaskowsky puts it this way:

Just to be clear, if it's available from the App Store, it IS an app.

Think of it as a BASIC program with the whole book in DATA statements. :-)

I'd really like a way to get eBooks into the Kindle app, but I'd settle for an app that would convert non-DRM eBooks into apps like those I buy from the iTunes Store. I could get them into the iPhone by attaching them to email, but reading them in email isn't easy. There ought to be a better way. I don't want to jailbreak my iPhone, but I would like to be able to put books into it.

Reading on iPhone vs Kindle

In my case I found the comparison between reading on Kindle and reading on the iPhone a difficult decision. The iPhone has brighter and text, and of course colors. The pages turn fast, and you don't need much light in the room because the iPhone screen provides light to read by. The Kindle text is passive, and thus depends on external light; if there's not enough you can't see it well.

The Kindle screen is larger, and you can get more words on the page for a given text size. That makes reading easier and faster. You don't have to turn the pages as often. With the Kindle you turn pages by pushing physical buttons. You turn pages on the iPhone by touching the screen, or, with the Kindle app, by actually sliding the text with your finger. Either is simple and becomes automatic after a few minutes.

If I had to do a lot of reading, I'd rather do it on the Kindle than the iPhone; but as I said earlier, it's not a slam dunk decision. I confess that until I tried it I thought I would not like reading books on something as small as an iPhone, but my prediction was wrong. It's a good experience.

Peter Glaskowsky comments:

I told you so. :-) I read at least a dozen books on my Palm Treo, which had worse fonts and a smaller screen than the iPhone. It worked.

Not great, but better to read on the gizmo you have with you than on the gizmo you left at home.

Kindle 2 and Text-to-Speech

The Kindle 2 has a built-in text-to-speech capability. At any point in a book you can go to the menu and turn on this on, and the Kindle will read the text to you, either through the speaker or through earphones. It's not bad at it, either, but it does get some things wrong. It is, after all, mostly phonetic, and emphasis - the accented syllable - is not as consistent in English as it is in some language. Moreover, it sounds like a computer voice, and one nowhere near as nice as the "Victoria" voice in the older Apple text to speech programs.

In other words, the text to speech feature isn't all that useful, or at least I wouldn't think so. It's a godsend for the blind or nearly blind, but I sure wouldn't want to hear a novel read to me by the Kindle, and in fact except for experiments I have never had the text to speech turned on.

When the Kindle 2 was first brought out, it was announced that there is no way to disable the text-to-speech capability: any book you can read on a Kindle 2 could be read to you by the Kindle.

This loosed a firestorm. Many authors said that Amazon was stealing rights; that purchase of a book, in whatever format, did not give you the right to have someone read it aloud: you can't hire a hall, sell tickets, and have someone read the book to the audience. Indeed, you can't read the book aloud to your wife, or to your children. This came as astounding news to many teachers and library volunteers, but the Author's Guild went so far as to call it the Kindle Swindle, and many other authors had the same view. The text-to-speech capability was threatening authors and taking bread from their mouths.

My own view on that was more amusement than anything else. I cannot believe that anyone would listen to one of my books as read to them by the Kindle if there were any other way - including having someone else read it to them - to do it. It's not that the text-to-speech capability is awful, but it's not all that pleasant either. I thought this a storm in a coffee mug.

Others thought differently. Some said that having the book read to them by text-to-speech wasn't pleasant, but it was better than nothing. Of course nearly every publishing contract has clauses allowing royalty-free Braille and other editions for the handicapped, and few authors object to those; and text-to-speech scanners have been available for PC's for a very long time. Mrs. Virginia Heinlein used such a scanner in her last years when her sight failed. The Author's Guild never objected to those. Apparently the Kindle is sufficiently popular to cause reconsideration of Guild policies. As to quality of the text-to-speech program, many pirated copies of concerts and movies have awful quality, but people still watch them. Just how many of those represent actual lost sales isn't clear, of course.

Amazon stood its ground at first, but in a surprisingly short time Amazon caved in and announced that copyright owners would be able to put code into their eBooks for Kindle that would prevent the Kindle from reading the book aloud.

It's not clear to me what this means for books that are not in the Kindle format: if I have an eBook that has no DRM, and mail it to myself @kindle.com, I would not think that Amazon would add code forbidding text-to-speech; after all, Amazon has no idea where I got my eBook, or even if it's a copyrighted work. When that book gets to my Kindle, the Kindle can read that text: I have tried this on several books including pdf formatted books, and the Kindle has no trouble reading them to me. My guess then, is that only Kindle formatted books will have the "no text-to-speech" code. I am also fairly certain that it will take less than a month - I'd bet less than a week - for someone to publish an application that gets around the restriction even for Kindle books. Peter Glaskowsky says he'll take that bet; it's going to be harder than I think it is.

Now the law certainly would forbid taping a text-to-speech reading and distributing copies of the tape, and rightly so, just as it forbids you to make an audio book of Niven and Pournelle's Escape From Hell and selling copies without our publisher's permission. I suppose a strict interpretation of copyright law probably does forbid reading books aloud at all: after all, the reader is creating a new copy in a different format. Of course children's books generally are read aloud by teachers and library volunteers, and no one wants to put a stop to that.

And on the gripping hand, technology advances faster than the law can keep up with it. Protection of intellectual property has always been difficult. If someone is determined to get a pirated copy of a book, it's very likely that pirated copy will be found. It's a lot easier to pirate a book than a record or a movie, and there are plenty of pirate copies of those floating around.

At some point technology may become good enough to allow text-to-speech engines that people would actually want to listen to, but the Kindle 2 hasn't got anywhere near that, and the accusation of a "Kindle Swindle" went a bit far.

Things to come: Building your home theater.

Larry's home theater dimensions

Larry's home theater entry

Larry Aldridge is the retired VP of Marketing at PC Power and Cooling, and a long time friend. He's been building a home theater. Now a lot of people build home theaters, but Larry has gone a bit farther than most. I got him to tell me some details. Think of this as a teaser, a picture of things to come.

We begin with "the space," a chunk of bare basement. I didn't get a "before" picture, but it's easily imagined. The dimensions can be seen: click the thumbnail above left. The project isn't finished - given the march of technology it may never be - but just now it looks like the other three thumbnails.

Larry's home theater back wall

Larry's home theater big screen

The room's back wall has two 30x40 Star-lite windows and embedded images of the Earth (right window) and Moon (left window). The final shot shows an actual still image of the IMAX DVD (not Blu-ray) of Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks. The Diamond series TV with Samsung player provides a stunning image, even with std. DVD's. TV rests on the Oak Place's custom cabinet.

In future reports I'll go into details, including cost/performance tradeoffs.

Coming up: State of the Art Home Theater on a Budget

  1. Wrestling with the design and layout of the room and components.
  2. Maximizing seating capacity - How I determined this..
  3. What carpet to use for that Theater feel!!
  4. What theme to use! Hmmmm!!!!
  5. Lighting.

Stay tuned,

Larry Aldridge

Winding Down

The book of the month is Gary Berntsen, Human Intelligence, Counterterrorism, & National Leadership: A Practical Guide, Potomac Books. This goes on my short list of books I wish everyone with political power would read. It doesn't have much that's startling, but Berntsen looks systematically at intelligence gathering and applies both experience and common sense to fixing what's broken.

The computer book of the month is Paul McFedries and David Pabian, iPhone 3G Portable Genius from Wiley, one of the Portable Genius series. If you have a 3G iPhone or contemplate getting one, this is the book you need: it's both a handbook you can use to look up things you want to do, and a survey of the 3G's capabilities. I guarantee you will find something in this book your iPhone can do that you didn't know about. Recommended.