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Computing At Chaos Manor:
August 13, 2009

The User's Column, August, 2009
Column 349
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2009 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


It's the silly season. Nothing big happens. Reporters and columnists stuck for a story have a real problem finding something to say, so this is the traditional time when some of them make mountains out of molehills. It's been worse here. There hasn't been much computing at Chaos Manor, because we're down with what we're pretty sure is the swine flu. The good news is that the symptoms aren't that severe. The bad news is that it hangs on for a long time, and eats all one's energy. There's no real treatment for that except to go to bed and stay there, preferably with the covers pulled up over your head. Unfortunately, I can't write while lying down.

The economy continues to be in a mess. The President seems to take heart from the fact that only a quarter of a million people lost their jobs last month. That seems enough for me, and now comes the news that more than a third of US homeowner mortgages are for more than the home is now worth - and there are projections that this will reach 50% before it's over, because it's a death spiral: people who owe more than the house is worth are tempted to stop making payments and walk away; the house goes into foreclosure; foreclosed houses sell for less; and housing prices (and thus values) fall, and suddenly there are more people who owe more than the property is worth. And of course unemployment rates remain high and more people are losing their jobs, meaning they can't make their house payments, thus priming the death spiral pump. The good news is that some are using this time to expand their skills and finding new jobs as consultants. There is a raft of new books on technical capabilities, and a number of people are learning from them. It's no time to be lazy.

Will Twitter Save The World?

The news last month was full of excitement about the Power of Twitter and how that was going to change the world in Iran. For a few days that news seemed to dominate the Internet, but it turned out to be another silly season story. Of course that outcome looked inevitable from the beginning: after all, every candidate in the Iranian election had been vetted by the Supreme Leader, who evidently considered none of them a threat. At most what was going on was a faction dispute within the Iranian system, meaning that however much those taking to the streets believed in freedom and democracy, that wasn't likely to be achieved no matter the outcome.

Still, it sparked a lot of acclaim from those outside Iran. Prominent bloggers proclaimed that "The Revolution Will Be Twittered," and many others followed suit. For a while there was a perfect orgy of claims of the new power of "Web 3.0" that would change the world. Mark Pfeifle in the Christian Science Monitor suggested a Nobel Peace Prize for Twitter. It was even said that because of Twitter "You cannot have Rwanda again."

Of course the most recent Twitter stories say nothing of the sort, but they are full of accounts of how Twitter has been brought to its knees, not by Iranian security forces who had no trouble suppressing the Iranian dissidents, but by some rogue outfit controlling zombie computers conducting a Denial of Service attack on one targeted Twitter user. Is this a rehearsal for the future? Neither Twitter nor the Internet appear to be robust enough to survive a determined attack by a sophisticated Power determined to accomplish its will.

The story of the Iranian regime being brought down by Twitter was another silly season story, but there may be another and larger story in those implications.

Apple Tablet

One story would be interesting if we had a story: the rumors are out that Apple will bring out a Tablet PC. Given the history of Apple management it is highly unlikely to resemble the Newton, Apple's previous "sort of a tablet", in any way. That said, there are many rumors, some from those who hate the whole concept of an Apple Tablet, others from those eagerly awaiting it.

And, of course, there are the articles that point out the existing TabletPC's which have been around for a few years and work quite well.

None of this answers what will be in the Apple package, and I've given up speculating. I have considerable respect for the Apple design team, and I'm looking forward to seeing their product. It will have to be pretty good to be more useful (for me) than LisaBetta, the HP Compaq TabletPC I've had for years.

When I say LisaBetta is useful, I have to be careful: she's useful, but in her own way. She really isn't a general purpose production machine. She'd do in a pinch - I went to one CES and one COMDEX with no machine other than LisaBetta, and managed to file my show reports, get my column done, deal with my email, and write a chapter of my novel with that nifty little machine. I will not say that I wouldn't have got all that done quicker and easier with the ThinkPad, but LisaBetta was easier to carry, and was available for me to scribble hand-written notes in meetings, and even do sketches - this was before the ubiquity of pocket and cell phone cameras.

The primary value of a TabletPC is to be used with Microsoft OneNote and a high speed Internet connection. The combination allows you to do extensive research, annotate and organize it, and in my case build a kind of plot outline through sheer organization of the notes on what will be encountered in the upcoming scenes. It's a great way to work, and I do that sometimes when I'm building a story.

Whatever Apple actually delivers, for it to be useful to me it needs something like OneNote, as well as the easy communications and networking of a MacBook. At least one rumor says that's exactly what they'll introduce. We'll see.

One final note: I have reports from several readers who are very pleased with the Lenovo x series convertible laptop TabletPC's. The X41 is not fast enough to run the Win 7 Aero GUI, but the X61 will. I had an X41 for about a year; it was considerably faster than LisaBetta, but I liked the Compaq form factor and interface enough more that I preferred it when I carried a Tablet; but then I don't watch movies or do other high graphics demand software on the laptops I carry. I don't know what I'd get if I needed a new tablet, but I certainly won't get one until I see what Apple comes out with.

Windows 7

Fortunately, Microsoft released the manufacturers' copy of Windows 7, and I've got it, so I have something to write about.

First, of course, I had to get Windows 7 from MSDN. I expect all developers know about the Microsoft Development Network ; if you're doing software development for Microsoft Windows systems, membership is essential. In any event, Windows 7 is big and the download took several hours, but there were no complications. I now had Windows 7 Ultimate, both x86 and 64-bit, on Emily's hard drive. Emily is an Intel Core 2 Quad Extreme system built on an Intel motherboard. She's got a terabyte hard drive, and 8 gigabytes of Kingston memory, plus another 4 gigabytes of Kinston thumb drive used as a ReadyDrive. (More on the ReadyDrive in a later section.) She also has a Plextor PX 800 A DVD R/W drive.

What Emily doesn't (or didn't) have is any way to burn an ISO image. For a decade or so I used Nero for burns. In the early days Nero Burning ROM was the best CD-ROM burning program around, and it remained pretty nifty during the transition to DVD. It still works, and I have an elderly copy on a Windows 2000 machine which I use when I am not in a hurry. Alas, that system is pretty slow. I have Nero on a couple of XP systems but they are not part of my everyday setup.

Vista has been getting update patches very frequently this summer, and just about every "update" has an impact on local networking. Just now, Vista networking is pretty nifty between Vista systems, but every time Microsoft updates Vista it becomes less and less able to find non-Vista systems - and in the last revision the major XP system, Satine, suddenly lost the ability to find any network drive. Bette, the 64-bit Vista system sees Satine, even though Satine can't see anyone else. Emily sees Bette. My iMac can see all the Vista and XP drives even though we have a big problem with other machines seeing the iMac. Still, since the Mac can see everyone, it's possible to communicate among all the systems if I am willing to play shuffle games; and of course the iMac can burn ISO images. I could have made my installation disks that way.

Another way would be to get a review copy of Nero, but Nero has become very expensive and I thought there ought to be a better way. Eric Pobirs had one: go find a free program called ImgBurn and install that. There are several ways to do that. The simplest is to go to www.imgburn.com and download. I googled something else and ended up getting mine from the CNET download site. In general, if I don't know much about a web site that offers something I want, I prefer to use the CNET site since I know that's highly likely to be a safe and reliable source. Of course in this case I already knew that ImgBurn was the good guys.

I downloaded ImgBurn and installed it. That went entirely without incident. The program is easy to use, fast and efficient, and free. It will do just about anything you want a burning program to do in CD / DVD / HD DVD / and Blu-ray, and supports any file format I'll ever need. It will burn audio CD's and movies, it supports Unicode, and, I am told, if you run Wine it will run on Linux. In short, if you don't have a copy, you ought to go get one. Recommended.

Why Windows Lacks Features

My search for an image burning program prompted Bob Thompson to say that it was unconscionable for a major operating system not to have that capability built in. This prompted Eric Pobirs to say:

Until Win7 there wasn't support for burning ISO image files. (There was the ISO Recorder PowerToy for Vista but that as a PowerToy it wasn't officially supported.) This was for the same reason as nearly every case where a feature is strangely missing from Windows. It was purposely left out because government said it had to be. This is especially the case when the ISV company most prominent in the field is a European operation. The same madness is now requiring Microsoft to have a 'ballot box' screen to offer multiple third party browsers when a new PC is booted for the first time by the consumer.

Apparently, despite the recent billionth download of Firefox, European consumers are too dumb to make these choices for themselves and must have them spoon-fed directly into their mouths. The EC types know this must be true because so few choose Opera, the most Euro of browsers.

-- Eric

The result is that all of us in the rest of the world suffer from the EU envy of the success of Internet Explorer.

Upgrade? Really?

I now had bootable DVD installation disks for both x86 and 64-bit Windows 7. We've never run Windows 7 here, but I have good reports from many who have. This is the copy released to manufacturers. It seemed safe enough. My first thought was to install it on Emily. Emily used to be the main computer, used for writing non-fiction, doing my bills and taxes, and for general non-communications tasks. She's the fastest system in the house, so she also has all my PC games like Fallout 3 and the various Total War games.

There's nothing critical on Emily, so it would be possible to back up all the data and do a complete new installation. That wouldn't be convenient - many of those games take a long time to install - but it would be possible. It would also take time, and time just now is something I don't have very much of. It would be far preferable to do an upgrade installation. First, though, I'd have to do a full backup.

Windows Home Server

Of course Windows Home Server was supposed to take care of Emily's backup, but something has gone wrong. Emily was protected by Windows Live OneCare. There were a number of updates to Live OneCare. There was also an announcement that Live OneCare would go away "this summer." There were a number of Vista updates. Every Vista update affected the network, generally for the worse. Microsoft seems to have gone out of its way to make life difficult for workgroup users. I became accustomed to networking difficulties.

Somewhere in there, Windows Home Server vanished. By vanished I mean that we were no longer connected to it, I can't find it on my network anywhere, the icon vanished from the desktop, and it may as well not have existed. Then I discovered that the Windows Home Server system has been turned off for more than two weeks, so its disappearance isn't astonishing. Turning it on produced a spate of warnings about not having a backup. One would have thought that I'd get the warnings when the backup system vanished, but no, they came when I turned it back on.

There were other problems. The obvious remedy to this would be to reinstall Home Server from scratch, and perhaps I should do that; but troubleshooting while recovering from the Mexican flu didn't seem like a great idea, so I put that off for a few days. I did tell the system to do a manual backup to Windows Home Server, mostly to keep it from nagging me.

It did that, but then it began nagging me about my passwords on "this machine" (Emily) and Windows Home Server not matching. It offered to let me change them, but when I tried to do that, it told me I was giving it the wrong password. For once I had a complete log of installing Windows Home Server, and I knew darned well that it used exactly the same password for Jeeves (the Home Server) as for the rest of my system. I logged on to Windows Home Server (using the password that the "synchronize passwords" demand rejected) and that worked just fine. I told Windows Home Server I wanted to change passwords: then I "changed" it to the password I had logged on with. The "your passwords do not match" nag continued, and I wasn't able to synchronize the passwords because it would not accept the Windows Home Server password. By now I was a bit disgusted, but the next step was to restart the system. That worked - and lo! the "passwords do not match" warning had gone away.

For about half an hour. Then I got a message that my network is in danger, and the passwords don't match. I was able to get Windows Home Server to tell me it was backing up Emily, and I hope it has done that - it says it has - but I don't have a great deal of confidence in it.

For one thing, it continues to tell me my network is in danger and will be until I install McAfee anti-virus. I don't have McAfee anti-virus, but I presume this will download it. I also presume that's part of the HP software package that came with my Windows Home Server system. Anyway I don't want McAfee anti-virus, but it begins to look as if I'll have to install it just to shut the system up.

At this point Windows Home Server is working, but it nags me about my endangered network. It does tell me that Emily is all backed up. My network isn't healthy because I don't have McAfee.

I suppose there is a moral to this story, but I am not sure what it is. Anyway, it will be interesting to see what happens with Windows Home Server and its backup system when Emily changes operating systems to Windows 7...

Seagate FreeAgent

When we built Emily we should have installed a second terabyte drive for backup. I never did although I probably will. Some of Emily's data files are critical, but those are always backed up to Bette, just as Bette's critical files go to Emily; one reason for the two machines is that I can do just about anything I need to from either, and I try to keep them up to date with each other.

Now, though, I needed a full and complete backup, and my experiences with the HP built Microsoft Home Server system weren't terribly encouraging. Another backup seemed indicated. I have a terabyte Seagate Free Agent drive, which I'd always intended to use for Emily backup; this seemed like a good time to do that. It seemed to be a simple enough thing to do: just install that and run its built-in backup software. Alas, that didn't work out well either, largely I think because of Firefox.

The Seagate FreeAgent software wanted to update; Vista told me that a program wanted to connect to the Internet, would I let it; Firefox opened automatically and told me it had crashed, and should it be restored, and then told me it needed to be restarted after a backup. Somewhere in there we got an endless loop. The backup software wants to be updated, but it doesn't work.

Eventually I figured out how to get past this. Restart. When the notice that the Seagate backup system wants to update appears, let it. In my case that opened a Firefox window even though I had told the system to use IE as the default browser. I then copied the URL from the the Firefox window. Closed Firefox. Opened Internet Explorer. Pasted in the URL. I then followed instructions, and Lo! This time it did the update. The Seagate backup worked, and Emily is now backed up on both Windows Home Server and on the Seagate FreeAgent system. It still complains about not having McAffee, but it's not giving me gas about passwords.

I can recommend Seagate's hardware/software FreeAgent system, but you should be prepared to spend a bit of time upgrading the software before you use it. Once that is done it's an invisible backup system that works in background.

One moral of this story is that before you do ANYTHING having to do with Microsoft, make sure that your default browser is Internet Explorer. If you don't, you will probably regret it.

It will be interesting to see what those do when I change over to Windows 7.

Windows 7 Installation

On reflection I wasn't entirely comfortable with experimenting with Emily, so I decided to do an upgrade installation of Windows 7 x86 on Roxanne. She's an Intel Core 2 (but single CPU) 2.4 ghz with 4 gigabytes of memory, and was the first Vista machine at Chaos Manor. At one time she was the secondary main machine (the place that Emily occupies now). Her only function lately has been to test the networking and to be yet another place to copy key files.

The installation was simple. My installation disk was bootable, but when I inserted the installation disk autorun offered to run Setup under the existing Vista OS. I told it to go ahead. I was told that the system would need to be connected to the Internet for the entire installation.

There were a series of compatibility checks, then some updates, and finally a confusing message saying that we couldn't install just yet and some programs wouldn't be compatible, including Power DVD and iTunes. It was quite possible to misinterpret the message; but eventually I understood that the real reason it wouldn't install Windows 7 was that I had to restart the machine. I did that, declined the offer to boot from the DVD, and let it go ahead. When I was offered Upgrade or new installation, I chose Upgrade.

After that it was automatic. I was told it might take several hours. In fact it took a bit more than two hours, but no attention was required. Eventually it wanted the product key and activation. I told it to do all that. A few minutes later I was running Windows 7. The machine has the same name - Roxanne - and sees all Vista machines on my network. She also sees Imogene the iMac. All the other Vista machines see Roxanne. She appears in the machines visible to Imogene, the iMac, and I have no trouble connecting the two machines.

Roxanne doesn't see Satine, the XP system, but neither does Emily. Bette sees Satine, but only because one of Satine's disks is mapped to the S: drive. Bette can't really see Satine herself; unlike Imogene who sees Satine herself and both her drives. I can't explain this, but since Satine is scheduled for a complete scrub to metal and Windows 7 installation, I guess I don't care. Once I get Windows 7 on there I am sure all will be well.

I don't know what Microsoft did to Vista (or XP, or both) in a frantic effort to plug holes in the OS, but one of the recent updates broke XP's ability to network to Vista machines, and another broke Vista's capability to see and be seen by XP. Vista and Windows 7 work together just fine.

Otherwise, I've had no problems with Windows 7. Some of the interface is strange, but the HELP system is well done. Just search for what you want to do, and it will generally show you. Everything works fine.

My next step will be to do an upgrade Windows 7 installation on Emily the Intel Extreme Quad system - a main machine - and then a new Windows 7 installation on Satine the XP system. I'll have a report on that next month. By then I may have decided to do an upgrade installation of Windows 7 64-bit on Bette, my main communications system; I won't do that until I have done more stress tests with Roxanne, then put Windows 7 on Emily and tested that.

I have many reports on Windows 7 from subscribers and advisors, and none of them are negative. It does look as if this could be the best Windows yet.

Moving to the Mac

My slow migration to the Mac continues. It's slow because as Windows gets less ornery the incentive to make the move lessens. Windows works for just about everything I do, including games. It looks good, and except for the recent networking weirdness I haven't had many irritations.

Meanwhile, using the Mac does require some relearning. It's not excessive, and if all my Windows systems died tomorrow I could continue on the Mac without much stumbling.

Monitors Followup

I continue to recommend the Acer H243H 24" monitor. I run it at 1920 x 1080, and it looks very good indeed. It's very easy to write with: text looks great. This monitor is one reason I've slowed down in my move to the Mac: Word text on this monitor looks better and is more readable at a distance from the screen than it is on the iMac - and understand that the iMac text was one reason I was moving over to the Mac. I have seen the H243H on sale for $225. It replaced a LaCie that cost more than $800 a decade ago back when the LaCie was the best monitor for text that I could find.

In an earlier column I mentioned that I wasn't happy with the "widescreen" aspect ratio, and many have suggested that I get a monitor that will physically rotate. It turns out that won't be necessary. Word looks good on this monitor, and there's plenty of text on the screen. The trick is to press control-F1 to minimize the ribbon (it's a toggle). That gives at least 25 lines at the resolutions I like, and that's good enough.

Meanwhile, Roberta continues to be delighted with the Acer X233H 23", which I have seen advertised at $170. She runs this at 1920 x 1080 with large text on XP.

There are a lot of good monitors out there, and big ones are cheap enough that there's no longer any excuse for not having one big enough to see from a comfortable distance.

Firefox

There are times when I think I have about had it with Firefox. It's the updates that drive me wild.

When Firefox decides it wants to update, it's going to do it, and it's going to make you close Firefox and restart it after it does the upgrade. In theory you can put all that off, but in practice if you try to get something else done first, Firefox resents that, and has ways to make you wish you had done things its way.

If you do use Firefox, make sure you keep it up to date. Check for updates before you do anything critical, because if you don't, and Firefox wants to update, it can really make things difficult. About half the time, Firefox will crash after it updates.

At least that has been my experience. Understand, I do use Firefox in an unorthodox way: rather than bookmark favorite sites like the Luann comic strip and opening them daily, I just leave them open and refresh. That means I have between 60 to 80 tabs open in a given session.

This morning I found that Microsoft had restarted Bette, my communications system. That meant that Firefox had been closed. When I reopened Firefox I was told that Tab Mix Plus wanted an update. I let it do that, then clicked continue to open Firefox - which quickly crashed. Opening Firefox gave me the choice of restoring my previous session - two tabs (the update tabs). Fortunately I was given another option of opening the last session but one, with 70 tabs, and choosing that worked just fine. Now that's out of the way, and I expect Firefox to behave for the rest of the day. I admit it's probably time to go through and close a bunch of tabs I no longer need to keep open.

And as I said before: if you're going to do downloads and installations, make Internet Explorer your default browser. You'll be happier that way.

Once Firefox has done its update thing and restarted it works well, and I'm used to it. I still prefer it to Internet Explorer, largely because it has a lot more addons. I continue to use it, but I still resent its refusal to shut up about updates, and its interference with other work when it thinks it is time for an upgrade. Meanwhile, Internet Explorer continues to improve.

Microsoft has done this before: it takes the Microsoft team a while to improve important applications. The Microsoft mills grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine, and there's more and more to like about Internet Explorer with each edition. It now has good tabbed browsing. There's nothing like Tab Mix Plus yet, but we'll see. It's early days for third party improvements.

Death of Word

I've seen several articles on the coming death of Microsoft Word. Each writer seems to have a different candidate for who will assassinate the world's most popular word processor, but most of them use the argument that Word was written to make writing with Word similar to writing on paper, and now that there's no need for writing on paper Word can go away.

For what it's worth, that's not my view. Word works and works well. I am very comfortable with typeahead and auto-correct, neither of which are going to work very well if your word processor is out in the Cloud. It does an excellent job with collaborations - at least with the sort of collaborations Larry and I do. It handles spelling including special dictionaries well. It looks good on screen, or at least on the screens I use.

The only rival I've seen to Word for creative writing is a Mac program called Scrivener, which is good at organizing your work, but isn't, in my opinion, as useful for actually getting the words onto the screen. It may be that I'm just used to Word, but I can write faster in Word than in anything else I've tried, and that, to me, is the key to productivity.

The secret to success in writing is that you have to write. It's all very well to have ideas and great thoughts, but if they stay in your head then you'll need to go into some other line of work like broadcasting; writers get paid for the written word. The reason I invested $12,000 of borrowed money in 1979 to buy Ezekiel, my friend who happened to be a microcomputer, was that I was convinced that it would increase my productivity, and it sure did. Writing is hard work. Producing good looking manuscripts before small computers was painful - horrible, in fact. No one wanted to retype a novel! Or even an article.

Small computers made getting the words from my head to paper - now, about as often, to the screen - a lot easier; and the word processor that makes that easier is the one for me.

And of all the ones I've tried, Word does that job best. I don't see the death of Word in the future. It works for me.

There is of course the lawsuit over some XML features in Word. (link ) This may cost Microsoft some money, and will almost certainly enrich some lawyers, but I very much doubt that any of this will make a lot of difference to users.

ReadyBoost

I mentioned earlier that I had a 4 gigabyte Kingston thumb drive - their Data Traveller - installed on Emily as a "ReadyBoost" drive. The theory is that Emily uses it to augment her main memory, and if she has to use a disk drive as virtual memory, the ReadyBoost drive will act as a buffer. That's all true, too - for systems that have less than a gigabyte. When I wrote the description of Emily's 4 GB ReadyBoost, Peter said

It's also a waste of a perfectly good thumb drive and USB port if your machine already has at least 1GB of RAM and a decent hard disk.

. png

Of course I have half a dozen 4 GB Kingston Data Travelers. They're reliable and efficient and easy to carry and I have one or more on me at all times, and still have one left over to insert in one of the USB ports that come with HP f2105 monitor. I don't use those ports for anything to begin with. It doesn't seem much of a waste, but on reflection it uses some power and probably some CPU cycles. Strunk and White tell us that just as machines should have no needless parts, paragraphs should not have needless words: Omit needless words! I originally installed the Kingston out of curiosity, noted that it did no harm (but I didn't see any good effects either), and promptly forgot about it until this column.

Peter added:

If the machine has more than a gig of RAM the thumb drive is doing nothing for you. ReadyBoost definitely isn't making backups. What goes on the flash drive is an encrypted melange of disk sectors; you can't pull files back out.

ReadyBoost is useful enough on a notebook with 512KB of RAM and a slow HD, but only while you're waiting for the 1GB RAM upgrade to arrive.

. png

Note that ReadyBoost is not the same as ReadyDrive, which is a hard drive with a built-in flash memory cache. The first ReadyDrive hard disks had small caches that didn't help much. If the cache is large enough, however, it could be possible to go a whole day without spinning up the hard drive: depending on what you're working on, all your work and data may be in the cache. I haven't heard much about ReadyDrive technology lately, but it does have some potential. Ultra-green systems come to mind. I don't know of anything vital in development.

Eric Pobirs adds:

I'd say ReadyDrive is a stillborn effort. Seagate and Samsung seem to have lost all interest in favor of full SSD drives.

Also, ReadyDrive wasn't limited to hybrid hard drives. The flash memory could reside separately from the hard drive, as seen in Intel's Turbo Memory: Wikipedia link, and here:

http://www.intel.com/design/flash/nand/turbomemory/index.htm

This means hybrid drives aren't the sole option for ReadyDrive. The Intel Montevina platform has the Turbo Memory 2.0 support, which adds user controls for which apps get cached. There are several laptop models with the slot for a Turbo Memory module but it doesn't appear to have generated much excitement. If it was really making a difference in battery life I'd have expected to hear much more buzz.

-- Eric

The obvious conclusion is that if you need ReadyBoost, what you really need is to add memory to your system; and I wouldn't put ReadyDrive or its variants high on my criterion list when shopping for laptops.

One of the earliest of Pournelle's Laws was "Silicon is cheaper than iron," meaning that solid state drives would eventually replace spinning metal. That wasn't my best prediction, but it's still true, and with each iteration of Moore's Law (or whatever we call the exponential growth of chip smarts) it gets closer to true. We haven't seen the end of that development.

Drupal

Frankly, I never heard of Drupal until Prentice Hall sent me Front End Drupal: Designing, Theming, Scripting by Emma Jane Hogbin and Konstantin Kafer to review. A quick trip to Wikipedia fixed that. Drupal isn't widely known outside of CMS circles, but it is more widely used than I supposed.

Drupal is an open source Content Management System used as a back-end for many web sites of varying sizes. It is mostly used by programming specialists. Hogbin and Kafer's book isn't an introduction to learning Drupal; you'll have to look elsewhere for that. Instead, the book is a step by step guide for web designers who know nothing of Drupal, find they have to work on a site that uses it, and aren't interested in becoming Drupal programmers. In other words, this is one of a recent spate of specialty books that would seem to be of little interest to the general reader, but may well be important to those who are trying to improve their web design skills.

In one sense I am not qualified to review this book: I don't know anything about Drupal, and my web design skills are fairly minimal. On the other hand, I do have a lot of readers who are retraining themselves, and some of you probably ought to know that this book exists.

Hogbin and Kafer have produced a book that is well organized, well written, and has lots of examples. The book assumes you know something about Cascading Style Sheets and JavaScript, and if you don't already know those this book is not likely to be much use; but for those who have invested in learning CSS and JavaScript and find themselves needing to learn more about interfacing with content management systems, this is probably the best book you'll find. It won't be interesting light reading for most readers, but if you're working on your web design skills, it would be well to be familiar with what's in here. The book is unique in that it tells you how to use Drupal without requiring you to study the program itself. It's a book for themers and users, not for Drupal programmers, neither a survey nor narrowly technical. Those who need it will need it a lot.

Note that Prentice Hall also offers a book and video live lessons combination for learning JavaScript called, not surprisingly JavaScript for Programmers. It's very complete, and academically written. I make no doubt that you'd learn the subject from following the course and doing the examples, but I wasn't much impressed with its readability.

Winding Down

The movie of the month is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The filming is excellent, and the young actors who have grown up doing Harry Potter movies remain charming while developing their acting craft skills. I was much impressed with the quality of the film, the sets and props, and of course the special effects. I also enjoyed the story, but I have read the book: those who haven't will probably find it incomprehensible. Half-Blood Prince is an enormous novel, and there was no way to include the entire plot even in a two-hour movie. Not only is a lot of it left out, but there are scenes inserted that make little sense because one doesn't see the motivation of the characters. Rowling deliberately kept the readers in the dark about some character motivations, but the movie process went much further. Of course no review is going to change the box office results: those addicted to the Harry Potter novels and movies will see it, and those who haven't seen the earlier movies probably won't. If you're just starting with Harry Potter, don't make this the first one; read and preferably watch the earlier ones first.

The book of the month is Rise and Fight Again: The life of Nathaniel Greene, by Spencer C. Tucker. Greene was arguably the second best American general of the Revolutionary War. In Europe, Napoleon won battles where he personally commanded, but never found a general that the British couldn't beat when Napoleon wasn't present. In the Revolution Washington rightly depended on Nathaniel Greene in a number of roles including independent command. Greene's best recalled statement is "We fight, get beat, rise and fight again." The American Revolution was an instance of insurgent victory, and is rightly studied by those interested in that kind of war. This is a very good addition to standard histories of the Revolution.

I am recovering from the flu. I apologize for being a bit late this month. I hope to be on time in future.