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Computing At Chaos Manor:
December 7, 2009

The User's Column, December, 2009
Column 353
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2009 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


Nominations are now open for the annual Chaos Manor User's Choice Awards, and for the annual Chaos Manor Orchids and Onions Parade. Those will be in the January, 2010 column. Please put either "user's choice" or "orchids and onions" in the subject line; it will help my Outlook rules sort the mail into the proper topics and save me time. Thanks!

PDC 2009 and the Future of the Cloud

I missed the first day of the Microsoft 2009 Professional Developers Conference because I was coming back from a conference in Tyson's Corner, Virginia. I got to PDC in early afternoon of the first day, so I missed that day's keynote, but most of it was repeated on the second day. The most dramatic thing I missed was Vivek Kundra, the US government's chief information officer, who appeared by satellite. Kundra looked forward to the exciting new software of the future, presumably to be created by Microsoft's new toolkit. I also missed the on-stage appearance of WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg, who announced an affinity for Microsoft Azure, the Microsoft cloud computing system announced at last year's PDC. I am told this caused a bit of a stir, because Mullenweg's Automattic is mostly known as an Open Source house.

Most of PDC was either very general or very technical - that's fairly usual for such events. If you want some details, you'll find some decent coverage on Paul Thurrott's Supersite for Windows, and a more detailed (and much more critical) assessment at this link.

My chief impression is that Microsoft gets it. Microsoft is well known for the philosophy of "embrace and extend" when new trends threaten to outdate what Microsoft is doing. That's what is happening with the Internet and cloud computing. Microsoft intends to make it easier to build and share applications and data bases using the cloud but doing that by allowing and encouraging combinations of cloud computing and local storage. This indicates to me that Microsoft finally understands that few people, deep down inside, really want to have their life's work exist out in a nebulous cloud; they want something that they can, if the Internet vanishes one day, continue to use and work with. The cloud is a good way to share data and facilitate cooperative work, but I'd never be tempted to write a novel that way. I want a local copy of what I write, and I want that local copy to exist from the moment I write it. That would still be true if I were working with Niven. I can see circumstances in which we might want both to be working on the same part of the book at the same time, but I'd prefer that the host be at my house or his - not out in a cloud. I suspect most writers and artists feel the same way, and I see no reason to suspect programmers will disagree.

For all the fooferaw about cloud computing, this all reminds me eerily of the early days of the computer revolution when local computers competed with the big centrally controlled mainframe in the basement that might or might not let you do timesharing. My answer to that was Pournelle's Law, "One user, at least one CPU." I haven't seen any reason to repeal that law. I don't mind making use of the cloud to accomplish things my own computer can't do; but I don't intend to trust my life's work to a cloud.

And as I said, I think Microsoft is getting that; the demonstrations we saw of Azure and Silverlight and the myriad other programming systems that Microsoft Exchange has mutated into seemed to indicate that the cloud will be a useful tool, sometimes a necessity, but the final results of this work can be run on local hardware when the work's all done. There is also considerable emphasis on virtual computers, which can exist in the cloud - but which can be brought home to become virtual machines in your own establishment. As our hardware gets better - and it is, Moore's Law still prevails even if the underlying cause of this exponential progress is changing - we will be able to support larger and more complex virtual machines, making collaboration and compatibility a lot easier.

I found the PDC demonstrations quite impressive. Office 2010 is designed to integrate with Silverlight, (http://silverlight.net/) Azure (http://www.microsoft.com/windowsazure/), and Sharepoint (http://sharepoint.microsoft.com/Pages/Default.aspx) to allow easy creation of complex applications and analyses. Some of the demonstrations didn't work as expected, but what was attempted was ambitious. The goal of the computer revolution is to make it easier for people who know what must be done to create applications, rather than to try to teach their skills to programmers who understand computers but not the science or business procedure being created. My take on PDC is that Microsoft is trying to move in that direction. We'll see.

PDC Goodies

From earliest days Microsoft has been famous for its conference giveaways. Last year there was a 160 gigabyte external hard drive loaded with beta versions of Windows7, Windows Server 2008, Windows Live Beta, and other such goodies, all of which came in a nifty travel bag. There was other good stuff.

This year Windows Live Division President Steven Sinofsky took the stage and announced that attendees of this year's PDC would get an Acer Aspire 1420P Convertible Tablet PC. This is a convertible Tablet that runs Windows Touch

It ran Windows 7 and was equipped with
* Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2010 Beta
* Microsoft Touch Pack for Windows 7
* Windows Live Essentials
* Windows Virtual PC with Windows XP Mode
* Microsoft Security Essentials
* Corel Paint it! touch

It didn't come in a carry bag, but it was pretty nifty. Alas, for the first time in my memory of Microsoft conferences, Press attendees did not get the giveaway. I watched several of the non-press people playing with theirs, and I was impressed enough that I'm thinking about getting one when they're available.

However, don't get a regular Acer Aspire 1420P. The one they used for the PDC Laptop was specially ginned up. The regular Acer Aspire 1420P doesn't have an active digitizer, so it won't work adequately with OneNote, and has a Celeron processor.

The unique configuration created for PDC was much closer to the Acer Aspire 1820PT, which has the Core 2 Duo, dual-touch screen (finger touch plus active stylus), and other features. This is a link to the upcoming 1820PT. When that's available I'll be very tempted.

PDC Continued

I got to the second day of PDC with plenty of time to spare, but made the mistake of going to the press room where they had huge screen displays of the stage; and rather foolishly I decided to stay in the press room as the keynote began. It seemed like a good idea at the time: I had a table, and was seated close to a big screen, so what would I miss?

That worked for a couple of minutes, then suddenly the screen went blank with a message that the demonstration was proprietary and would be omitted from the broadcast. I was somewhat astounded at this, but had the presence of mind to rush out and down to the presentation itself. They always reserve some seats up front for the press. Alas, those were all full, so for half an hour I ended up seated on the floor. Right up front, of course, but not very comfortable. Finally someone in the front row left, and I took his seat. When the lights came up I found I was seated among my colleagues from Nikkei Business Publications. Shortly after that I was pleased to meet Atsushi Nakada, a former Nikkei BYTE editor whom I had met in my trip to Tokyo some years ago. It was a pleasant experience to get acquainted with my fellow Nikkei Business Publications columnists and editors.

Part of the PDP keynote presentation was about the Windows "Send Feedback Window." That's the box that pops up when something goes wrong; it's a development that originated with the old Dr. Watson program from early Windows days. Dr. Watson wasn't so useful -I recall getting unreadable hex dumps to add to my woes when something crashed - but has been transmogrified into a very useful system for Microsoft. Microsoft pays a lot of attention to the "Send Windows Feedback" reports. Most of them involve bad or non-existent drivers, and the quantities of those reports is critical in Microsoft's allocation of programming resources for bug fixes. The default in Windows is to not send Microsoft the reports; you have to opt in. I strongly advise you to do so. Microsoft is pretty conscientious about fixing problems reported, and as I said, this helps them determine priorities.

As of PDC Microsoft had received 1,700,000 crash reports resulting in 4,753 code changes.

Since I was sitting on the floor for part of the keynote presentations, my notes aren't all that well organized. One phrase stands out: Server Replacement Laptops. At first blush this sounds like a terrible idea: laptops are getting more powerful all the time, but not that powerful. The concept refers to use of the cloud, where the virtual server can exist to be accessed by not only laptops but small net computers. I found that a bit amusing: I can recall when Bill Gates at a PDC said "I don't quite understand 'NC' systems, but it's for sure they are Not Compatible." That was back in the days when the Netscape people said they would put Microsoft out of business: Net Computers wouldn't need a Windows operating system. It was the beginning of the browser wars. Now Microsoft has embraced and extended...

There were demonstrations of some new features in Office 2010, which is to be integrated with Azure and Silverlight. You can download a beta copy of Office 2010 at this link. I haven't done that yet, but I am intrigued by some new Outlook features. We'll see. Of course I don't really have any reason to try Office 2010 until I decide to try the new (and still very experimental) versions of Azure and Silverlight. Some of the demonstrations of applications and data searches conducted in Office 2010 to build Azure and Silverlight applications through DotNet 4 were impressive.

Of course I'm not a software developer. If I were, I'd be in much more of a hurry to try these new tools. The demonstrations were impressive. I'm not sure I have seen a picture of the future, but I sure wouldn't bet hard against it. Microsoft is serious about these developments, and it didn't look like the old Microsoft marketing team up there. For those wondering what in the world I am talking about, I recommend that you go to http://www.snapflow.com/ and find the PDC video of the presentation by Snapflow CEO Samad Wahedi, and think about the implications. The new software development tools are beginning to take advantage of the power of our new hardware. It's a trend I expect to continue.

Snow Leopard

I now have Snow Leopard running on all my Macs (well, all but one. Snow Leopard runs only on Intel Macs. I can't install it on the PowerBook, but then I don't use the PowerBook any more. It's a bit sad, because I liked her.) I have installed Snow Leopard on the iMac, the MacBook Pro, and the MacBook Air. There were no problems with the installation, and no utility I use was permanently broken. Some needed updating, but the updates were easily accomplished. When you install Snow Leopard, do allocate an extra hour or so for making sure all your programs and applications are properly updated. You may not need the time, but then you may. Several of my Firefox add-ons needed updates, as did a couple of other programs; I forget which because it was simple and easy.

Snow Leopard is available at your neighborhood Apple store, or from Amazon. If you have several Macs with multiple users, there is a 5-user family pack. Note that Snow Leopard is an upgrade to Leopard. It won't install over Tiger.

Snow Leopard is often said to have "no new features". This isn't strictly true, of course, but there are few visible changes from Leopard. Most of the changes are under the hood, and of more use to software designers than to users - but of course as designers take advantage of the changes, such as better integration of multiple threading, users will have the benefit of the changes.

There are reports of broken applications, almost all non-Apple utilities. Many of those will be fixed by the time you read this. Others may never be, but new ones are being written all the time. If you have some odd non-Apple utility that you absolutely depend on, spend a bit of time finding out whether there's a needed update. In my case all the apps I use were fixable, but then I don't do everything I do on the Mac.

When you upgrade to Snow Leopard, be sure to get the O'Reilly Missing Manual book Mac OS X Snow Leopard by David Pogue. This book is also necessary for anyone just getting started with a Mac, either as a new computer user or as a convert from Windows. It's huge, but it's very worthwhile both as a handbook and as a guidebook for learning the Mac philosophy. The biggest problem for Windows users coming over to the Mac is finding out how to do things that the Mac does differently; in particular, the top menu bar, which you'd find in the applications window on a PC, but at the top of the screen on the Mac. That changing top screen menu is the distinguishing characteristic of the Mac philosophy, and at least for me one of the most frustrating because I forget to look up there when I want to change views. The easiest way to get new Mac habits is to go through a thorough book - this one for preference - and try some of the suggestions.

In addition to instruction on using OS X and learning the Mac philosophy, there's a crash course on UNIX - that's actually the title of one of the chapters. This tells you a lot about using the UNIX command line interface, called Terminal. It's not so clear on how to open that terminal, because Mac users who have achieved enlightenment automatically know these things, and those who write about Macs have to work hard to remember that not everyone has become enlightened. The way to open a Terminal is to get a new finder window, open Applications, open Utilities, and click Terminal. A simpler way is to click the little magnifying glass in the upper right corner of your Mac screen (it should always be there even when the left side of the upper menu bar has changed). The magnifying glass is "Spotlight" and is a very powerful search engine that looks through everything OS X has indexed. Type in Terminal or even just most of the word, and lo! there will pop up a results list, the top of which will be a Terminal icon. Click that and a Terminal window will open. Mac users will think me an idiot for describing all that since it's obvious to them. Windows users may still be mildly confused.

The good news is that Pogue's book will tell you a lot about what you can do with that Terminal window once you figure out how to get to it. Alas, he leaves out some of the features that make OS X so attractive. For example, type Rails in a Terminal and the Rails language, which comes with OS X, will come up. Open another Terminal and type in Python, and Python 2.6.1 appears. Rails and Python are very good utility languages, and it's worth your while to become familiar with both of them. Unfortunately, neither 'Rails' nor 'Python' is in the index to the book, nor is there any reference under programming languages or interpreters - like a lot of Snow Leopard's features, they are very useful but only if you already knew about them. Mac users learn all this arcana over time.

Anyway: if you have an Intel Mac, it's worth upgrading to Snow Leopard if you haven't already done so. It fixes some known problems, adds some not very obvious but useful features, and causes few problems although do read what I said above about critical non-Apple applications. And when you get Snow Leopard, be sure to get Pogue's book.

And if you didn't know you already have Python on your Mac, you might look into the O'Reilly book on Learning Python. Python is a very useful tool for writing filters and quick and dirty applications, and just getting simple things done. We used to have BASIC for that.

Windows 7

If you have Vista, upgrade to Windows 7. That's not vital. Microsoft got Vista working quite well last summer, but Windows 7 will be shipping on most new machines, and most new applications will be written for it. The Windows 7 interface is more Mac-like than Vista, and in my judgment a great deal easier to understand and use. My wife has found Windows 7 quite intuitive.

The bottom of the screen has changed considerably, all for the better although it takes getting used to. Over on the bottom right there is a "Notification Area". It takes fooling around with it for a bit to catch on to how it works, but that's not difficult.

I particularly like the big changes on the bottom left down in what used to be called the Quick Launch area on the left of what used to be called The Tray. Formerly you put shortcuts there by dragging them to that part of the tray. Now you right click and choose "Pin to Task Bar", and this creates an actual live object. It looks a lot like the Mac's Dock, and in fact is even more useful, as you'll find when you use it. Embrace and extend...

Gearing Up for TWiT

Leo Laporte asked me to be on This Week in Technology, but with a difference: until recently TWiT has been audio only, but now there's a video podcast. Leo used Skype for the audio broadcast/podcast, and would be using it for the video version as well.

My main machines including the iMac face a window, which meant I could hardly use one of those. I could set up a web camera somewhere else, but then I'd be facing the camera and I'd have to turn to reach the keyboard and mouse in case I needed to do anything. The obvious answer was to set up the MacBook Pro with its built-in iSight camera. I could set that on the desk under the window. I'd then face the window, and the background would be the office with book shelves and a view through the connecting door to the Great Hall.

The next step was to set up the MacBook Pro to see what the picture would look like. Setting up the system was easy; but figuring out how to see what the camera sees turned out to be a bit harder. What program do you open? Or is there an icon for the camera itself? Open a new finder window, open applications, and search. Nothing obvious there. Use the Spotlight to search. The returns for iSight were no use. Try various other inputs. Nothing obvious. I tried the index to Pogue's Missing Manual on Snow Leopard. Nothing I could see. No entry for iSight at all. I was beginning to be annoyed.

I kept doing searches in Spotlight, and eventually turned up a program called Photo Booth. That did it. The background from the MacBook Pro would do very well indeed. I suppose it ought to have been obvious that you use Photo Booth to see what the iSight camera sees, but it wasn't obvious to me. The moral of the story is that while with Apple everything is either very easy or impossible, sometimes it's not so easy to find out how to do the very easy stuff.

Having done that I called Phil Tharp on SKYPE, and we played around with settings. Skype is very Apple-like: most of what you do is either very easy or impossible.

Plantronics DSP

By fooling around with Skype settings I was able to share the video, and to set the audio input and output to the Plantronics Gamecom Pro 1 DSP headset. That works extremely well. The sound quality is good, it's comfortable to wear, and it doesn't look too geeky. The model I have is several years old. I am sure there are later models, but this one works just fine.

Getting the Picture

The one thing that's hard to do with Skype is to get a large picture of yourself as seen by those you're communicating with. That is: Skype shows you the other guy's picture (assuming he's enabled that), and then in small corner of his picture it shows yours. I wanted to examine that picture to see if the background needed adjustment. That turned out to be nearly impossible. There is a way to expand the picture that comes in - including a copy of what the other guy sees - but that means you're seeing a picture that has been there and back again, and there's tiny but non-zero delay. It's not a way to adjust your picture background. Eventually I solved the problem by getting Phil to look carefully at what he was seeing, and making adjustments accordingly.

Links to TWiT

It all worked out well, and it was a good broadcast.

The audio broadcast is TWiT #223 at http://twit.tv/. The video can be found at this link.

An XP Annoyance

I do most of my fiction writing in the Monk's Cell using Orlando the IBM T42p ThinkPad. I carry Orlando up and connect him to a Viewsonic 19" monitor at 1280 x 1024 resolution. I like the non-widescreen aspect, and the resolution is good. I also connect a Microsoft Wireless Comfort Curve keyboard and wireless mouse. The whole setup is several years old, and I have completed a number of books with it. I'm used to it and I like it; it's good enough running Word 2003, and while the Internet connection is wireless and slow, it's fast enough to let me find reference materials - and slow enough that I am not at all tempted to play games. There's no email, no telephone, and nothing to distract me from fiction, and I get a lot of work done that way.

When I am in fiction mode, I tend to be as obsessive/compulsive as Detective Adrian Monk (http://www.usanetwork.com/series/monk/) . I have rituals, some involving iced coffee and vitamin supplements (CoQ10, SAMe, and Trader Joe's Crusader multi-vitamins), others involving munchies (I like various flavors of Wheat Thins and Cheezits), and the Five Tibetan Rites (Chaos Manor View link) and a bunch of other stuff I won't describe. And when I finish my day's work, I instantly copy it to a thumb drive, and using wireless I copy it to Bette, the communications main machine in the office (I'm writing this on Bette). The other day, though, when I closed all the Word 2003 windows, there remained an odd file with a name something like ~2343fr234.tmp in the directory with the rest of the Mamelukes files. OK, fine, that's the usual form of Word work files. Just erase it.

Only it wouldn't erase. I got an error message about an improper handle. Since I was doing this in Norton Windows Commander - an abandonware program that runs in a sort of DOS window; I'm addicted to it - I thought it might be a glitch in the Commander commands. After all, Commander has been around since early DOS days, being one of the first file managers. Perhaps some Windows update had clobbered one aspect of Commander. I went to Windows, found the file, and attempted to delete it.

It wouldn't delete. It said there was a sharing error. Some other program was using the file.

I closed every single application and tried again. Nope. This was infuriating: it was interfering with my rituals! All right, what could I do now? Improper handle. Maybe the file didn't really exist. Run CHKDSK from a command window. That told me I needed to run it with the /f parameter. Try to run chkdsk /f, and I am told that I can't run it with the /f parameter. I vaguely remembered that chkdsk is a DOS program, and you have to be in Safe Mode to run it in Windows. Perhaps that was the answer: go to Safe Mode.

Before I did that, though, I did ctl-alt-del and opened Task Manager. It told me there were no open applications. OK, find open processes - and Lo! there was a process called winword.exe running. Close that. Open Commander, and now I could delete that crazy temporary file. Relief, and I could get back to work.

I'm not sure there is a moral to this story, but everyone I have told it to has said it was interesting. I'm not sure what they're interested in; probably the obsessions of a fiction writer. Oh. Well.

Clippy

While we're on the subject of irrational affinities, I may be the only person left on Earth who actually likes Clippy. Some of you won't remember him. Clippy was an oddly animated paperclip who danced around when you did Word applications. He was in theory part of the Help system, but mostly he did odd hijinks when you saved a file. Clippy vanished with Office 2007. Also missing from Office 2007 was FrontPage, but FrontPage came with Office 2003, and FrontPage has Clippy.

Or did have Clippy, right through Vista; but now, when I try to turn him on in FrontPage 2003 on my Windows 7 machine, I get the error message "The Office Assistant requires Microsoft Agent 2.0 or later. This product is available in the Office System Pack." Further investigation shows that Agent is not supported in Windows 7, which means that Clippy with all his transformations like the friendly puppy is truly dead. He won't have many mourners, but I'll be one of them. I rather miss him.

Christmas List Suggestions

Every year I ask my readers at www.jerrypournelle.com to nominate items for the Christmas List Suggestions. I select the ones I find interesting and list them with comments along with my own suggestions. Sometimes the suggestions take over the topic. No matter. This list is utterly whim driven.

I have far too many suggestions to list them all, but I will include a few letters.

Karen Parker suggests:

First, a flat panel monitor. I have an Acer H233 that I got at Best Buy for about $200 that is very nice. The key here is that this becomes a second monitor, giving you a two screen setup. It is amazing what a difference having two screens makes in your productivity and general enjoyment in using the machine. Many video cards and most modern laptops will support this, as will Windows XP, Vista, and 7. (I don't recall ever reading that you have tried this - have you?) I've been running a dual monitor setup for years, and it is great.

Second, an SSD drive. Kingston has just introduced a 40 GB solid state "boot drive" that will sell for about $85. I haven't tried this myself, but it got a very positive review on the current issue of Computer Power User magazine.

On the subject of a sweet spot machine, I had my local shop build me one a few months ago (Core i7-920, 6 GB of RAM, 1 TB of disk, ATI Radeon 4850 video card, and all the usual peripherals). Motherboard is an MSI X58 Pro, which uses the Intel X58 chip set. Power supply is an Antek Basiq 500 W.

I have one cautionary tale. From the time I got the machine it would randomly lock up, requiring a hard reset. Sometimes it would do this several times a day and other times it would go a couple of days without freezing up. I did some research of the web and concluded that it was likely to be a known but uncommon Vista bug, and just put up with it (having important projects that needed to be done, I couldn't afford to take time out to really chase it down). When I attempted to install Windows 7, the lockup became repeatable - every time the install got to about 50% it would die. I took it back to the dealer, who got Win 7 into it and gave it back, supposedly cured, but sadly, not really. More research on the web revealed some new (posted in the last few weeks) posts on the motherboard manufacturer's (MSI) web site that pointed to the memory, and suggested that increasing the DRAM voltage might fix the problem. I'm now running with the DRAM voltage set to 1.58 and the machine has run for more than 5 days without a hiccup. This appears to be a function of how many sticks of RAM you have in the machine. Mine works fine with only one stick installed, but not with all three. The moral of the story: if you are building a machine, check the motherboard's web site for a list of compatible RAM - mine isn't on that list, to my sorrow. Sigh.

Karen Parker

If I were to adopt dual monitors for my main system, I'd have to get new furniture; at the moment rather than one machine with dual monitors I have dual machines. (Actually, it's three: Bette, the 18-month-old Sweet Spot Core 2 Quad 6600 system that I use for communications and non-fiction writing such as this column and my daily public log at www.jerrypournelle.com; Emily, the very fast Core 2 Quad Extreme Eric and I built last spring that I use for games, some writing, and anything that needs a lot of computing power; and Imogene the iMac. Originally the notion was that I'd change over from Windows to the Mac for just about all my operations. That went slower than I'd intended, and came to a near halt when I discovered that Office 2008 for the Mac no longer has macros in Word; at the same time, Microsoft managed to fix nearly all the irritations of Vista, then came out with Windows 7 which I discuss elsewhere. The bottom line is that Bette with Windows 7 runs extremely smoothly, and is very similar to the Mac without some of the Mac conventions. I still like the Mac, and I am going to use it to create video podcasts, but the pressure to change over is very low: Windows 7 and Snow Leopard work extremely well together. At some point I still would like to have a big machine that runs Snow Leopard as the primary system with Windows 7 running under VMware. Which brings me at long last to monitors: I am using the Acer H243H (1920 x 1080) monitor I've mentioned before, and I like it a lot. It's a 24 inch monitor.

I will at some point replace it with a 30" monitor; I haven't determined which one. The reason is that a 24" monitor is not quite large enough for me to have two large windows open and simultaneously viewable side by side. People whose eyes are better than mine won't have that problem: I use 14 point Georgia for most of my work, and I like to have about 12 words per line on the screen. That means I can't have Outlook and a Word document window visible at the same time. I could go to smaller text, but I prefer what I have with switching from window to window at need; Window 7 makes all that very easy, so I'm in no hurry. In any event I concur that Acer's H series monitors give a lot of bang for the buck.

I don't know anyone who wouldn't appreciate a new solid state drive, and I have been a Kingston booster for nearly two decades. I have never had problems with Kingston memory, and indeed all my present systems - desktops and laptops, Mac and PC - have Kingston memory. I have always believed that premium memory like Kingston is worth the extra cost because you won't have memory problems. That's one less thing to worry about if your new system has a glitch.

Eric Pobirs suggests:

Gift idea: I've long had two PCs at my desk connected by a KVM switch to the keyboard, video display, and mouse. This was an I/O Gear 2-way unit supporting PS/2 devices. Recently I indulged myself with the purchase of an Xbox 360 Elite. I already had the VGA monitor cable for it that I got for very cheap when Circuit City went through liquidation but I lacked a convenient way to make it part of my desktop array. I could use a DVI adapter to get it connected to my 22" Viewsonic monitor's unused port but I'd still have a problem providing it with a speaker set. The existing setup had one PC connected to the monitor's speakers and the other to a pair of speakers on the desk.

A better KVM was needed but everything I found was terribly pricey: Until I came across the Zonet KVM3324. This is a 4-way KVM using USB devices and includes audio switching, all for under $45 at most worthy retailers.

This gets both PCs and my Xbox 360 to share one keyboard, video, mouse, and audio set. (The Xbox 360 supports the USB devices for text input and control of the system but not for game play. This is a policy decision by Microsoft that many PC gamers view as a mistake.) The package includes a full set of cables for all four positions but I did need to buy some adapters for the Xbox cable's audio connectors. It uses male RCA connectors and the KVM and the speakers both need a single female 1/8" jack.

The KVM has worked very well so far. I've had a few occasions where it got confused and let me switch to a position whose machine wasn't powered up, creating a situation where I couldn't switch away from that position until I'd turned on the device. Also, there have been a few times when it seemed to lose track of the mouse or keyboard, requiring them to be unplugged and then plugged back into the central switch box. One caveat is that unlike more expensive units it doesn't maintain a virtual mouse and keyboard for the machines not currently in use. When you switch away you are effectively unplugging the keyboard and mouse and plugging them into the selected machine. Some older systems won't handle this well and it makes switching a bit slower as the system needs to recognize the devices. This is a minor irritation for the value delivered.

One person's minor irritation is another's show stopper. Indeed, I used to use KVM systems and got so irritated that I have got rid of all of them; I now have a keyboard, mouse, monitor, and speakers for both PC main machines and another set for the iMac. If I did use a KVM I'd spend the extra money to get one that maintains a ghost keyboard and mouse; but that's me. I'm not sure this belongs in a Christmas list since it's not likely to be a present for anyone: the decision as to how much irritation to put up with is fairly personal. On the other hand, we - me, my readers, and advisors - tend to be the kind of people who might give a KVM as a present...

Rich Heimlich says "I would recommend a Motorola Droid phone. It has literally changed my life. It's the iPhone for iPhone-haters."

I may take that suggestion myself: Roberta needs a new mobile phone. I don't hate the iPhone but I do hate AT&T's service in my area: I get none in about half the rooms in my house. The iPhone is locked to AT&T. I can get a Droid with Verizon, and that's very likely what I will get her. And of course it will be deductible since we will be writing about it...

Here are some more Christmas suggestions:

Windows 7 for anyone still using Vista. Depending on who you give it to you might have to do the installation yourself, but that's easy, and the recipient will thank you once it's installed.

Snow Leopard for anyone using Mac OS X Leopard. You won't need to do any installation.

A Kindle would be a high end gift appropriate for a high school or college student who doesn't have a reader. I understand there are rival readers, but my present opinion is that the Amazon Kindle 2 is the most versatile of those sold now. Widely available book readers like the Kindle and the Sony Portable Reader System are rapidly changing the entire nature of publishing; discussion of that is important enough that we'll have considerably more on it next month.

Solar Charger for Kindle: Amazon lists a number of these at prices from about $15 to three times that. I have no experience with any of them, but it sounds pretty cool. I got the idea from a caller to Leo's radio program: she's joined the Peace Corps and is about to go to Madascar for 18 months - to a place without electricity. She probably needs two of these...

Solid State drives are relatively expensive, but available in a number of sizes, and they're very cool. I have experience with Intel and Kington units; both are very reliable.

There are a lot of new accessories for SATA drives (including Solid State drives). The best have both USB 2.0 and Firewire connections. There's also the NewerTech Voyager S2 which doesn't have Firewire but is surprisingly inexpensive.

The ROKU HD Player connects to the Internet and allows you to rent downloadable movies from Amazon and Netflix. I know of a number of people who have changed to ROKU and Netflix, and have cancelled their premium movie cable service. The savings can be substantial. Of course it will require an Internet connection to the set top box.

Skype - Those who don't have Skype should have it. Since it's free, it's not much of a present unless you install it for the recipient. If you do that, think about adding a Plantronics DSP headset to go with it. I find that talking on the phone with the headset and Skype works very well; and of course I use that combination to connect with TWiT.

Manga Guides

They're not precisely what anyone wants for Christmas, but the Manga guides from No Starch Press might be precisely what your advanced placement high school student needs. They might be even more appropriate for students seeking advanced placement status.

There are Manga Guides to Databases, Physics, Molecular Biology, Electricity, Calculus, and Statistics. I have the guides to Molecular Biology, Calculus, and Physics; if the others are as well done as these I can recommend them; I certainly recommend the ones I have. My recommendations have qualifications, of course. Read on.

When I first saw The Manga Guide to Calculus I thought it was some sort of joke. My idea of the way to learn calculus is to get the Silvanus P. Thompson and Martin Gardner Calculus Made Easy, set aside a few months, and go through it, slowly, working each of the example problems. You don't need an instructor; as Thompson says, what one fool can do, another can. As with algebra, calculus is only a form of low cunning, and it can be learned by anyone who reads this column. Calculus Made Easy will do the job, but there's a pre-condition: you have to want to learn calculus. It doesn't make it interesting. It just makes learning it a lot easier than any college class in the subject I know of, and for that matter easier than any calculus textbook I know of. The book is not in favor with mathematicians and never has been, but those who know of it fare better in college calculus classes than those without it.

Thompson's book isn't written in a simple breezy style, and it doesn't do much to make you understand just how useful calculus can be. The Manga Guide, on the other hand, attempts just that. It features a manga (Japanese comic book) story of Noriko Hikima, an attractive young lady starting her first job as a journalist in the branch office of a major newspaper. Her new boss is obsessed with mathematical patterns and the utility of calculus in understanding them, and proceeds to teach her the fundamentals. His lessons are sound, if somewhat dense, and he manages to get across some idea of the relevance of calculus to analysis of problems in real life. There aren't enough exercises and problems in the book, and I doubt that the Manga Guide alone will get you through introductory calculus, but I do think it would be a great supplement to Thompson's Calculus Made Easy.

The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology does much the same thing for molecular biology. The story is a bit farfetched, but it's interesting and the book makes the subject interesting. It's pretty dense in places - after all, it's trying to get across some very complex ideas in about 200 pages, most of them manga comics. In any event it's a useful introduction to the concepts of molecular biology at about the high school advanced placement level, and I have some evidence that the target readership finds it interesting.

The Manga Guide to Physics should be called a guide to college freshman mechanics. Like the others in the series it uses manga comic characters to get across the basics of mechanics and the fundamental concept that F=MA. My high school physics teacher once said that if you really understand F=MA, you'll know everything you need to know about Newtonian physics. He was pretty close to right, too. Note that this manga guide doesn't refer to calculus and thus won't be much use for those trying to learn university level physics, but it would be very appropriate for bright high school students, as well as non-physics major college students.

My general view of these books is that they will be worth their weight in gold for some students, and worthless for others, and I have no way of choosing who will benefit and who won't. They aren't that expensive, and if they do work - that is, interest students in the subject matter - they're invaluable; and I have reason to believe that they do work for a fair number of students.

Bump!

The iPhone application of the month is "Bump". I learned about it at dinner with Firesign Theater actor Phil Proctor. Bump (link) is an application that automatically exchanges contact information with another iPhone: simply invoke the app and bump the two iPhones together. This causes each iPhone to send a signal to the cloud saying the machine has taken an impact; if two phones in the same location report a bump at the same time, the contact information you fill out when you install Bump is sent to the other machine, and vice versa. You have exchanged information. This happens within about ten seconds, and it's cool to watch.

It reminds me of the old days with Palm Pilots, which could be set to detect other devices in proximity and automatically exchange data with them; I recall one night at a Reason Foundation dinner that when I turned on my Pilot the whole room began to twitter, and about 30 new contacts were installed in a few seconds. We didn't even have to Bump.

Bump is free, and installation is fairly easy, provided that you remember your user name and password. It took me a while to recall mine. Once I did everything else was simple.

I am told that the one billionth iPhone app downloaded was Bump.

Winding Down

The movie of the month is Sandra Bullock's Blindside. It's both a Sandra Bullock chick flick feelgood movie and something a lot more than that. I know of the family in Memphis whose life is portrayed in this movie. See it. You'll enjoy it, and probably get something out of it.

The book of the month is James Gould Cozzens, Guard of Honor. Largely forgotten now, it got a Pulitzer Prize back when those prizes were not so politically correct, and some considered it the best novel to come out of World War II - better than The Naked and the Dead, as an example. Although it takes place in the war, and is about USAAF officers, it's not a war story: it takes place in Florida in an operations research division among training fields. All the action happens in three days. There are no battles. Highly recommended.

The computer book of the month is William R. Stanek, Windows 7, The Definitive Guide. Obviously this is a handbook, but it's considerably more than that. The author says that it is not a beginner's introduction to Windows 7, but in fact it's a pretty good one. There are detailed instructions on using Windows Movie Maker (a very Mac-like application). The book mistakenly says that Movie Maker comes with Vista and Windows 7; actually that has to be downloaded from Windows Live Applications and installed. The Windows Live Applications are free, and some manufacturers pre-install them for you, but if not you'll have to go get them. Alas, this definitive guide doesn't tell you how. Fortunately it's simple: go to http://download.live.com/ and follow instructions. It's all free, and doesn't take very long.

The book covers older applications like Windows Picture and Fax Viewer. There's a long section on security. It's an enormous book, but if you read it from the beginning (not in one lump, of course) you'll know a lot more about Windows 7 than you do now, and most of it will be very worth knowing. As I've often stated, Windows 7 has moved the PC a lot closer to the Mac in ease of use; this book helps further close that gap. Recommended.

The game of the month has been, oddly enough, Total Annihilation, an old program from Cavedog. The graphics are old and some of the action is a bit hokey, but it doesn't move too fast for me. It's not overly complex and the battles don't take all that long. I am not sure why I like it, but I do. If you are interested, you can start at http://www.tauniverse.com/ which is a web site devoted to the game.

Next month we will have the Chaos Manor User's Choice awards and the annual Chaos Manor Orchids and Onions parade. Nominations for both are now open.