Dr. Jerry Pournelle

Email Me

Why not subscribe now?

Chaos Manor Subscribe Now

Useful Link(s)...


Hosting by

Powered by Apache

Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

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

April 27, 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. A number of readers have reported favorably...

Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey comments on the April column:

Some thoughts for the next mailbag based on the column.

"The same is true of the movie and music industries: things change, but the industries go on despite fairly widespread piracy."

It's important, I think, to note that some non-trivial amount of the "piracy" that's going on doesn't actually represent lost sales, since the customer (Can a "consumer" of intellectual property be called a customer? And can intellectual property be consumed?) may never have laid out the bucks if it came to that. Also there are still people who understand how stuff works, and know that if they don't pay a fair (eeek, there's that word, "fair") rate for the products of their favorite artists, those artists won't produce. Why do you suppose that I bought a copy of Escape from Hell, even though you'd have sent me one, had I asked?

Look to music. I've never downloaded a single illegal track from the Internet. I still do buy a bit of music here and there, sometimes on the used CD market, but usually either direct from the artist, or via a responsible label, like Magnatune (http://www.magnatune.com). But I have enough audio on hand to keep me fairly content. Frankly, most music today produced by the major labels sucks, in my opinion. They should look at the quality of the product when they wonder why none of the "hits" (spell that differently) sell.


I got your physics right here. Well, MIT does, anyway. Check out MIT Open Courseware, especially the physics section, where I've been concentrating my not-so-copious spare time in the last year or so.


Walter Lewin's Physics lectures, Mechanics first, then Electricity and Magnetism, are wonderful. Yep, there's math. It's the cost of doing business in Physics. Compared to some of the abstruse stuff they're doing on the imaginary frontiers of quantum these days, Calculus is a breeze (and it wasn't, for me, for some reason).



I do point out that the MIT physics lectures are at a bit higher level than the college physics book I reviewed. One need not become a theoretical physicist to benefit from some knowledge of the principles of physics.

vista uac tip

Hi Jerry,

Long time reader -- since the Zeke I and II CP/M days!

Your mailbag had some comments about Vista UAC. Why not try Norton Labs' UAC tool:


It's awesome. Makes Vista quite usable because it allows Vista to remember responses to UAC prompts. So simple yet I won't use Vista without it.

Highly recommended.

Take care,
Ron Perrella

I find Vista security a bit of a mystery but it doesn't cause me intolerable problems. Rick Hellewell, security specialist, says,

I don't use the program, but note in the Norton support forums that it appears to be a 'work in progress', still in the "Labs".

The NUAC (Norton User Access Control) program intercepts UAC prompts, and allows the user to specify an answer to 'remember' when the same program/process does another UAC prompt. NUAC also sends info about those 'answers' from the user's computer to their labs for analysis, obstensibly to allow the Labs to tweak the program.

So it appears to be in open-beta form, with some users on their forums complaining about lack of updates to the program. Not sure if NUAC is still under active development; the NUAC forum has a 'open issues' post that was last updated Aug 20, 2008.

I would approach this with trepidation, as it is does not appear to be a 'finished' product. I personally don't mind the UAC prompts, even though they are a bit more intrusive than needed (and appear to be better in Windows 7). UAC, if used by the user correctly, will help prevent malware (unless the user just says 'go ahead', as is often the case). I would rather have a more layered protection...the old "Safe Computing" advice ... of current Microsoft and other application patches, along with current and active anti-virus programs. Note that the big "Conficker" attack could have been prevented by installation of Microsoft patches from last year, along with current anti-virus solutions that are aware of Conficker attacks (not just that initial malware attack, but the attacks that are allowed by Conficker).

Regards, Rick Hellewell

Mac Tip - SmartSleep

I run my MacBook as a desktop replacement, with an external monitor, and a keyboard, trackball, and mouse all attached to a USB hub. Once in a while, the system gets into a state where it won't go to sleep or stay asleep. Restarting the system or, oddly, disconnecting the mouse, clears the condition.

The free preference pane SmartSleep restored reliable sleep to my system.


William Dooley



For those trying to learn physics:

Physics autodidact resources

Dr. Pournelle,

I just recently came across a webpage maintained by Gerard 't Hooft, 1999 Nobel Prize winner in Physics, on how to become a good theoretical physicist.


An ambitious goal, to be sure. The intent of the page is to provide the aspiring physicist with the necessary knowledge to practice physics, laid out in a logical order, and vetted by someone who can tell the difference between good science and complete dreck. Everything on this list is free to download. Anyone interested in physics could probably find something of interest here.

The list has some similarities with Roger Penrose's book, The Road to Reality. The choice of subjects is a little different, but the overall goal is similar. The number of topics is smaller, but the presentation is unified by having been written by only one person. Penrose's book has a number of exercises scattered throughout, and the solutions can be found on the web for those who wish to work though the problems.




Both 't Hooft and Penrose are aiming for a fairly high level of understanding. Not necessarily the most useful kind of material for solving a routine problem or explaining matters to struggling undergraduates. For more mundane purposes, I use the archives of John Denker ( http://www.av8n.com/jsd/ ), who published his answers to questions that came up on PHYS-L, a mailing list for physics education. I have used this material occasionally for engineering purposes, particularly the article on measurement uncertainty and significant digits.




Benjamin I. Espen

Of course this is at a far higher level than the college physics book reviewed in the last column. Thanks.



I think you know more about the history of everything than any person alive. It's wonderful to read your perspective on the history of things.

I had a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica when I was a teenager only because my neighbor was getting rid of hers and gave it to me. I have to confess that I always got a lot more excited about reading your latest column in Byte than reading that encyclopedia.

The print editions of Encyclopedias were doomed to fail with or without electronic media because of the simple fact that knowledge is growing at a rate that cannot be contained in book form unless you own a mansion with a separate library room to house all the necessary volumes that would be required in it.

Dean Peters

Encyclopedias were never intended to be a source of topical news, although they did have yearbooks. But your point is well made.


Hello, Mr. Pournelle: I saw with interest your extended comments on Encarta and Britannica and the future of encyclopedias; thought you might like to see the couple of posts we had on Encarta last week at the Britannica Blog, one from our former editor-in-chief, the other from one of the original developers of Encarta:


All the best,


Theodore Pappas
Executive Editor, Chief Development Officer
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

Thank you. I wish Britannica well in this age of expanding knowledge.

on the column and encyclopedias

Lin and I talked it over last night. We both agree that future google is the replacement. The current search metric is based on hits and cross linking. If you assume an efficient data environment, I.E., efficient market theory, then a future search engine would tend to cancel out BS like man made global warming based on data from both sides. How this would work is, of course the devil in the details, but with the amount of processing power coming on line, it should be possible. However, and this is a big one, just as you say "you may not be interested in politics, but politics may be interested in you", the same can be said about future data sets and online information. There would need to arise a ethic that says if you know something is wrong, then you must refute. Will this come to be? I think so. The information flow is no longer one way it is definitely N way

Phil Tharp
Vreelin Eng. Inc.

The intention of Wikipedia was to allow correction on the theory that truth will out; but the Global Warming controversy is a counter example. Once the 'consensus' is established, then 'denial' becomes nearly criminal. The quality of some of the "Global Warming Deniers' - e.g. Freeman Dyson - has kept the 'debate' from vanishing entirely, but the flame flickers low. There's so much money invested in the 'consensus' and so many grants depend upon accepting it that dissent becomes more and more rare.

An efficient information environment is much to be desired, but it's not clear that it's inevitable.

Regarding CircusPonies

Hi Jerry,

I use it as a monthly journal, just as I had used OneNote. Of course projects sometimes are worthy of their own notebook.

Now, how do I harvest the information? If I can't remember what keyword question, date, etc. to query I can bump around in each month's index to see what I'm reminded to enquire about.

Increasing age may make this an increasing problem. See if you can convince them to program some kind of information harvester for Notebook 3.


Joe O'Laughlin

It might be interesting to do an information harvester design description.

April Column International

Dear Jerry:

Very good on the IP stuff. On the Google lawsuit, this is a massive land grab on their part. When I checked I found that my current novel and my MFA thesis had both been scanned in. There was a big dust up last year about the scanning and electronic distribution of creative MFA thesis, particularly of Workshop grads which might have later commercial value, and U of Iowa libraries are not supposedly part of the program anyway, but there is was. Anyway, I asked that both be left out. I am still selling rights on "The Shenandoah Spy".

Google goes blithely ahead until someone objects because they know they can. Most authors don't register their copyrights and publishers often "forget" (which is a neat way of preventing copyright lawsuits). In any event, you can only bring a lawsuit on these issues in a Federal District Court. That requires potential damages of at least $75,000 and a lawyer who will take the case. Most won't and most don't know this area of law anyway. You can register your work at any time, but the first 90 days after publication are the window for statutory damages. Finding actual damages is very hard and usually a "battle of the experts".

The Copyright Act needs major reform. Technically the entire registration requirement, IMO, is a treaty violation and it doesn't work anyway. Other nations don't require it. That gives an author from abroad suing for infringement superior rights to that of one from our country.

The standard assumption has been that copyright complaints from individual authors need not be answered nor do letters from their attorneys because the case will never get to court. If it does it will be quickly settled for the limits of the liability insurance in the Errors and Omissions policy. Class Actions drag on for years and only the lawyers really make any money.

People have wised up to the Google "settlement" and are beginning to object, but you are right. The law itself can only be altered by an act of Congress and the interpretations of the Courts. The law itself is "Black Letter". Pretty simple. It means what it says and says what it means. The devil is in the details because it has not kept pace with the technology. That has given rise to a lot of pretty blatant theft in the name of progress. What is needed is a kind of compulsory license such as used for music. You use it, you pay. Not much, but something. And all these lawsuits go away.


Francis Hamit

I completely agree that the Copyright Registration procedures are in violation of the International Copyright Convention, which was explicitly designed to make matters simple for authors; Victor Hugo, who drafted the Convention, made his intentions clear and those who adopted the Convention agreed with him. The entire copyright law needs extensive revision.

The Google settlement has been under discussion by all the author associations. There's no consensus on what ought to be done: all are agreed that it's a mess. Many authors believe that Author's Guild chose complainants very badly: there were few authors of note in their original complaining group from which they sought to make this a class action.

Many agents are advising their clients to OPT OUT of the settlement. The downside on that is that they are required to do a lot of paper work specifying which works you control are opted out. This can be onerous. If one opts out of the settlement, there is no provision for compensation to those whose works were copied without permission, but there is supposedly a mechanism for making Google cease and desist from offering those claimed works on the Google site.

If one OPTS IN, either explicitly or by ignoring the May 5 deadline, then one is entitled to complain that the settlement itself is unfair. The Science Fiction Writers of America organization will take that option; SFWA has published several books and owns copyrights, and is acting as a copyright owner in this case. The SFWA position on the matter is here: http://www.sfwa.org/news/2008/sfwastatement.htm

Note that ignoring the matter is the same as OPTING IN. One will then have until January 2010 to do the complex paperwork that specifies which works you claim compensation for. In theory at some point Google will then send you a nominal sum for each work scanned in without permission and validly claimed by the opting in author.

Whether one opts in or out, it is unlikely that anything will be settled for years, and the only real certainty is that the lawyers including those of the Author's Guild will be paid; the amount set aside for actual authors is small. This appears to be usual in class action suits, in which the lawyers are paid millions, and the actual clients receive token amounts or coupons.

My own view is that Congress needs to act. Google's ostensible purpose here is to make works available to the world: many books are under copyright, but the copyright owner has abandoned the work, or does not know himself to be a copyright owner. This is made even more complex when the original copyright was issued to a magazine or publisher on the understanding that the copyright would then be transferred to the author (a common practice for decades), but the publisher did not send the requisite paperwork to the Copyright Office, and has subsequently gone out of business.

My preference would be legislation that reverts copyrights in the United States to the original author (or estate) unless a publisher claims the rights within, say, one year. This would mean that publishers with legitimate claims would have to do some work, but the result would be considerable clarity in who owns what, and allow estates to negotiate for republication of works long unavailable, as for instance through the Amazon Kindle program. Absent such legislation, it can be a nightmare for estates of Golden Age authors, where the copyright is registered to a long defunct publisher, and if there ever was a letter of reversion the heirs cannot find it.

The Google Grab creates a new literary agency that will act for all those who opt in; it's an agency you can't fire, and you can't negotiate with. This is unreasonable, and one of the main reasons for opposition to court acceptance of the settlement agreed by Google and the Author's Guild. Note that only those who have opted IN have any standing to complain about the settlement.

We have not heard the last of this issue. Google may have good intentions, but the results of this settlement are, in my judgment, evil.

Kindle accessory


The creator of the xkcd web comics has created an interesting accessory for his Kindle.


Roy Harvey
Beacon Falls, CT

Pursuit of laziness indeed...

RealPlayer alternative

Dr. Pournelle:

In Wednesday's mail section, a reader recommended a site for old-time radio shows that included X Minus One


But, he noted that RealPlayer was needed. I've found RealPlayer intrusive, since it hijacks the playing of other audio files. There is, however, a much more polite alternative, Media Player Classic. A Google search will offer a bunch of download sites, but this one


will also provide it.

-- Pete Nofel

Re: Skype and (phone) calling

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

a personal experience with Skype, if I may add to the discussion:

I am living in Italy, but have much of my family, as well as many friends and contacts, in the States. I signed up for a package (Senza limiti Mondo - Unlimited World - $12.95) about a year ago, and have never regretted it. The quality has been at times (relatively few problems, to be honest) of dubious to low quality, but for the most part, decent to good. Most all are better than the standard payphone calls I made in the 80s-early 90s from Italy to the US. I do, usually, find a better connection between Skype (computer)>Phone than Skype (computer)>Skype (computer) lately, to my surprise. But if something, by chance, doesn't work, calling a second time usually fixes whatever problem there was. And it doesn't cost anything to try the second time with my package. Video sometimes overloads the connection (particularly bi-directional videoconference), but then I've not gotten so used to videocalls that I can't do without when I realize what is happening and voice/video starts breaking up.

Calling landlines in Italy (from a computer on high-speed ADSL from in Italy) is sometimes difficult (I suspect Italian problems more than Skype tech difficulties), but with calls to the States, I have had very little difficulties and even greater satisfaction. The worst I've faced is that I might need to call twice (still free, with my package) if there were interference with the first attempt, and several periods (mostly late afternoon EST) when I couldn't get a line.

Calling from Italy to either landlines or cell phones in the States is almost always painless, and best of all, free. I just logged a few of hours of calls trying (managing, hopefully it seems) to organize a trip for the Summer between my daughter, myself, two sisters, my parents and various other relatives, organizing everything between New England and the Midwest over a month and various travel itineraries... including numerous calls to toll free numbers (airlines, travel companies, ecc.) in both Italy and the States. I'd hate to think of the costs had I used even the most economical international calling packages available here in Italy.

And as an extra, the grandparents are thrilled to watch their grandaughters talk to them, even if the girls can't see them (since my Dad - 70 y.o. - still hasn't gotten the hang of using Skype on his notebook with the webcam - maybe this trip I will be able to make the "Aunt Minnie" lessons it sink in?).

Best regards for your continued improvement in health and success in writing,

James Siddall jr

And it just keeps getting better...

Raid 6


There is a 5 bay device available that supports Raid 6. The Thecus N5200B. It sells for $659 at Amazon, and supports Raid 0, 1, 5, 6 and JBOD.

My Clients have three of these installed and they have all worked flawlessly. The 5 bays allow Raid 6 to be implemented at the cost of only 40% of the total disk capacity. A 4 bay device would cost 50% if Raid 6 were supported, but of course it wouldn't be since Raid 0+1 accomplishes something quite similar at the same capacity cost.

Bob Holmes

Subject: Multiple computers on the same desk

Multiple computers on the same desk

I came across a new tool that you might find useful.

A friend of mine just added a second system under his desk. He wanted to keep both screens, but use one keyboard and mouse between them. I got him a KVM switch and just didn't hook up the video.

That worked, but not well. This particular KVM switch was essentially a USB hub that switched back and forth. The problem is, on the old machine running XP, it took anywhere from two to five seconds for the machine to recognize the peripherals. Just long enough to cause a pretty severe distraction.

My friend stumbled across an article in Maximum PC that described a program on SourceForge called Synergy that lets the user treat multiple computers almost as if they're two monitors on the same computer. That's a really cool idea. Especially since this program is cross-platform, Windows, Linux and Mac OS.

I looked over the project pages. There appears to be an active following. There are many recent posts on their forum. But, while it does appear that there is active development going on, the last official release was in early 2006. To get it to run on Vista requires a workaround.

While looking that over, I saw a mention of a Windows-only solution called Input Director It has been releasing updates every few months.

I've been using Input Director for a couple of weeks, now. It appears to be a very well-behaved program. (I did have to turn off the water-ripple effect. It looked cool and I wanted to keep it. But caused a pretty noticeable hitching of the mouse cursor for a few seconds upon switching over. Global Prefs tab.) I'm finding that I like having two machines that behave like a multi-monitor system. One big advantage it has over the KVM switch is Copy&Paste between the systems.

I did not take time to install Synergy. You might find that one more interesting since you're running diverse OS'.

Drake Christensen

I received this last fall. Mr. Christensen now reports that this has been working for months without problems.

This comes from some time ago, after a discussion of some Mac problems. The instructions are still useful:

RE: Mac, Anvil


Or you could do it the fun way if you know the problem is DNS--

Steps to flush your DNS cache in OSX Tiger

1. Open up a terminal window (Located in /Applications/Utilities).

2. Flush your DNS cache with the following command: lookupd -flushcache

3. Type logout and press the 'Enter' key to close the window.

In Leopard flush your DNS cache via terminal

dscacheutil -flushcache

I have no idea why they changed it. I suspect there were other terminal commands that changed as well.

--Jim Carr

I received this last fall, when I was actively experimenting with the Mac as well as Windows. I'm still doing that. I ran across this communication last week, and decided that it was interesting enough to present in the mailbag.

Macs and their frustrations


I just read one of your daily blog postings and have some sympathy with your Mac frustrations. I have a mixed computing environment with OS X, Vista, XP and Linux. I do it because I enjoy "playing" with them. Anyway I decided to move my main media maintenance to Macs. I had abandoned Cable and Satellite (advertising drove me nuts on the stuff I actually watched and I could not care less about sport) and put my viewing pleasure in the hands of Netflix and iTunes. The Vista and XP based machines spent most of their time updating and scanning for viruses (viri??) and crashing and I needed something a tad more reliable. I had experimented with a Mac around 6 years ago and loved the machine, however the business world was almost entirely devoted to Windows machines hence I let the Mac experience go fallow, so to speak. So I decided to purchase a more up to date Mac and move all my media management to it.

This proved to be troublesome and I soon found out that Macs can have serious problems of their own. Mainly iTunes. Having spent good money and spending time moving my media library (not easy in the iTunes world) I found my nice new core 2 duo 2.8GHz 24" iMac could not even connect to the iTunes store. My Vista machine which used to serve the media requirements in my house, sniggered in the corner!!

The problem eventually went away. Nothing from Apple of course. No admission of issues, no help, nothing. The problem just "disappeared". Things have been working well now for nearly a year when "bam", out of the blue, I find that iTunes crashes my Mac in spectacular fashion. It froze the machine up. By now I had 2 Macbook Pros and an Air as well. They worked fine. Of course. I went to the discussion groups and found that I was not the only one..... Now here is the zinger. I have deduced what I think was happening (too complicated to go into here, but if you are experiencing the same issues I can send you the gory details) and got it all working again. At least I think I did. Since Apple is so secretive I have no idea whether they did anything or whether I actually effected a cure. In other words was my so called fix a coincidence?

Now, I am an engineer. I build my own machines and have done so since the days of the first microprocessors (Intel 4004 and yes I am that old!!). I have installed all versions of Windows, I have installed multitudinous versions of Linux and have written my own real time OSs. Here I am faced with a machine that is not behaving but I have no way to work out whether what I am doing works or not. Apple's paranoiac secrecy leaves me in a strange quandary. You once quoted one of your expert friends with words to the effect that an Apple computer either just works or it doesn't. There is no in between. I like Macs but their efforts to make a foolproof machine leave us in a mess when they don't work. There is no interaction with Apple. They deliver, you take. That's it. So you can imagine my frustration and empathy with your comments in similar circumstances. Maybe we know too much. I have no idea. I know I was ready to move back to my latest Vista machine and give up. And all because I have no idea what I did and why, when a problem solved itself.

Meanwhile I am friends with my Macs for a while, until they blow up again. All I can say is this computing world requires patience and perseverance if you are going to use as an integral part of your daily life. OS X may be better than Vista, who knows. Macs are cooler looking, that is for sure. However computing still has a long way to go before it is as reliable as my BMW!!

Thank you for providing so much food for thought and allowing me to share with you.

All the best and it is great to see you back up to speed again.

Peter Jackson

In essence: be patient. Apple will eventually fix things. They won't admit they ever had a problem. This happens rarely or frequently depending on who is telling the story, and clearly correlates with one's attitude toward the Mac.

Peter Glaskowsky's maxim was "With a Mac, everything is either very easy, or impossible." While the latest MAC OS allows some UNIX wizardry to allow one to accomplish the difficult providing one has sufficient competence, the maxim remains true for the rest of us. Whether this is for good or ill is irrelevant. It's the way Macs work, and that isn't likely to change.

You get more bang for the hardware buck with a PC. You get more elegance at greater cost with a Mac.

This note comes from the same time period:

What authorization really means

Dr. Pournelle,

The next time you get stumped by an uninformative window with the word "authorization" in it, remember this:

In the PC and non-OS X Unix worlds, "authorization" means security, so check login credentials.

In the Mac world, "authorization" means an opportunity to spend money on apple stuff, so check your iTunes store credentials.

It's all very simple once you realize that everyone is out to get your money, except for the people who write the under-lying OS parts that talk to bare metal. Everyone but the true geeks are just looking for better ways to get you to send them some cash.