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Computing At Chaos Manor:
May 10, 2009

The User's Column, May, 2009
Column 346
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2009 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

The Conficker Worm is still out there, but we got through April without its crashing the entire Internet. (See last month's column.) The current panic (dying out as I write this) is over swine flu. One Hong Kong hotel quarantined all the guests while rushing a suspected swine flu victim to hospital. A Dulles-bound aircraft from Europe did an emergency landing in Boston because one passenger had symptoms. It was later determined that she had a bad cold. Mexico City was a ghost town last week, although we hear that they are now allowing restaurants to open again (but the waiters wear masks). We now know that the swine flu isn't as severe as the usual seasonal flu that kills 30,000 or so people in the US every year, and there are some indications that we're standing down from the panic, but there are still schools closing and school proms being cancelled.

I confess being a bit puzzled here. The Internet allows news to spread very quickly, and perhaps that contributes, but the swine flu panic seems more driven by conventional mainstream media than the Internet. Indeed, the Internet was quick to disseminate the true information about the low death rates and comparatively low severity of this particular flu; that this was, in fact, not much different from an early appearance of an annual seasonal flu. The panic happened anyway. Apparently the denizens of the Internet don't include the public authorities responsible for all the panic? I'd think there's a lesson in there, but I am not sure what it is.

Peter Glaskowsky wonders if it originated with this story from the CDC on April 24:


"Scientists said the virus combines genetic material from pigs, birds and humans in a way researchers have not seen before."

Of course that's not true, but by evening there was speculation on radio talk shows that this was some kind of engineered virus, perhaps a biological warfare attack. All that was nonsense, but it reverberated around the Internet for a couple of days before it died out. All told, we had more than a week of panic and several billion dollars in economic damages from not much. I suspect there is material for more than one PhD dissertation in a study of how this panic and the Internet interacted. We rely on the Internet, but we don't really understand it.

As to Conficker, as we said last month, people who read this column generally keep their operating systems up to date and won't have a problem. Of course we like to be sure. If you are really worried about it, there's an "eye chart" test at the Conficker Working Group site that ought to reassure most of you. If you do find that you may have Conficker, don't panic. In particular don't go rushing off to Do Something about it. Get trustworthy help, or go to http://confickerworkinggroup.org/wiki/ , be sure you are at that web site and no other, and study the situation. There are a lot of fake "help" sites out there that will actually infect you with something worse under the guise of helping you. As always, keep your systems updated, and be careful out there.

Microsoft One Care

For about a year now I have been using Microsoft OneCare rather than the more comprehensive security suites. Roberta continues to use Norton. Of course we're also behind a D-Link router, and when I go on the road I carry a small D-link router which I use to connect to motel Ethernets. I've just had to take my chances with motel wireless.

Neither of us has been infected according to our security sweeps.


On routers: for years I have used D-Link and Belkin routers. They work. They are easy to install, and so reliable that I have often gone on trips to remote locations carrying shrink-wrapped D-Link and Belkin routers with full confidence that I'd have no problems getting them to work and getting myself connected. I once did this with a D-link on Column Deadline weekend when being connected was vital; the review appeared in the column which got in on time. The primary Ethernet Router at Chaos Manor is a D-link; the primary wireless router is a Belkin N. They both work so well that I never think about them.

Anyone can install a Belkin or D-Link router. The instructions are clear and easy to follow, and they just work. The one caution I would give you is to keep complete notes on just what you did, particularly regarding user names, network names, and passwords. In my case that'd vital since my short term memory consists mainly of what I have logged, but even when my memory was just fine I could get confused about what I'd done in setting up a router; better to just write it down.

Routers are a primary line of defense against bad guys and malware. If you are operating without one, you are taking needless chances.


I do make sure that my OneCare is properly updated. Sometimes it demands an update at inconvenient times - after all, laptops aren't on all the time, so updates can be sitting out there waiting for the laptop to come on line. That happened to me today: I went up to the Monk's Cell to work on fiction and when my ThinkPad came up and connected to the wireless net, OneCare insisted on being updated. I wanted to get to work, but I decided I'd better not put that off.

Of course the updates turned out to be Internet Explorer 8, and a new iteration of Windows Genuine Advantage. I don't use Internet Explorer, and Genuine Advantage doesn't have any advantages for me that I know of, so I could probably have skipped the update for the day, but my habit of keeping things up to date was too strong, so I let them run. It took about ten minutes. As it happened, while the update was running I thought of a new scene for the novel I was working on, so it turned out well.

I don't use Internet Explorer much because despite some minor vexations - mostly over updates - Firefox works and I am used to it. Recommended. Firefox works pretty well the same in Vista, XP, and Mac OS X, so it's one less thing to learn. There are a number of Firefox plugins and extensions, and they're pretty well the same on Windows, Linux, and the Mac.

Windows 7

It's called Windows 7, Win 7, and Win7 in various places; Microsoft calls it Windows 7. In any event the Release Candidate version is available for download. See this link at Microsoft.

There was a time when I would have been among the first to install this, not on a trial machine, but on a production system I actually use; that's what this column did for twenty years and more, and it's what I'd prefer now. Unfortunately, what with having my brain zapped by hard x-rays last year, I am somewhat behind on fiction, and I suppose I am not quite as resilient as I used to be; my advisors have begged me not to do that. I'm still using XP on my laptop (and with VMware on the iMac), Vista 64 on my communications machine, and Vista 32 on the Intel Quad Extreme system I use for everything else. They all work. I have some problems with internal networking - the Vista 32 system insists that it will never remember user names and passwords for systems to which I have mapped drives, and makes me enter them each time I invoke the link - but those are annoyances. Vista works quite well, and I've got used to it; and while I have good reports on Windows 7, just at the moment I am mostly concerned with catching up on fiction, and when I have computer time I tend to spend it getting more familiar with the Mac.

I do have a Windows 7 report, thanks to Rich Heimlich.

Windows 7 first thoughts

Installed the Release Candidate onto my Dell XPS laptop this morning.

1. The install went smoothly. I installed clean on a partition where Vista existed. It essentially renamed "Windows" to "Windows.old" and I believe that if I dual boot to it that it'll just rename "Windows.old" back again. Otherwise it would have had to make a slew of registry changes pointing to the new location risking stability. Now that I think of it, it makes better sense that this is what they would have done. However, I have no intention of ever booting back into Vista. It never worked on this machine so good riddance I say.

2. No mention is made of how to go about getting rid of Vista once you're "happy". Slight concern that all the links I found on Google are about how to restore Vista and get rid of Windows 7 and not the other way around. I'd like to get info on the boot manager and how to remove Vista from the list (resulting in an immediate boot to Windows 7 without the manager appearing.

3. Got to thinking--will this be called "Win7", "7" or will we actually spend the next several years saying "Windows 7"? Just the number seems WAY too nondescript while "Win7" is three syllables and would be one of the longer nicknames as such. "XP", "Vista", "NT", "98", "95", "M.E."

4. Had to install my own touchpad Vista drivers (from Alps even though it's a Synaptics) as the scroll action wouldn't work otherwise. Had to also us Windows Update to get the Nvidia chipset going.

5. Couldn't for the life of me figure out how to get to an address bar in Media Player or to bring up any storefront in it. Lousy interface.

6. Only had one odd bug so far that I THINK might have been due to the Synaptics setup initially. It hasn't shown up since switching to Alps.

7. I can't find "Classic" as a choice for the Start menu any longer. I never adopted the new look so I'm trying to now. So far I still find it terrible.

8. I don't like the white tray icons. 3rd-party apps look terrible next to them and being all white makes them look dead. I also don't like having an alert one up there ALL THE TIME even when there are no alerts.

9. So far everything has run for me but I'm just getting started. I'm liking what I'm seeing so far and it seems like a good OS for a laptop. Boots, for now, pretty quickly and is fairly snappy in use.

Rich later reported driver problems with his touch pad that remain as I write this. One expects that sort of thing in Beta and RC versions. My friends in Microsoft tell me the Windows 7 Beta test was the smoothest OS introduction they have seen.

Security expert Rick Hellewell adds

I saw the Win7 info that mentioned the RC version will work for about a year before nagging you for an upgrade to the final version (and disabling your system). I don't have a problem with that; RC's should only be used for testing purposes, not on your 'production' machine.

I note this from the SANS NewsBytes from today.....so get your RC only from Microsoft:

--Pirated Versions of Windows 7 Release Candidate Contain Trojan

(May 4, 2009)

Reports are circulating that pirated versions of Windows 7 Release Candidate available on filesharing sites contain malware. The malware has been identified by one user as the Falder Trojan horse program, which plants scareware on PCs and uses a rootkit to evade detection by real antivirus packages. Microsoft is scheduled to release Windows 7 RC on Tuesday, May 5. Earlier this year, pirated copies of Apple's iWork '09 were found to contain malware that took control of Macs.

[ComputerWorld link]

I doubt that my readers need reminding that installing a new operating system is a Big Deal and presents opportunities for all kinds of bad things to happen if you are not careful. Clearly you do no want to go to strange places to get an OS. Incidentally, we note that pirate copies of iWorks have now been used to introduce malware into Macs. I don't expect that to be the last time it happens, either. Mac OS X is not invulnerable, and anyone who acts as if it can't be infected is open to a nasty surprise.

The bottom line is that Windows 7 is, by all reports, safer and more secure than Vista. It's also "crisper" and more intuitive. There are numerous reports of problem-free "update" installations of Windows 7 on both Vista and XP systems. I don't really advise anyone to use a Release Candidate on a production system, but I note that many people, including Leo Laporte, have changed over to Windows 7 on all their systems.

As our hardware becomes faster and cheaper, and memory becomes more plentiful, I think it becomes less important which operating system is the "primary;" nearly all modern machines will allow you to run virtual copies of nearly any operating system. Of course there are limits. You don't expect really fast gaming capability when you're doing operating system emulations. And of course you can't run Mac OS X, use VMware to run Vista, then run VMware in Vista to run XP or Windows 7 and expect good results.

Root Kits

A number of readers have expressed concern: how would they find out if they have been infected by a root kit? "Root kit" is the name given to a certain kind of malware that hides in a root directory of the operating system, often by infecting a vital file that your system won't run without. They are extraordinarily hard to remove, and by design they are hard to detect. I put the question to Rick Hellewell, my security expert advisor:

I think that the best place to start is here http://www.bleepingcomputer.com/. They have some good tutorials on looking for and removing malware. In addition, they are an excellent place for support if you have an infected computer. They use the HijackThis! analysis tool, and they have an active forum with very competent participants that will help you use HijackThis! to remove malware.

Good malware scanning tools there, also. Make sure you carefully follow their instructions for submitting questions and HijackThis logs (and follow their instructions carefully and accurately).

Make sure that you don't get the HijackThis program from any other source than the above.

...Rick Hellewell...

I once found a root kit infection on a relative's machine, and was able to remove it using HijackThis; I believe I reported that in a BYTE column about seven years ago. The cleanup took a long time because the malware kept reappearing: it had hidden itself in multiple places, changed files names, and altered the OS so that directory searched could not find the critical attack files. I had to go to a known good source to get some critical Windows system files, and overwrite the files the root kit had corrupted. I am not sure I'd be up to that now.

Most experts will tell you that if you possibly can, you are better off to test all your data files and save them, then nuke an infected system and reinstall everything. This is tedious, but it's the only way to be really sure your root kit is gone.

The best way to cure a root kit infection is not to have one. In general it takes cooperation to get a root kit installed: you have to give some evil program permission to run, and you have to be running as Administrator before it can infect system files. The most common source of root kits I have found has been from free software that purports to protect your system from malware. Pirated "free" programs seem to be the second most common source.

Kindle DX

I am tempted to name this section "Kindle and the future of journalism." Everyone else seems to be writing about that subject. Of course that's pretentious, but there is some truth to it. The problem is that the latest iteration of the Kindle is not likely to have much effect on the future of journalism; at least that's my view.

It won't have a lot of effect, because Amazon won't sell that many of them. It's priced too high. Moreover, the new Kindle DX doesn't have a user replaceable battery, and there's no provision for memory cards, which are both irritations in the Kindle 2.

It doesn't have color, either, but that's probably not fatal. The Kindle DX does have a larger screen and more resolution than the Kindle 2, and that's important, although there's some question about whether it's large enoug. And of course there's the unrealistic price that I am sure will come down by the time the Kindle DX is available. Jeff Bezos says the Kindle DX price is driven by the manufacturing cost, and they can't sell it for less. We'll see about that. The price seems way high to me.

Amazon sent a team of Kindle evangelists down to the annual meeting of the Science Fiction Writers of America, where they put on an Infomercial at the business meeting. Being evangelists they were enthusiastic about Kindle sales, but they weren't allowed to give us copies of their briefing charts, and they showed us few hard numbers. Alas, most of the information they gave out was relative, things like percentage increases and the like, so it was impossible to come up with real conclusions, but a few facts were pretty clear.

First, the really positive effect of Kindle on sales has been in backlist, and particularly backlist sales of previous books in a series. People read the latest book of a series, or the latest book from an author, and decide that they want some of the previous work. If those works exist for the Kindle, the sales are a lot more likely than if they only exist in paper.

That's generally good news for authors. The only problem here is that some publishers contend that the existence of a Kindle edition of a book means that the book is "in print" even though you can't buy a paper copy. If the book is "in print" then the publisher generally continues to have exclusive rights to sell it, so the author can't go find another publisher to do a new release of the book. Agents, authors, and publishers have been arguing about what "in print" means for years; is an Ebook "in print"? If there is a method for manufacturing the book on demand, does that make it "in print"? Authors have always insisted that "in print" means not only that you can order a copy of the book, but that book sellers can display copies for sale. Clearly that won't happen with POD and Ebook editions.

According to the Kindle evangelists there has already been a noticeable impact on trade book sales. People who own Kindles buy more books, and that's in all categories. The biggest sales have been in the mystery and thriller category, but romance and science fiction aren't all that far behind.

All of which is good news for authors, but hardly startling.


The real impact of Ebooks is likely to be in journalism and textbooks, and that's what the Kindle DX is designed for.

Journalism is notoriously in trouble. Newspapers are in bankruptcy and many have closed. Circulation for newspapers has been falling, but that's not the main problem. The real problem for newspapers has been revenue. Advertising revenue has been going steadily down for years. Then came the economic bust, and of course that made things worse. Companies buy fewer display ads, and as the economy sours they cut the advertising budgets even more.

For a while the newspapers limped along on classified advertisement revenues, but then came Craig's List. That dried up the classified advertisement income.

As revenues fall, the papers get thinner. There are fewer resources to put into finding good stories. With fewer stories to attract readers, circulations fall. Death spirals begin.

The Kindle DX with its larger screen is designed to allow electronic news layouts that look something like the newspapers people are accustomed to. Of course the reading experience won't be the same, but at least there's the possibility of layouts that include headlines with lead lines. Click on the headline to see the story.

The production and distribution costs are cut dramatically, so subscription income can be significant, and they're hoping readers will subscribe to the on-line papers. Moreover, the layouts can include advertisements alongside the story, much as printed newspapers do. All these measures, everyone hopes, will prove effective and bring in new revenue. New revenue will support more reporters in the newsroom and columnists for the opinion section. There will be more interesting articles, circulation will grow - well, that's the hope, anyway. It's about the only hope the traditional newspapers have.

The big flaw in this, in my view, is that not many will pay nearly $500 up front for a reader so that he can subscribe to a black and white newspaper with advertisements. That's the main reason I am not excited by the latest Kindle DX announcement. On the other hand, that price won't last; if Amazon doesn't come up with some way to cut the price, someone else will come up with a cheaper reader.

Kindle vs. iPhone

The Kindle is great for reading fiction and non-academic non-fiction. For the past year I've read more books on the Kindle than I have read in printed copies. I find that if I am going somewhere that will probably require me to stand in a line or sit in a waiting room, I tend to carry a small brief case and the Kindle - even though I can read any Kindle book on the iPhone, and I will always have the iPhone with me.

I would definitely rather read fiction on the Kindle than the iPhone. I can't really explain this, but I suspect Apple is looking hard at the situation. Apple would like the iPhone to take over as the primary instrument people carry for all of their computer needs, including reading books and newspapers. About the time that the Kindle DX is available, Apple is expected to announce something new. Speculation is that it will be an Apple Tablet or something of the like. It would have color, high resolution, and iPhone connectivity. If you are going to carry a brief case, you'll be able to carry an Apple Tablet.

And of course I carried LisaBetta, the HP TabletPC, to a lot of shows and conventions, often as the only machine I had with me on the road at COMDEX. I wrote show reports and filed columns, and used the pen to edit fiction on airplanes when I could never have found enough room to use the keyboard.

A TabletPC with Microsoft OneNote makes a very powerful tool for research. It's also a great platform for reading books - not only fiction, but technical non-fiction. It has color. The only reason I don't use LisaBetta much now is that I've got used to much faster systems and larger screens, and she seems a bit old and slow. I'm rather ashamed of that, but of course she really is way obsolete now, and if she needed repairs I'd be out of luck, so I don't want to become dependent on her. Even so I miss her, and the convenience of Tablet operations with OneNote.

Now we don't know what Apple plans, but it would make a lot of sense for Apple to build that kind of TabletPC functionality into a lightweight Mac Book - and if Apple doesn't do that, others will. I am convinced that the day of the Tablet is not over. And of course if you carry a TabletPC, it could be your telephone; indeed, I have used Skype on several laptops, not only for phone calls but also for conference calls.

The real question is, what will people carry in future? The iPhone can do now what the Kindle 2 does, but the iPhone hasn't killed the Kindle - even though the Kindle is larger. It's pretty clear that there will be a pocket computer in your future: the question is, how large will the pocket be? At one time carry bags for men were popular and fashionable. If that trend came back then Kindle-sized pocket computers would be an instant hit; but so far the trend has been in the other direction. People carry smaller, not larger objects, and men want them on their belts, not in a bag. Fashions change, though, and a good enough full service pocket computer, even if large enough to require a carry bag, might drive a change in a new direction.

The iPhone is not really a satisfactory pocket computer, despite the myriad of applications. The screen is too small and the keyboard is not right. The current Kindles are more readable but less versatile. And we have yet to see what Apple will come up with.

The Textbook Racket

Textbooks have reached outrageous prices. Worse, they are revised often, not with needed and relevant revisions, but just enough revision to make the book obsolete and kill the used textbook business. This is expensive for everyone. Textbooks have become a significant part of college education expense.

EBooks are often proposed as a technological alternative. They'd seem to be a natural. The problem here is that lowering the cost of textbook production doesn't provide much incentive to lower textbook prices. There's no competition. The textbook is required, there is only one source, they can charge anything they think they can get away with, and they generally do.

Of course the Kindle DX isn't really good enough for most textbooks. It's not powerful enough, and there's no color. On the other hand, the original TabletPC's were technologically good enough for nearly any textbook. There were physics textbooks with dynamic hand drawn illustrations that made learning basic physics such as pendular motion very simple, yet their existence didn't have much effect on the textbook market. Technical solutions to the textbook problem have long been known.

Textbook prices won't come down until the entire education package - tuition, certification, instruction, textbooks - becomes competitive. The means for doing that already exist - the Internet is certainly good enough, and some of the greatest lectures ever given are available on line for free. The problems of distance learning are not primarily technical. There is an educationist oligopoly that controls "accreditation" and other gate-keeping functions, and it works hard to eliminate competition by the usual means, including government monopolies.

Eventually this monopoly will be broken; we see more and more alternative education institutions every year. This will continue, and the new Kindle (or its competitors) will certainly play an important part in that. The computer revolution hasn't even got a good start on changing our lives...

iWork '09

Apple's iWork is the Mac basic productivity suite, consisting of Pages, Keynote, and Numbers - i.e. word processor, presentation creation, and spreadsheet. For many people iWork and OS X will be enough to do everything they got a computer for. It all works, and works very well, and Apple keeps improving it.

If you do get a Mac and iWork, you will also want the O'Reilly Pogue Press book iWork '09 The Missing Manual by Josh Clark. This 800 page book will show all the features of iWork, and there are a lot of them.

Of course iWork won't win any features contest with Microsoft Office. On the other hand, there aren't many people who use even a majority of the Office features (and most aren't even aware of them). There is a price for the huge Office feature list: Office has a complex command structure. Office 2007 tried to simplify that, but some question how successful that overhaul was.

iWork is mostly file compatible with Office. Obviously files that use some of the more arcane features of Office will require Office; but most iWork users won't notice any problems with opening, editing, and saving Office files in Office format. Once again, if you work with someone who creates complex Office documents, you'll need Office; iWork may be good enough, and it may not be. But most of us don't create documents with complex formats.

My advice to new Mac users is to try iWork and see if it's not good enough. It probably will be, especially if you get The Missing Manual and find out the numerous capabilities built into the program. And if you have an earlier version of iWork, you'll probably want to upgrade to version '09.

Learn to Program

Learn to Program by Chris Pine is part of the Facets of Ruby series. It's a book for complete beginners on how to write elementary programs in Ruby. Ruby is a free interpretive language that Windows and Linux users can download; Mac OS X users will discover that they already have it (which came as a surprise to me).

In the early days of the computer revolution there were many discussions and debates on how to learn programming, and what might be the best programming language to learn. Most academic computer science classes began with instructions in Pascal, and it was generally agreed that it was best to learn a highly structured language like Pascal. Well structured languages made the initial programming more tedious, but greatly simplified debugging: Pascal was famous for its picky syntax but short debugging times.

Unfortunately, our hardware wasn't very fast, and faster but less structured languages like C won out among professionals. Then came the language explosions. Many languages were popular, and adherent vehemently insisted that their own was best. There were fervent advocates of LISP, APL, FORTH, Pascal, Modula-2, and many others. The result was astonishing: At one time there were probably more people programming in dBase-2 than any other language. Then came various forms of BASIC, Microsoft Visual Basic, and Ada - then suddenly the language wars died away. The era of simple programs like the Norton Editor was over: programs became much longer, much more complex, and required large teams of programmers. Peter Norton and Gary Kildall had built businesses with small programming teams, but those days were over - but they have recently reappeared. A number of programmers have become rich through selling simple iPhone Apps. The days of simple, profitable programs may not be over after all.

The debates over language structure seem to have died away.

In any event, Ruby is not structured, and the Chris Pine approach to learning programming is almost the opposite of what used to be taught in beginning programming classes. Don't sit down and plan the program. Just do it. Write programs, alter them, add to them. Read the book, go through the examples, learn recursion (work through the many examples until you really understand it; it's an important concept), and learn to reuse code. His principle is that programs are grown, not planned and built. Clearly this approach can work: there are plenty of successful programmers doing it.

If you have little programming experience and want to learn how it feels to write computer programs, this book will give you a start at it. It teaches by example, and there are plenty of examples. You can get through the book rather quickly, by which time you should know if you like the Ruby approach to programming. If you do, there are a number of books on Ruby, all good, and all more traditional in their presentation. The unique value of this book is Chris Pine's approach: don't study it, just do it. I particularly recommend this for Mac users; it's a good way to learn something about the Mac Terminal and command lines as well as learn some programming fundamentals.

Sams Teach Yourself PHP and MySQL

You're not likely to get a job from learning to program in Ruby - at least you'll need many other skills. On the other hand, once you know something about programming and want to expand your scope, you can continue to learn at fairly low costs. One of the best tools for this are the Sams video learning starter kits.

Sams Teach Yourself PHP and MySQL starts at nearly a beginner level and takes you far enough that you can learn much more from available books. The kits contain everything you will need, including the latest versions of PHP and MySQL and the Apache server software for both Windows and Mac OS X. (Mac OS X already has Apache installed and running.) PHP is a general scripting language - you could call it a programming language - and MySQL is a relational data base manager language. Both are open-source technologies, meaning that they're free. They're also in use in all but the simplest web sites.

Sams Teach Yourself PHP and MySQL assumes you already know something about html and/or xhtml. If you don't, and you really want to get into this stuff, get Matthew MacDonald's Creating a Web Site: The Missing Manual and be prepared to do some work. It will tell you a lot more about xhtml than you think you want to know, but you won't need to finish it to learn enough to get started with the Sams kit. MacDonald starts off pretty simply, and goes farther than I ever have into the arcane of web construction. Fortunately you don't need to get very far in order to get started with Sams.

Do understand that we're talking about some serious work here. On the other hand, there are possibilities of serious rewards. It's not as easy to get a job as a web site developer as it was ten years ago, but it's still possible. On the gripping hand, personnel officers are more and more insisting on degrees from accredited institutions; the days when most programmers were self-taught ended a decade ago. Of course if you already know the subject it's easier to find some way to get degrees or certificates of competence.

I'm not advising readers to buy these books and work their tails off in the hopes of getting a job. I am saying that if you want to learn something about programming, web, and application development, the tools are out there, and for under a hundred dollars and a few weeks' work you can learn a very great deal about programming, web design, and web page creation.

Open Source

I mentioned above that PHP and MySQL are Open Source. Most of us think we understand what Open Source means, but in fact we don't. Van Lindberg's Intellectual Property and Open Source: A Practical Guide to Protecting Code from O'Reilly attempts to remedy that. It's a valiant attempt, and if you finish the book - it's both a handbook and an attempt at explanation - you can be pretty sure you know a lot more than you did before you started. Having said that, I have to add that in the real world of copyright law none of us understand the situation. The law isn't clear, there are conflicting court decisions, and class action settlements like the Google Grab - see last month's column - can make changes that Congress never intended.

Open Source attempts to allow free access to various programs - such as PHP and MySQL - including the source code, and impose on those who take advantage of this the same conditions: that is, if you use MySQL and in doing it make useful modifications to the code, you can't copyright your improvements. You can retain certain rights to certain things; that's what this book is about.

If you work with Open Source materials and you think you've created something that you think may be valuable, you might learn something valuable from this book. At least you will understand the options that the Open Source people intended you to have. Whether those are the only options you do have is another question. Example: Back in the 1930's, Woody Guthrie distributed a songbook of the words to much of his music. It contained this passage: This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin' it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ours, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do.

One would think that unambiguous, but it wasn't: US Copyright law did not then and does not now have any provision for "putting a work into public domain". Guthrie made a public notice that he didn't intend to sue anyone for any use of his songs, but he couldn't bind his heirs or assigns: Had Woody got drunk and sold off the rights to "This land is your land" to someone, his previous declaration wouldn't have been binding on the new owner of the Copyright. The new owner would own a real copyright, could have tried to enforce it, and could have renewed it in the 28th year (under the copyright law in force at that time). I realize that sounds crazy, but one of the top copyright lawyers in the country tells me that's the way things were, and pretty well still are. The Open Source and CopyLeft people are acting as if common sense prevails in US copyright law, and they are, I am told, dead wrong.

And having said all that, Van Lindberg's book is still valuable because it makes clear what the Open Source people think they are doing, and gives examples of the various documents they use for their various purposes. It has worked pretty well up to now. Just keep in mind that some very good lawyers are prepared to challenge all that if there's enough money at stake. Of course that's true of almost everything we think is law in this year of our Lord 2009 and of the independence of these United States the 233rd.

Winding Down

The book of the month is the Poul Anderson collection The Van Rijn Method from Baen Books. This is a collection of stories written over three decades, plus the short novel "The Man Who Counts" (once published in an Ace edition as "The War of the Wing Men"). These are stories of the classic science fiction tradition: hard science and tough characters in logically well integrated action stories. They hold up well despite having been written long ago. The central figure in this volume is the merchant prince Nicholas Van Rijn, owner of Solar Spice and Liquors Company and a prominent member of the Polesotechnic League, a band of predatory merchants that substitutes for a government. I opened this collection the other day when I wasn't feeling very good, and I emerged a couple of hours later - even though I had read most of those stories when they first came out. Poul was one of my closest friends for forty years. It was good to hear his voice again in those stories.

The second book of the month is Head First Statistics, an O'Reilly book by Dawn Griffiths. It's one of the "brain friendly" guides in the same series as Head First Physics which I mentioned last month. Like all of the Head First line, it's written in an odd breezy style intended to be modern and hip in the hopes that it will entice readers to actually pay attention to the book and work through the examples.

The book certainly covers the introductory statistics field, and does so as well as any other work I know on the subject. It's not very good on the "philosophy" behind statistical inference, but then few books are (and the best of those, Savage's Foundation of Statistics, requires a month of hard study and several readings). This one is about as good as any I have seen in wide use, and it goes a lot further than the silly statistics cookbooks that are usually used in social science statistics courses. It's also a lot more readable, and the examples are a lot more relevant, than the typical mathematics department statistics textbook. All in all, if the breezy style doesn't turn you off, and you want a working knowledge of statistical tools which you can apply to marketing research or other practical matters, this may be the book for you. It's complete, it's accurate, and it's clear. You will also want to look at the last group of statistics books we reviewed here, back in October of last year.