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Computing At Chaos Manor:
July 7, 2009

The User's Column, July, 2009
Column 348
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2009 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

The US economy continues to fall; at least the unemployment rate is rising and will continue to do so. Economists have a number of tricks that persuade them that "the economy is taking a turn for the better," but for those who have no jobs, or who had to take substantial pay cuts, things don't look so good. If people don't have work they don't have money, and without money they can't buy anything beyond necessities.

There are still some unfulfilled demands. In the US, in particular, there's a lot of area for growth in broadband. I was astonished recently to learn that only about 26% of US inhabitants were connected at 256 kilobytes/second or greater. Of course, twenty years ago I would have been astonished to be told that by the end of 2008 as much as 26% of the US had solved what we used to call "the last 100 feet" of connectivity. Most thought it would take longer than that.

Andy Seybold would have been astonished 20 years ago to find that only 26% were broadband connected. Andy was an early advocate of wireless connectivity, which he was certain would make the last 100 foot connection irrelevant. Of course that's pretty well what happened in some parts of the world, but not in the US. We creep toward wireless connectivity and the ability to use wireless telephones to connect our laptops, but that remains complicated. Coverage is inconsistent. There are multiple plans to increase wireless connectivity, and eventually we'll get there. The technology exists. The problems are mostly regulatory.

In any event, the FCC is supposed to come up with a national broadband plan by February, 2010. Public comments were supposed to be ended on June 9, 2009, but that deadline has been extended to July 21. Most of the comments so far have been on the subject of "net neutrality", but there are other matters having to do with government investment. The FCC has recommended something like $7 billion in grants to stimulate competitive development of broadband deployment in underserved areas. If that sounds like a lot, note that South Korea is spending $25 billion on broadband development (this in one of the most connected countries in the world), while Australia plans to shovel in $31 billion. One would have thought there would be money for broadband development in the enormous stimulus package, but if there were, I haven't seen much effect.

The Constitution explicitly gives the Federal Government authority to build post offices and post roads. Some of the Framers, like Hamilton, had in mind other projects like harbors and canals. Adam Smith spoke of projects which were of great benefit to all, but which were unlikely to make profits for any particular investor; these were proper objects of government investment. One could argue that extending broadband connectivity is one such, and that in fact it is quite analogous to post offices and post roads. In any event, if you want to comment on the plan, you still have a couple of weeks.

The Google Grab

The latest news on the Google Grab is that the Department of Justice is investigating the settlement reached between Google and the Authors Guild which sued Google in a class action suit. Actually, this has been going on since April (LA Times link) but it became news again in early July.

The Justice Department inquiry echoes concerns of many who criticized the Google/Authors Guild "settlement", as for example literary agent Ashley Grayson who told the annual meeting of the Science Fiction Writers of America that the agreement appeared to make Google the unappointed agent for all authors whose works were illegally copied.

Meanwhile the May deadline to opt in or out of the class action passed without effect, and there's a new deadline of September 4, 2009. Many authors, including myself, chose to do nothing. Some authors have taken action to opt in, and have been told that they now have the right to opt out until September 4. If you have copyrighted works that were copied without permission by Google, you may now:

1. Remain in the settlement, or opt out by September 4, 2009. If you remain in the settlement, you will be bound by the settlement agreement and may not sue Google separately.

2. Object to or comment on the Settlement by September 4. A number of writers organizations including Science Fiction Writers of America are planning to do this.

3. If you remain in the settlement, you may file claims for money due you. All those claims must be filed before January 5, 2010. Google maintains a list of works it copied. You must search that list, determine whether any of your works are on it and were illegally copied, and make a claim for each and every one of those works. You will, in theory, eventually be paid a modest sum for each of those works.

I have several times attempted to make claims under this settlement. It's onerous work, and I never did manage to fill out a form satisfactorily. One reason for the complexity is that the Google list isn't very clear. Some works are listed many times; is each a separate edition? In some cases it's clear they are translations. Some of my works are collaborations, but there is no provision for stating that.

I am not the only one confused by all this. Moreover, as Bob Thompson points out, it's not at all clear that an agreement between the Authors Guild and Google as a settlement to a civil court action can change the legal rights of copyright owners. Why must authors decide whether to opt out of the settlement? Don't they retain their rights whether or not some lawyers they never met working for an organization they never joined makes an agreement with Google?

Those are good questions, and there's no simple answer. One problem is that a copyright, like a patent, is a license to sue. Under US law it's a license to sue only if you have properly registered the copyright. Most copyrights are registered by the publisher, but some are not. Some translations are never properly copyrighted. And even if you have a right to sue, it's an expensive and time consuming process, especially if you're up against a major corporation like Google. Google's lawyers can delay, "consolidate" suits, dabble in "discovery," and most of all, delay again and again until authors give up. This is precisely the nightmare that Victor Hugo tried to end when he drafted the international copyright convention, proving that Mr. Hugo was popular with politicians but apparently neither he nor those who adopted the convention were very effective lawyers.

One effect of this settlement is that Google can publish stuff and send 65% of the proceeds to the copyright holder. That's a pretty stiff agency fee, and apparently Google gets that automatically. Whether that's what Google is after isn't so clear. Google claims to be the good guys here: they are trying to make "information" - copyrighted works - available to everyone. Since much "information" is in copyrighted works whose copyright owners no longer claim the work - may not even know they are a copyright holder - those orphan works are in danger of disappearing. Surely, Google supporters say, an author would rather have his work published than vanish entirely? And after all, much of the confusion comes from the irrational extension of copyright life, from what Victor Hugo urged, life plus 50 years, to a great deal longer period in the United States and some other countries.

I have some sympathy with Google's position, but there have to be better ways to accomplish their goal of preserving knowledge and making it available to everyone; and they are getting a 35% agency fee, and a monopoly position, so it's not all simple altruism.

This story isn't over yet. In my opinion it may never be. I will probably put off doing anything until October or so, and if things haven't changed, I'll take the several days it will require to put in claims for the hundreds of my works they list as having scanned without permission. We will then see if I ever get any money. I suspect I will not. I suspect that all the money actually paid out will go to lawyers, and perhaps to the Authors Guild, and there won't be any left over for the people who actually wrote the works in question. But then I am feeling a bit cynical this week.

Peter Glaskowsky comments

The court in this case is not overriding copyright law. The court decided that what Google wants to do is covered by Fair Use. I think that's a reasonable point of view; Google's only interest in copyrighted works is to be able to provide snippets in response to searches. Google isn't asking to be allowed to publish them in their entirety, and the proposed settlement does not grant Google that ability.

As with any proposed settlement of a class-action lawsuit, the court knows that this decision may not be universally acceptable, so it is providing the usual mechanism to opt out of the settlement.

Anyone who opts out is then free to sue Google separately in order to challenge the Fair Use basis of the decision or any other part of it.

Nothing about this case reaches any final conclusions about anyone's legal rights.

. png

All of which is true, but I do not reach the same conclusions he does. In my judgment the entire "class action" system is deeply flawed. The theory of "class action" is that only a few have to be involved in a law suit, but all will be covered by the settlement. In practice, the bulk of the settlement goes to the lawyers who act for "clients" they never met, while the aggrieved parties get coupons, and usually have to provide affidavits and spend postage to get those.

As to "Fair Use," I can only speak for myself: several of my books were out of print because Baen was planning to repackage them (as for instance in Exile - and Glory! which combines short stories from High Justice with the novel Exile to Glory into a set of stories set in the same imaginative universe). Those books were scanned by Google and are now in their data base. They were out of print, but they were certainly in copyright. Was this Fair Use? And of course neither I nor my agent have the resources to sue Google over this. The courts may not be reaching any final conclusions about rights, but I'm not sure what my best choices are in this. I doubt I'll ever get any real money from this Settlement; what I really don't want is for Google to be my "agent" in publishing books I have let go out of print. I have no data about Google's intentions regarding publishing the works; they have said publicly that their goal is to make everything ever written available to everyone on Earth. That's a noble ambition, but it gives cold comfort to copyright holders. Google's motto is "Don't be evil," but I have not seen much evidence that they regard publishing copyrighted works as evil. Certainly many of their supporters have been quite open in chanting that information wants to be free...

A Plague on all your monitors...

There must be an epidemic affecting monitors. A few weeks ago the big 21" monitor that sits at the work station Niven uses when he works over here just up and died: no picture. None. When I got that monitor in 1988 or so it was state of the art, and I has served me well all these years, but now it was time to replace it. Fry's had a big sale on the Acer X233H 23" wide screen monitor, and I bought one. I installed it on Silver. Silver is an older machine, a Pentium 5 running XP, and while the monitor worked well enough I wasn't very happy with the resolutions. The text didn't look very good. Of course that's a problem many have with new monitors and older machines. It takes tweaking to do it right, and since we don't have to do it very often, many of us forget how to do it. In my case it was worse because I do most of my work on a 64-bit Vista system and the rest on a Mac.

I knew I was going to have to tune things up eventually, but there was no hurry. Niven and I are at work on Lucifer's Anvil, and we're in the clock-winding stage, doing more talking than writing, and much of the writing is setup, describing places and introducing characters, and since much of the first part of the story is in military settings, it's more my job than his, so there's been no need for him to work here. The Acer sat there unused except for when I fired up Silver to catch OS updates.

Then Roberta called upstairs to tell me her machine had crashed. I came down to look, and discovered that there was nothing on the screen at all. It didn't take long to conclude that her monitor was dead. It was a Nokia 21" bottle which I got back when Nokia decided to go into the monitor product line. To launch the products they flew a whole bunch of journalists to a resort in Lapland for a big party complete with snowmobiles and dog sledding. They even brought in two journalists from the United States, me and John Dvorak.

We had a great time in Lapland, I wrote up the trip in my BYTE column with pictures, and Nokia sent what was then an enormous monitor for evaluation. Then, not long after that, Nokia sold the monitor line to ViewSonic. Roberta got the Nokia and has used it ever since, a good ten years and probably a lot longer - I forget just when that trip was, but it was certainly in the last Millennium. There wasn't any doubt that the problem was the monitor. There were still lights flashing on her computer. The monitor had a green power-on light, but the menu buttons didn't bring up anything. Nothing I could do would get any picture on the screen. The monitor was dead, farewell thou good and faithful servant.

So, of course, I took the Acer X233h downstairs for Roberta. As soon as I plugged it in we had a picture. Her computer never knew there had been a problem.

The Acer has a native resolution of 1920 x 1080, which is more than the card in Roberta's machine was capable of, at least not with its current driver. There's more to that story. In any event, I set her up with the Acer at a resolution she said she liked - the text was large enough to see - and figured that so long as she was happy I was, even though I thought the text was ugly. I'm more sensitive to text quality than most people, and I'm not sure why. After all, I started writing with computers on an old S-100 system that put up 16 lines of 24 characters on a Crosley monochrome monitor. Of course one of the best ways to get ugly text is to run a flat screen monitor at something under its native resolution.

Roberta has an older machine that needs replacing anyway. It runs XP, and she mostly does email and web research - she finds a lot of good stuff for me to use in books and columns - one day I'll get her a new machine but not just yet, I'm always busy and - well you get the idea. She was happy with it, and I had work to do. Never do today what you can put off until next month.

So she went off for the weekend with our son Frank for the Fourth of July. I'd planned to go with them but we couldn't get our house sitter/dog walker for that weekend, so I stayed home to keep house and feed the dog. The column was due anyway. I was working with Bette, the 64-bit Vista Intel Quad 6600 system we built last year. I had just tried to Google - actually I tried to Bing - the USS Hopper (she figures in our next novel) when the screen went blank. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that I had the same problem Roberta had. My computer looked to be on, the disk light flashed every now and then, the green power light on the monitor was on but nothing else was - and yep, the menu button produced no results. The monitor, a 20" LaCie flat screen, was dead, dead, dead. To be sure I unplugged the HP f2105 monitor from Emily, my Intel Extreme Quad, and plugged it into Bette. Everything worked. So I went downstairs and robbed Roberta of her monitor. By the time she gets home I'll have got her a new monitor.

Monitors, and Drivers, and Text

I am no fan of the new "wide screen" movement in monitors. The LaCie was a 20" square (4:3 aspect ratio) monitor and that was fine by me. My objection to wide screen is that I mostly work with text, and wide screen doesn't put enough lines of text up on the screen. I don't have that problem working with older square screens. I do a lot of my fiction upstairs using the IBM t42p ThinkPad with a ViewSonic 19" square monitor at 1280 x 1024, and it works very well indeed. I've done several novels including Starswarm. Alas, when the old bottle monitor down at the beach died, I got a "wide screen" 20" ViewSonic to run off the ThinkPad, and I don't much like it: it doesn't have enough words on the screen, and the text is smaller. Next time I'm down there I'll fiddle with it some more, but the problem is that just now it runs off the IBM t42p (square) ThinkPad. I expect that problem to solve itself when I start using the MacBook Pro as my portable. That happens Real Soon Now. It's sort of astonishing how much work I have to do nowadays.

Anyway, the LaCie had been set to 1280 x 1024 - I presume that was its native resolution - and I was used to it, but the Acer with that setting was horrible. It wants 1920 x 1080 - and I discovered that my ATI 3800 All In Wonder board didn't have that capability. Time to find new drivers.

Peter Glaskowsky recommended this AMD link. It took about fifteen minutes to download the 64-bit Vista version of the "Full Catalyst Software Suite" and install that. Reset, and I could set the All In Wonder board to 1920 x 1080. The difficulty was that the text was too darned small to read in Outlook, and since this is mostly a communications machine that would never do. The problem is that I haven't had to do any system tweaking in so long I have completely forgotten how; and of course it's different in Vista from XP. For the record, in Vista it's right click on the desk top; select "Personalize", and change to "Large Fonts". Then reset. That took care of the problem. Note that you can actually set the font size to any custom value you like. Vista lets you fool with this until you have just what you want. Captain Morse likes 110%. I find "large" (which is 125%) just right.

Indeed, 1920 x 1080 plus large fonts makes Outlook behave something wonderful. The text looks good, and it's big enough to read. Same is true for Word. I've used 16 point Georgia for years, but now with 14 point Georgia I get 29 readable lines of text on screen, and that's enough to work with. After all, I grew up with 25 lines of double-spaced text (10 words to the line) on a sheet of 8-1/2 by 11 paper with 1-1/4 inch margins all around - which, for the record, was the standard professional submission format back when I got into the writing racket. So far as anyone (including the Smithsonian) can find out, I am the first person to write a published novel on a computer, and that's the format I had the Diablo printer type it out in, because in those days no publisher could read an electronic copy of a book, and some didn't want computer-printed books because the dot-matrix text was so hard to read. The Diablo actually typed the book at, I think I remember, 30 characters per second. It took all night to print out a 60,000 word novel. In any event, the Acer x233h monitor is a bit short on mechanical features - if it's not the right height you have to put books under it - but that's really the only complaint I have. My text looks good, the response time is fast, and I'm getting used to having the extra "wide angle" real estate on my desktop. I think I prefer it to the LaCie, and I loved that LaCie.

Acer H234H

Roberta was coming home today and I was using her monitor, so I didn't have a lot of time. The morning paper showed a sale at Fry's on the Acer H234H 24" wide angle monitor, the next size step up from the H233H I used over the weekend. I figured if the 23" was Good Enough, the 24" would be even better. Both have 1920 x 1080 native resolution, I knew the 233 was acceptable to Roberta, and it only takes me an hour to get out to Fry's, buy something, and get home, so off I went.

Clearly Fry's has been hit hard by the economic downturn. Fewer clerks. I couldn't find the H243H, and the clerk I asked checked something on the computer, said it was in stock, and promptly vanished for fifteen minutes, Eventually he reappeared with monitor in hand. I then discovered there were only six checkout stands open, meaning there was a long line to get out. The upshot was that my Fry's trip took an hour and a half, and Roberta had just got home when I got back. She took a nap while I installed monitors.

The H243H took about five minutes to unpack. I didn't have to tweak anything. It Just Works. I can see the text I'm working on just fine. There are enough lines on the screen. Outlook looks great. And I am getting used to the extra real estate on the screen, although I am not sure what to do with it. There's not quite enough width to have two major projects open at once. I suspect that I could tweak the font size, but then I'd have trouble seeing the text. Anyway I like what I've got just find.

Meanwhile I installed the H233H on Roberta's system. I set the resolution to 1920 x 1080 and set XP to "Large" fonts. That turns out to be about as simple as changing font size in Vista, and gets about the same result.

I need a third monitor to set at Niven's station. Obviously I can put the H234H over there if I find something I like better, or I can just get another of these so I have a spare for my main communications machine. Fry's on line has a sale on a Samsung 23 with 2048 x 1152 native resolution. A number of my advisors have had good experiences with Samsung. I couldn't find one to look at when I was at Fry's today, and since I knew that 1920 x 1080 works for me, I didn't take a lot of time looking for it. What I've concluded from all this is that monitors have become a commodity product. The bigger the better, and brand doesn't matter a lot. Of course for graphic artists that won't be true but for most of what we do with computers, they're all pretty well good enough, and a lot better than the best we had a few years ago.

A Few Notes on Monitors

Eric Pobirs, one of my advisors who maintains Larry Niven's computers, adds:

The ATI card in Bette should have no problem producing the proper resolution [2048 x 1152] if it knows what monitor is connected. It has become more necessary to have the correct profile for the monitor loaded. This is often available on Windows Update for major brands and from the maker's web site otherwise.

This is especially needed for 22" and other screens that use 1680x1050 resolution. This isn't a native resolution for a lot of the video chips out there but is doable in software. This means the correct profile must be loaded and the monitor must be detected at boot time. Otherwise the EDID doesn't get picked up by the system. (This is a lingering issue of older connection standards and should go away with DisplayPort.)

Wide screens have become dominant in the market but the prices for big screens are so low it isn't a big problem for apps that don't gain anything from it. Although Niven likes to have Word in the book mode so he appears to be creating a book as he goes along rather than a representation of single sheets.

Search and Browser Update

There is now a "Go to Bing" Firefox Add-On. It was written by one of my subscribers, and it works exactly as Go to Google does: it puts a small letter in the lower right corner of your Firefox screen. Click it and it opens a new Bing search window. I find myself using it a lot. Google shows me too many sponsored items that have no relationship to anything I want before it finally gets to telling me where to find the information I actually want. I suspect that if Bing gets the success that Microsoft wants, the same thing will happen, but just now I am more likely to see a useful link on the first page than I am with Bing. I don't want Google to become Too Big To Fail; I prefer there be some competition. Bing works fairly well, and I now use both.

As to browsers, my default browser remains Firefox, but I reserve the right to complain. For example, when I needed to download new drivers for my video board, Firefox insisted on protecting me from doing that. I got a complicated message on how I could get past that, but I didn't bother. I opened Internet Explorer and all went just fine. On reflection, that's all right. I don't often download executable files, and making me think hard about whether or not I want to do that is no burden.

Do note that Firefox after Microsoft Revisions can drive you mad. The secret is to open Firefox instantly after the Microsoft upgrade installs. If you wait until you are in Outlook and click a link, it will cost you lots of time. What happens is that the Firefox extensions upgrade window will pop up. You deal with that, and a new Firefox window will open. It won't be from your previous session. You then get to thrash around restoring your previous session. That won't be easy or obvious, but eventually you'll figure it out.

At least that's how it works for me. Do note that I keep a lot of Firefox tabs open: about seventy as I write this. I use Firefox tabs as a sort of memo pad, leaving tabs open to pages instead of extracting information into OneNote. I can do this on a Quad 6600 64-bit Vista system with 8 gigabytes of memory. I don't recommend you do it on less powerful systems.

I do find Firefox a bit faster than Internet Explorer, and of course by now I am used to it. I like many of the add ons - such as Go to Google and Go to Bing and Tab Mix Plus - and for the most part I am comfortable with it. I expect if I got used to Internet Explorer it would be all right, but I can use Firefox on both Windows and the Mac, and it works pretty much the same. That's worth something.

Do note that I was not for a moment tempted to turn off either Microsoft or Firefox updating.

Virus and Trojans and Worms, Oh My!

I was listening to the Leo Laporte radio show last weekend, and one of the callers had a problem that might be a virus. Leo recommended that the listener go to http://www.eset.com/onlinescan/ and let ESET scan his machine. (ESET is the publisher of the NOD32 anti-virus program and one of Laporte's sponsors.) I thought about that for a moment and decided I'd give it a try. It was a perfectly good idea, but it wasn't so smart to try it right then: after about half an hour of slow downloading I realized that half the listeners had decided to give it a try and the site was overloaded.

I waited for a few hours and tried it again. ESET wants to send you a downloadable program, and you have to trust them. I've got enough faith in Leo to do that. This time it took about half an hour to download all the signature stuff, than another hour to do the scan of about 80 gigabytes of files. As the scan proceeded I was rather horrified to see that it found several threats, and thought it recognized them as viruses. Over the next hour it found 6 that it did not like.

ESET doesn't tell you what the file names are until it is finished. Then it told me that the six files it didn't like were all very old Word .DOT files from the 1990's and earlier. That somewhat reassured me. I let it quarantine them so it would be happy, mostly because I can open the old Word files without those. One of these days I have to clean up that "Full Monty" folder which contains copies of nearly everything I have ever written. (Alas, some of my earliest works are lost: they were on 8" floppy disks that were never copied onto hard drives. I no longer have an 8" floppy drive, and if I did I am pretty sure that all the little 1's and 0's have melted into 1/2's.)

I never thought that Emily was infected with anything, but I feel better for having done the ESET scan. While I was at it, I went into Adobe Reader and turned off Java Script. Ever since I heard about the Adobe Reader vulnerabilities I have been fairly carful about opening pdf files. Actually that's not strong enough. I won't open a pdf attachment unless I know all about the source.

Peter Glaskowsky adds

Those old .DOT files may well be infected with old Word macro viruses. Seems like pretty much everyone got hit with those at one time or another in the 1990s.

I suppose that's right, but I have never had any suspicion of a virus activity as a result. Those .DOT files have been on many machines, being transferred as I added new systems to the network. I suppose I have to go through and scan all my machines now just to be sure I'm rid of them. Peter also thinks he knows people who can read my old 8" disks, meaning that it may be possible to resurrect some of my earliest work on computers. I don't have a lot of hope for that, but we'll see. More if I learn more.

A VoIP Report

My telephone system is ancient. It's called TIE, and I have not the faintest notion of what processor it uses; I'd guess a Z-80 because that was a very popular imbedded chip back in the 1980's when my obsolete phone system was designed. It's ancient, but it works well enough for me, and it's paid for. On the other hand, it wasn't designed for VoIP.

It turns out it doesn't have to have been. There are a number of VoIP systems my TIE system will see as indistinguishable from telephone lines. I'm looking into those, because it looks as if I can save a little on my phone bills that way.

None of this is a pressing problem for me. Back in BYTE's glory days I spent a lot of time on the telephone, and my phone bills were very high. Now they tend to be minimal. They go up every few months, of course. Sometimes the government has found a new source of revenue, and sometimes the phone company has. None of it's ever explained, of course.

For small businesses, telephone services can be significant. When I learned that Phil Tharp, a consulting engineer who does a lot of work in communications (he writes code for USB 3 devices, as an example) was installing a new VoIP system, I got him to write it up for inclusion in the column. Note that POTS = "Plain Old Telephone System".

My old Panasonic digital PBX started failing and I decided to take the plunge and switch to VOIP and the Asterisk PBX.

VoIP uses TCP/IP through your broadband Internet connection to provide voice services. Out in the cloud are various service providers that will communicate with you using public protocols to make and receive phone calls. The service provider connects your equipment over the internet and provides the connection to the POTS switched network.

These guys usually have point of access connections into phone systems all over the country, and indeed the world. You can have phones numbers in many different geographical areas. The rates are low, I pay 1.2 cents a minute to the USA and Canada with no monthly charges. International rates are similar.

This has been going on for a while, many people have little black boxes that provide a phone jack to plug your house phones into. In fact, I have been using Vonage for several years now and fed the phone jack as trunk line into my Panasonic PBX. It acted just like a regular phone line. The magic happened in the little box with a phone jack on one end and an Ethernet jack on the other.

With my new system, the little box, the Panasonic PBX, and it turns out, Vonage all go away to be replaced by a dual core Atom mini-ITX motherboard, Linux, and the Asterisk PBX software. The phones are now Polycom TCP/IP phones and use Ethernet over my regular internal network to communicate with the Asterisk PBX. In other words, the phones are now computers on the network, the PBX is a general purpose computer running software, and the "phone company" is just another service provider on the Internet.

I cannot tell you how much better this is! The Asterisk PBX software is enormously more powerful than anything a small PBX used to provide. It's up there with the biggest Enterprise systems. All of the standard things are supported, extensions, ring groups, call hold, call forwarding, interactive menus, etc. etc. etc. In addition, big system features are there as well.

For example, I can now have up to 10 concurrent calls running through the little Atom system. I can actually have many more, but my provider charges extra for that. I have 8 phone numbers, and each number supports multiple calls. I setup a conference bridge on the Asterisk system and an incoming route that says if you dial 963-0923, you will directly connect to my conference bridge. Up to 10 people can do this at once. I just held a 3 person conference this afternoon and the voice quality was indistinguishable from the big systems.

Or take paging. My office is a separate building in my back yard. The wife always wants to "talk" to me when she is in the house. If you dial 650, a group, two way line is setup with all phones. That means she can call for me and every speaker phone on the property will relay what she is saying. And, I can just talk, and what I say will be relayed back to her over whatever phone is in range of my voice. Cool. And yes, echo cancellation works.

Direct Inward Dialing, an expensive, big system feature is supported by Asterisk and by the provider. Every incoming connection can be sorted by phone number to go to various places. The calls are virtual, so there are no busy signals, no tied lines, it's just bits.

Voice mail is no longer precious. The hard disk on the Asterisk PC is the limiting factor, and with 320GB's, it won't be an issue.

I had to change service providers. Vonage uses VoIP, but requires an expensive 150.00/month subscription to support PC based PBX's like Asterisk. I found many out there that charge only by the minute and others that charge a monthly fee with unlimited talk time. I did the math and the per minute guys were cheaper. I use Vitel.

The Asterisk system is open source and free! Even though that usually means a lot of pain and suffering, setup was not too bad. I used the Trixbox version and it took about a 1/2 week of time to set everything up. For those who ether don't have the time or are not technical enough, people sell commercial versions that are turnkey.

The Polycom phones are excellent, but were about 1/2 of the setup time. They are computers and they boot over TFTP on the network. I chose them because of their outstanding speakerphone capabilities. On Ebay, they run about 100.00/each refurbished. They get their power over Ethernet. I did have to install some 4 port POE Ethernet switches, but it was no big deal.

Total cost for the system, with 8 Polycom phones, the Asterisk PBX on the dual core Atom, and a door phone was about 2K. Cheaper than a new Panasonic.

Oh yes, Asterisk works equally well with soft phones which are just programs running on your PC.

Phil Tharp
Vreelin Eng. Inc.

I will follow Phil's progress on this and get another report after he's used it for a while. Meanwhile I am impressed. When we ran political campaigns we would always need a full PBX telephone installation at campaign headquarters, and they were always very expensive, and never had as many features as Phil's new Asterisk system.

Of course The Phone Company is lobbying hard to restrict use of VoIP. I understand they have several full time people representing AT&T interests in the FCC broadband plan. Clearly as a larger proportion of the nation is connected by broadband, the AT&T universe changes drastically.

Today's news is that the anti-trust division of the Justice Department is looking at AT&T and Verizon. Some would say it's about time. I was no enthusiast of breaking up the old AT&T Ma Bell Phone Company, which was a Regulated Public Utility; the theory of the breakup was to deregulate and encourage competition. That worked for a while, but then came the consolidations. There may be reasons to oppose a Regulated Public Utility, but surely that's preferable to an unregulated monopoly? I realize there are counter arguments.

My general theory is that any private company that is too big to be allowed to fail is probably too big to be allowed to exist. That comes from my being an economics student of David McCord Wright, who I think had a pretty good picture of economic history, including a good critique of Marx. Marx, you may recall, said that the natural course of capitalism would be increasing consolidation until all the means of production were owned by a very small number of people and organizations. Wright noted that this was certainly the tendency of capitalism, but the Anti-Trust Act had prevented it in America.

Verbatim PhotoSave DVD

If you have a zillion photographs on your hard drive and you've never got around to external media because it seems just too complicated, try the Verbatim PhotoSave DVD. A pack of five costs less than twenty bucks, each will hold more than 5,000 photographs, and the software is all built into the medium. Put a Verbatim PhotoSave disk in your DVD burner and let it run the automatic software. It worked fine on my Vista system.

My biggest problem is that I have about 15 GB of photo files, and they are not saved in "My Pictures" which is where the Verbatim software wants to find them. There's also an option to let it search the entire C drive, which is what I let the program do. It built an enormous list for copying - given that there are over 20 years of more than 14 GB of photographs it's hardly surprising that this took a long time. Eventually it told me that I would need 3 more disks (total of four), did I want to continue? I told it to go ahead, and it started burning the DVD on the Plextor PX 800 A. This took about 15 minutes, then the first disk ejected, and I was prompted to put in the second disk. Vista popped up the autoplay screen, but it didn't do anything, and I closed it while the Plextor burned the second disk (and told me it was burning bisk 2 of 4). It did this twice more, and when it was finished with Disk 4 it trundled for a while after getting to 100%. Then it ejected and told me to click FINISH to finish. No ceremony, no instructions. I clicked FINISH and wondered what to do next.

The drive was open with Disk 4 in it, so I closed it. This time the autoplay didn't offer any options other than "Open Folder to View Files". I did that, and discovered that I did indeed have copies of all my photos. Most of them were in the folder called Photos - that's the 14 GB folder where I've stored all that stuff - but there were other folders. Verbatim had indeed searched my C Drive and found such things as photographs embedded in Word documents including BYTE columns dating back to 1990. There wasn't any text or context, but the photos were saved. There was even ProgramData/Microsoft/WindowsNT/MSScan/WelcomeScan.jpg, a file I would never have wanted to save but it does show how thorough the Verbatim search is. It sure found pictures I had forgotten, and put them on the backup disks.

The other three disks contained various files from the big Photos folder. They're all there.

The Verbatim software doesn't do organization. You have to do that yourself. What it will do is painlessly make backup copies of every photograph on your hard drive, and do it fairly swiftly and inexpensively. It didn't do anything I couldn't have done by hand, but it sure would have taken me longer and needed more of my attention. As it is, I have 4 DVD's labeled "Photo backup July 2009" and that's one less thing to worry about. Recommended.

Note: Bob Thompson points out that you can get a spindle of DVD disks for twenty dollars and make your backups doing a search for all forms of pictures, making a big temporary file, then saving one disk worth at a time until you're done.  He's right, of course. I'd rather pay the $15 or so to do all that automatically. I now have a full backup of every photograph on my main system, and it took me less than five minutes' attention, I didn't have to do any searches, and I didn't have to make any temporary files. I didn't have to decide which files went on what disk. Bob is horrified at the waste of money. I'm happy with the saved time. It's not like I am going to do this every week.

Winding Down

There really isn't a movie of the month. If you like detailed special effects you will like Transformers, but I thought the story was pretty lame, and the movie was a lot longer than I wanted it to be. Of course the movie wasn't intended for me.

Many of my readers and subscribers are using the slow economic times to develop programming skills. Some have done this quite successfully. One skill that's marketable is web page designing.

There was a time when almost anyone with the nerve to try it could make some money designing web pages, but the business is more competitive now. There are also many more design tools available, and most of these include content management systems (CMS). Most of the best design tools are free and open source. One of the latest is Joomla! 1.5 (Wikipedia link) Joomla! is written in the PHP programming language and uses the MySQL database system.

Joomla! 1.5: A User's Guide, Building a Successful Joomla! Powered Website is about the best introduction to the subject I have seen. Cautionary note: I don't do Joomla! Programming and it's exceedingly unlikely I ever will. I have studied the principles of programming, and I did write a number of fairly complex programs back in the early days of personal computing. Thus my judgment about programming instruction books is not based on intimacy with details of the programming language.

That said, Barrie M. North's Joomla! Guide is the best introduction and tutorial I have yet seen. It starts at a level I can understand, explains what you need to know about MySQL, and teaches by example. It's up front about telling you what you'll need to know that it won't tell you about - you'll have to learn something about CSS elsewhere - and pretty explicit about showing you how to accomplish things. I have no intention of spending the time and effort to learn Joomla! but I make little doubt that I could, given a couple of months, learn enough to design a fairly simple content management website and get it running. I also make no doubt that it would be a difficult thing to do, but then programming has never been really easy.

Those wondering if they should try learning Joomla! probably couldn't do better than to get this book and see what programs and program design is like; you'll soon learn if you have most or all of the prerequisites.

Another way to get an introduction to Joomla! is the Fundamentals of Joomla! live lessons video by Barrie North. I prefer to read than to watch lectures, but North is a good lecturer and does well at explanations. If you generally learn more from watching and listening than from reading, this may be for you.

For those who want to start at a more elementary level, I recommend Practical Programming: An Introduction to Computer Science Using Python by Jennifer Campbell, Paul Gries, Jason Montojo, and Greg Wilson, Pragmatic Bookshelf. This book starts at a very elementary level, and reminds me a bit of some of the early books on Pascal. Pascal, you may recall, was invented by Professor Niklaus Wirth as a teaching language designed to convey the concepts of computer science and structured programming. Python is a more practically oriented language, but this book is structured to show you concepts, not build practical programs, even though it gives fairly practical problems as examples.

Older introductory books spent a great deal of time on program structure. I think this was wise, but most of those books are long gone now. They almost always used Pascal as the instruction language, and that had the disadvantage that once you had learned programming theory you then had to go find a language to program in: although there were practical versions of Pascal (as in Borland Turbo Pascal), Pascal wasn't very good at handling input and output, and each Pascal publisher had a different I/O library. For various reasons Pascal became less and less popular, and as it did, comprehensive program design books also vanished.

Practical Programming doesn't exactly take us back to those days, but it does spend considerable time teaching universal concepts that can be useful in learning or understanding any programming language. That is both useful and annoying, of course. Mostly, this is a textbook, and has both the strengths and weaknesses of a textbook. It's well structured, and if you follow each lesson in order, and do the exercises, you'll learn what the textbook writer wanted you to learn - and you'll know more than just how to write a Python program. How much more I'm not sure.

Another approach to learning programming would be to get the latest edition of Mark Lutz's O'Reilly book Learning Python, download Python (it's free) and start in. When you finish you'll know a lot more about building programs in that language, and probably as much about the general concepts. While you're at it, find a copy of Peter Grogono's ancient book Programming in Pascal and go through that to learn more about structure and programming philosophy.

Of course if you're seriously trying to learn to program as a possible way to make a living, you'll do all of the above. It's not as if learning computer science is something to do over a lazy weekend.

The book of the month is The Google Way: How One Company Is Revolutionizing Management As We Know It by Bernard Girard (No Starch Press). As author Bernard Girard points out, much of Google's astonishing success has been due to bucking the traditional Silicon Valley venture capital startup rules and paths. There are plenty of legends about Google, but few careful studies. This is one of the exceptions. Girard is a management expert who has paid close attention to what Larry Page and Sergey Brin have done, and why they have done it. The hint of course is that if you learn their techniques you'll be able to use them. I'm not so sure of that myself, but if you're interested in management in the new high tech age, you'll be interested in this book. It's quite readable.