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Computing At Chaos Manor:
January 11, 2009

The User's Column, January 2010
Column 354
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2010 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


This is the traditional Year End/Year Beginning column with the Chaos Manor User's Choice Awards and the annual Orchids and Onions Parade.

Once again I didn't go to CES, which is going on as I write this. Last year I didn't miss much, and from the reports I'm getting, this year there's a lot of excitement but few truly new products. Note I said "few", not zero. Leo Laporte went to CES half expecting this to be his last, but he's reporting that it's a big show with a lot of excitement. Attendance is up, there are more booths than ever, the press-vendor peep shows are large and thriving, and generally the atmosphere is hopeful.

One big item at CES is TabletPC's and "Slates", that latter being a Tablet without a keyboard. Some are full laptop PC's, others are netbooks. The difference between laptop and netbook is vanishing. In theory a netbook requires Internet connection to be fully useful, while a laptop is self-sufficient in both operating system and applications. In practice that difference is vanishing as CPU's become more power-efficient, memory prices fall, drives become larger, and everything gets cheaper. One can get a decent netbook that will run, without Internet connection, Windows 7 and the entire Office suite including Outlook, Word, and OneNote; a far more powerful machine than any I had here a decade ago, and certainly good enough to do most of the work I do if I don't mind things being a bit slower than I'm used to, and I don't want to run everything at once. If I am willing to entrust much of my work to the cloud and bring it down local at intervals, I can do even more with a netbook. I look to see this trend continue, and I expect by the end of 2010 to have a TabletPC at least as useful as LisaBetta, my very ancient HP Compaq Tablet Tc1100, but much lighter in weight, and probably faster.

Peter Glaskowsky reminds me that when I say "Slate" or "TabletPC" I mean a system with Wacom digitizer compatible stylus capability and a good handwriting recognition program. I keep forgetting there are other kinds of "tablets" that don't have those features (my iPhone is one of them, of course) and they are generally toys at best. Not entirely - I use Dan Bricklin's NoteTaker App on my iPhone and it is useful - but I wouldn't carry a tablet that didn't allow a stylus and recognize my handwriting. We'll have to see what Apple comes up with.

Of course Windows TabletPC engines already recognize my handwriting: when I visited the USSR in 1989, Stepan Pachikov was working on his ParaGraph handwriting recognition program, but he didn't have many samples of American English handwriting. I let him photocopy a hundred pages of my handwritten log book, and his program was designed to recognize that. Microsoft bought ParaGraph and incorporated that software into its TabletPC OS, so if a Microsoft handwriting program is going to recognize anyone's handwriting, it will recognize mine.

Incidentally, Peter Glaskowsky recommends the "Motion LS800, the smaller sibling of the LE1600. Though it has a small (8.4"), low-res (SVGA) display, it turns out to be a more useful machine than the Versa LitePad because it's much more convenient to carry around and handle. It's also somewhat faster, and the one I bought has the "View Anywhere" display which is more readable in adverse lighting conditions. (One of the things one learns about slates is that most lighting conditions are adverse.)" He got his LS800 on eBay. The Motion slates all use a stylus and have handwriting recognition.

According to reports there are over a dozen eBook readers at CES. How well they will serve their primary mission as Kindle Killers isn't clear, but the trend toward eBooks continues. Nearly every one of the eBook reader vendors promises access to a variety of eBooks including best sellers, which suggests that publishers have begun to catch on to eBook importance. So far eBook royalties for authors, while not trivial, have been rather small, while paperback royalties have been variable. Our Lucifer's Hammer trade paper reprint royalties were comparable to all my eBook royalties put together.

Amazon reports that on Christmas Day, 2009, for the first time ever there were more eBook sales than paper book sales. As usual, Amazon didn't report any absolute numbers. One can think of a number of explanations for this. Some would be book orders from people who got a Kindle as a present. Others would be people who got an eBook certificate as a present. A few, perhaps more than a few, would be "Oops, we forgot great niece Wilma, hey, cousin Alice gave her a Kindle for her birthday, it's not too late!" presents. There is no similar pressure to buy a paper printed book on Christmas Day. It will be far more interesting to see how Amazon January 2010 eBook sales compare with paper book sales. My guess is that the trend in eBook sales will continue to go up, but won't approach monthly paper book sales for more than a year, and probably longer. Some would say ten years; my guess is it will be far sooner than that.

Trends in electronic magazine and newspaper readership are also up, and that will continue; for myself, being a creature of habit I prefer paper, but the economics are against that. Paper and transportation costs aren't going to fall, electronic publication costs will fall, and the distribution system for paper information - books, newspapers, and magazines - doesn't show much sign of recovery from its disastrous crashes over the past decade. Electronic publishers and editors are learning from experience how to produce a very satisfactory product; you can see many examples in Japanese publications as well as throughout Asia. The US has many sunk costs in paper periodical publishing and distribution; that will slowly vanish as US eBook publishers and editors learn their craft, and the trend seems inevitable. Most trends tend to be "S-shaped" curves (think a somewhat lazy integral sign; see The Strategy of Technology by Possony and Pournelle), and we're still down at the lower left of the curve in eBook publishing. The technologies are up in the sharply rising part of the curve, but there is always a lag between technological capability and market acceptance.

One real unknown in this trend is the nature of the eBook reader. I find the Kindle at least as easy to use and read from as a book, but I won't say the same for magazines. Like most magazine readers I like color, and most of us want something larger than an iPhone screen. My hunch - I suppose I should say preference - would be for a Tablet Netbook that also serves as a telephone. I'd be willing to carry a shoulder bag; indeed I sometimes carry the HP Compaq Tc1100 LisaBetta now, and her technology is a decade old, her wireless ability limited, and she's old enough that I worry about relying on her for anything crucial. On the other hand I love the form factor and the convenience, and with OneNote she's the best general research tool I have for carrying to meetings and libraries. And of course, we have continued rumors of an Apple "Slate" later this month. Whatever we end up carrying, it's likely that over time print goes down and eBook publishing goes up, and that will be true for just about every print product: textbooks, light fiction, classical works, newspapers, magazines of all stripes: picture, topical, and serious. We aren't yet on the rapid rise part of the S curve, but we may get there by the end of this year as magazine print and distribution costs rise.

Another major product category at CES this year is "home theaters." I find myself less interested in this than most. When I want a theater experience, I prefer to go to a theater, and I'm even willing to pay a premium (Arclite). Those interested in this topic should see Leo Laporte's TWIT on the subject.

We'll get to other 2009 technology trends in later sections.

2009 Personal

Last year I reported my recovery from a brain tumor and the side effects of radiation therapy (link). This year has been much better. I am no longer on autopilot, and while it is still difficult to start new projects, I have managed to do several; the difficulty is getting up the gumption to begin. Once started things generally go well. One project I have not done is the proposal for The Mask on the Wall, an account of symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from brain tumor through radiation therapy. I know the book is potentially useful, and I have a lot of notes for it; it's a matter of finishing a novel first. I had expected to be done with Mamelukes, the next novel in the Janissaries series, by Thanksgiving, then by Christmas, and then by the end of the year. I have 130,000 words and the book should be done in another 10,000. (Of course I thought it would be done with another 10,000 words back when I had 115,000 words, but that's another story.) I have been known to write 10,000 words of fiction in a day when I get all my ducks in a row, so we'll see. I am optimistic about getting this done, after which I have a novel with Niven to do in a year; but that should not prevent me from getting started on The Mask on the Wall.

I continue to do some consulting work. It doesn't pay enough that I would do it for the money, but I think what I am doing is worthwhile as a public service. My day book at www.jerrypournelle.com continues, thanks to subscribers. While 2009 was a horrible year for the Republic, it was a good one for me: I hadn't expected to be here. Now it appears I'll be around for some more years. My thanks to all who stayed with me during the periods of absent-mindedness. Especial thanks to patron and platinum subscribers who allow me to work on what I think is important rather than what is most lucrative.

The User's View of 2009

Three Cheers for Microsoft

The most important event of 2009 was that Microsoft got its act together. The early releases of Vista were a disaster. Microsoft cleaned that up, then leaped ahead with its releases of Windows 7.

In the past, the first release of a major Microsoft product was indistinguishable from a beta; I once quipped that Microsoft had the largest quality testing department in the world: indeed, it was the world. They called their test staff "Customers." For a long time there was a large element of truth to that. It was also a good strategy: in the early days of the computer revolution, the hardware got enormously better every few months. In the Microsoft/IBM duel, IBM kept the old philosophy: don't ship it until it works well. Microsoft chose the opposite view: ship it as soon as it works at all, because the hardware will get better and bail us out. Bill Gates bet his company on that belief, not once but several times, and it worked: whatever the merits of Windows vs. OS/2, Windows survived and IBM's OS/2 did not.

The Microsoft "ship it now" strategy changed with Windows 7. As with Vista there were extensive beta releases with automated data collection based on the old Dr. Watson utility, but this time Microsoft paid attention to all the data including user gripes as well as actual bugs. They developed a system for assigning priorities to reported complaints, and worked hard to fix them. The result was that that Windows 7 worked quite well even in late beta Release Candidate versions, and was in very good shape when it shipped.

Windows 7 is what we've been looking for: easy to use, and in general it just works; moreover, there are a number of neat features most don't know about or expect. I keep finding things I didn't know about every week. The bottom line is that the Windows 7 System is as easy to use as Mac OS X, and for Windows users it's a lot easier to learn than the Tao of Mac. Two years ago I was ready to convert all my operations to Mac OS. Vista gave me no hope at all, and I thought Microsoft would live on by sheer marketing, but the technology team was failing. Windows 7 halted that. I have no great complaints about Mac OS X, and had Windows 7 not proved itself I was ready to convert. Now my view is that the Windows 7 System is good enough and then some, and that was for me the most significant computer event of 2009.

Note what I said: the Windows 7 System, not just the Windows 7 OS. The "System" consists of the Windows 7 OS itself, plus all the free programs that can be downloaded from Windows Live Essentials. You will also need Windows Security Essentials, which for some reason is not part of the Windows Live Essentials package. Windows Internet Explorer is another part of the Windows 7 System; you may not use it as your default browser - I don't - but you will need it whenever you have to deal with Microsoft web sites. My experience has been that updates and downloads from Microsoft go a great deal smoother if you use Internet Explorer, and that it's best to use the latest version of IE when you do it.

Windows 7 is well integrated with the Microsoft enterprise tool set as demonstrated at the Professional Developers Conference last Fall. All told, Microsoft has taken giant strides to catch up with Apple's bold challenges. Of course Apple has never actually been a significant threat to Microsoft's market share, but you wouldn't have known that from the clever PC vs. Mac TV advertisements. In any event, competition is a good thing, and Microsoft is now competitive on performance and ease of use, not just marketing.

The Future of Publishing

One major story remains unfinished: we don't know what will happen with the Google/Authors Guild settlement. Developments are glacially slow, and any progress toward a final settlement is instantly met with new legal objections. Although the Authors Guild and the Publishers Association are willing to settle the matter, a number of writer's associations including the Science Fiction Writers of America continue to object, as do many individual authors.

My first reaction to the proposed Google Settlement was horror, and I labeled it the Google Grab. I'm no longer so certain. There are important issues at stake, and it's not all one-sided.

As we have noted above, the nature of publishing is changing rapidly. Not only is print publishing in trouble, but libraries and repositories of printed works are increasingly expensive in a time when there is less money for both privately and publicly funded libraries and book depositories. Libraries, to reduce costs, have been discarding less popular works, and there is a real danger that some works will be lost forever. Newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, self-published works are in danger, and so are older books that no one cares to read now. It's expensive to keep and keep track of them, and that is less tolerable in this era of short funds.

The obvious solution to this is electronic storage. Costs of storage are plummeting as are the improved technologies for scanning printed works. Google decided to do something about vanishing works, and entered into agreements with several libraries to scan everything in the inventory. They made rudimentary attempts to get permissions for those scans, but when they failed to get permission they didn't let that stop the scanning. Google's goal is to have everything ever printed in one enormous electronic data base, available to everyone now and in future. It's a breathtaking goal, and some would call it noble.

The problem is that it ignores copyrights. Many authors objected to having their works scanned. Others objected to allowing the republication of their works. Lawsuits were planned and some served. The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers put together a class action suit, then began negotiations with Google for a settlement, and eventually one was reached. It retroactively gave Google permission to scan all the works including copyrighted works, and allowed authors who accepted the settlement to claim a small compensation, plus the right to forbid Google from redistributing the work for the life of the copyright. The Guild purported to represent all copyright holders who did not opt out of the settlement, but required each author explicitly to claim settlement money by opting in by a specific date. More of the specifics of the settlement are given here.

Many authors and author associations objected. The settlement was modified several times, always in favor of authors, but the controversy continued, becoming so bitter that Ursula K. LeGuin, a Nebula and Hugo winning SF author, resigned from the Authors Guild in protest. Her letter of resignation gives one author's view of the settlement.

The settlement dispute continues, and there is no settlement. The matter is important and will remain so, but I doubt there will be a final settlement by this time next year. The controversy is part and parcel of the fundamental problems arising from the impact of technology on the meaning of copyright, and there won't be universal agreement on that for a long time.

THE CHAOS MANOR USERS CHOICE AWARDS

Rules

I began the Users Choice Awards back in the early days of BYTE. In those days the BYTE Editors gave out "Editors' Choice" awards, then went to various categories of Achievement and Excellence Awards. (Another magazine took over the term "Editors' Choice," and now probably thinks they were invented there.) I participated in the selection of the BYTE Awards, but I didn't always agree with the choices: not that I thought any of the awards were undeserved, but sometimes I thought deserving products were left out.

Moreover, the BYTE Awards were chosen too early. In those days the BYTE Awards were announced in the January issue. This meant that the winners had to be chosen in early November at the latest, and most of them had to be chosen in October, which meant that the year's best was often chosen before COMDEX. Best of COMDEX winners were chosen at COMDEX in all-night editorial sessions that were some of the best technical discussions I have ever been part of, but the BYTE best of the year awards had already been chosen by then.

There wasn't any help for this: the logistics of print magazines made it essential that the issue was put to bed months before the cover date. BYTE often got early looks at hardware and software, but even so, we weren't always working with finished products. The result wasn't so much that undeserved products won awards as that deserving products were eliminated because the early look editions weren't finished and didn't work properly.

Thus the Chaos Manor Users Choice Awards column was written in early January, on the theory that a year ends in December. Candidates included everything I had used in the previous year. The column was usually delivered by the 7th of January. This meant that the awards column usually appeared in the April issue of BYTE (on the stands in March). Of course the April issue traditionally included some hoax items, but I never put any in my column, precisely because that was the issue my awards were in.

The ground rules of the Chaos Manor Users Choice Awards were that the awards went to hardware and software actually in use at Chaos Manor, and which I found remarkably useful. I never pretended that I had selected the "best" or even the most cost-effective items; only that they were certainly "Good Enough," and had been very useful at Chaos Manor. In those days a great deal of both software and equipment came here, and I found myself using a number of systems; eventually I made a rule that I wouldn't replace a system or software unless there were clearly good reasons to do so. The new stuff had to be noticeably better than the old. Of course those were times of rapid developments, with great improvements at least twice a year at Spring and Fall COMDEX shows, so willy-nilly I changed systems at least annually and sometimes more often.

Times have changed. There are vast improvements in both hardware and software every year, but the effect of those improvements isn't so great, because so much of what we have is already Good Enough for what we're trying to do.

Hardware and Software Systems

Last January I was determined to convert most of my operations to the Mac OS X operating system. I have an iMac, a Mac Book Air, and a Mac Book Pro, and if those were not sufficient to handle everything I do I was determined to buy a big Mac Pro quad system.

I have not done that, and the reason has nothing to do with any problems with any of the Macs. Indeed, the Mac Book Air remains the most carryable laptop I have, and it's fully sufficient for most operations you'd ask a laptop to do. Unfortunately, most of what I want a laptop to do I don't do on a Mac. Most of my mail operations are done with Outlook, and my web site www.jerrypournelle.com is composed and maintained with Microsoft FrontPage, a discontinued program that remains Good Enough for the kind of website I run. It should be replaced, but I have yet to find anything for the Mac that works as well for what I do. I don't write html code. FrontPage is very WYSIWYG in composition mode, and there's a "preview" selection that makes it even more so. I tried several Mac web editors, and found none I wanted very badly. The second thing I do with a laptop is mail, and I have used Windows Outlook for a long time. Outlook has a very good system of rules, which lets me come up with ways to separate out spam from press releases, and Outlook makes it easy to keep my subscriber lists with categories. I'm not as enamored of the Calendar as I was with the old Franklin Ascend that went away because of a Y2K bug, but there are other calendar programs. Neither of those objections to changing over from Windows to Mac was a show stopper. OS X was so much better than Vista as of January 2008 that I was willing to put up with the difficulties of changing over.

Then came Windows 7, and I changed my mind. Windows 7 was as easy to use as Mac OS X, and I already knew most of it. Moreover, Outlook behaved so much better in my 64-bit Intel Core 2 Quad 6600 system under Windows 7 that I found I had no need to replace that as the primary communications system here. Finally, Windows 7 solved all my networking problems. With Vista, networking was a sometimes thing, with many mysteries. With Vista networked XP machines might be visible but couldn't be connected to, while in the XP machine a Vista machine might simple vanish. Most of those problems went away immediately on installing Windows 7, and they have now pretty well all gone. Windows 7 connected to other Windows 7; to XP machines; to Macs under Snow Leopard; and to virtual Windows XP systems on the iMac and the MacBook Pro without problems or fuss. It took me a while to understand the new permissions system in Windows 7, but it's consistent and the help files are actually helpful.

The bottom line is that the Chaos Manor User's Choice Award for Operating Systems goes to Microsoft Windows 7. It also gets an orchid.

I made one hardware change this year: I replaced an older Intel Core 2 Duo system with an Intel Core 2 Quad Extreme running Windows 7. This has become my main machine for games, writing, and a lot of Internet activities. I described Emily in a previous column.

Finally I want to note that perhaps the best Windows laptop is a MacBook Pro. It can be dual booted into Windows 7, in which case it is a perfectly competent premium laptop Windows 7 machine that will run Windows programs well. It can also be booted into OS X, which will run Parallels which will run Office 2007 and FrontPage under Windows. Learning the Tao of the Mac will consume some attention but it's not all that hard to understand, and some will find it more congenial than the Windows philosophy. In any event it works at full speed, and experienced editors report that they find no essential difference in running Office as a Windows 7 program with Widows 7 running in parallels than running it on the same machine dual booted to Windows, I should have that setup on my MacBook Pro and now that I've recovered most of my energy I'll get at it. I also have to string some Ethernet cables and look to my router configurations. I should get at all that when the column goes on the wire.

Falcon UPS Systems

Once again the Chaos Manor Users' Choice award for uninterruptible power supplies goes to Falcon Electric.

I have tried a variety of UPS systems of various quality. Most need fairly frequent battery changes, and they demand that battery change at inconvenient times. Wasting creative time when I have creative energy is the one unforgiveable sin, and I tend to avoid brands that do that. As a result, all of my major computer systems are protected by Falcon UPS boxes. This includes the main Ethernet switch, the cable modem, and the D-Link Router, as well as the two main computers I work with.

Falcon produces industrial strength UPS and charges accordingly. They are not cheap. They also last years longer than others before the batteries must be replaced, and costs amortized of their productive years are not much higher than the total costs over time of cheaper systems - while you have high reliability. My regard for Falcon is based on experiencing their reliability and longevity compared to some other brands I have employed. The peace of mind is worth the extra costs. They've been around a long time, and I first encountered Falcon when it was known as Clary. Long time readers will remember The Great Power Spike of 1989.

Antec Cases and Power Supplies

Most of the computers in use at Chaos Manor have been built here; and now the vast majority of those systems have been built in Antec cases and use Antec power supplies. The Chaos Manor Users' Choice Award for cases and power supplies goes to Antec again this year.

If you are building your own system, or you must replace a system power supply, I have no hesitation in recommending Antec. Do be sure to get enough capacity. The trend is toward more power-efficient systems, but we continue to put more and more features into computers, more memory, faster drives, faster video cards, and although power consumption leveled off a bit in 2009, power supply failures are, next to cables, perhaps the largest cause of system failures. If you're building your own, get an Antec, and opt for the larger power supply if you have any doubts.

Microsoft Security Essentials

I have given up on third-party security monitoring programs, and all of my machines are now protected by Microsoft Security Essentials. It's a continuation of the older Microsoft Live OneCare system, and it's free. Download it, install it, set it to automatically update itself, and let it run. I would make one change in its defaults. MSE wants to do a weekly scan of your system, and you should let it do that. Set that weekly scan to some convenient time like 4 AM on a Sunday morning, and change the default from quick scan to deep scan. That will take a couple of hours. I also do one more thing: I choose one of the reliable on-line system scanners and when I'm about to go out for an errand I subject one of my machines to an on-line scan. Neither MSE nor the external on-line scanners have found much, but once in a while they'll see an undeleted email attachment that ought not to be in my machine. Deleting them is easy.

MSE used to have a glitch that made it difficult for you if you turned on a machine that had been off when MSE updated itself, but that's been pretty well fixed now: you may get a warning, but if you do nothing it will fix itself within about fifteen minutes.

Microsoft Security Essentials gets a Chaos Manor User's Choice Award, and a large Chaos Manor Orchid for fixing that glitch.

D-Link Extreme N Gigabit Router

A good router is at least as important for security as any anti-virus program. I rarely travel without a small D-Link router, and all my systems at Chaos Manor are inside router protection. I have for years used D-Link routers without problems, and this year added the D-Link Extreme N, which seems to have a larger broadcast area than any other router I have seen. I also have an older Belkin Pre-N router which has worked so well over the years that it hasn't been replaced; it runs a separate network. Of the two, I think the D-Link just a little easier to install, and the D-Link gets the Users Choice Award for the year, but a large Orchid goes to Belkin - and it should be noted that because their router has worked so well for so long, it's way "obsolete". I have found by and large that you won't go wrong with either brand.

Golden Bow VOPT

For about the twenty-third year in a row the Chaos Manor Users Choice Award for disk defragmenter goes to Golden Bow's VOPT.

I said this several years ago: "I have been using VOPT for over twenty years, and I have yet to lose a byte of data because of it. Disk defragmentation isn't as important in these days of enormous disks as it used to be, but it's still worth doing: among other advantages, programs that have been defragmented load faster, and there's less wear on the disk drive. Drives run cooler, and that may be important in hot weather. I use VOPT regularly even when my disks are not full." That all remains true, but there are some interactions with system restore files. That's all explained on the Golden Bow site.

VOPT 9 has some new features, most of which are fun: you can transfer files from one part of the disk to another while simultaneously defragmenting them. It will find and delete temporary files and other clutter, and it can be set to do that automatically before a scheduled defrag.

I have to say that defragmentation gets less and less necessary as drives get larger. You can probably go without it at all; but if you do defrag, this is the program I recommend with the User's Choice Award.

Plantronics DSP Headset

We have used the Plantronics DSP Headset for several years, and have never needed to replace it. It works for both audio and video podcasts recorded through SKYPE, with more than adequate audio quality. This is not its first User's Choice Award. Plantronics is planning new models of the DSP headset to be released in early 2010.

ORCHIDS AND ONIONS

Microsoft Windows 7

Last year Microsoft Vista received by far the largest number of reader onion nominations. Some nominations were straightforward. Others ran to the obscene. Interestingly, I didn't get one orchid nomination for Vista. This year it was just the opposite, with far and away the largest number of Orchid nominations for Microsoft Windows 7. Windows 7 gets a very large Chaos Manor Orchid to go with the User's Choice Award.

Apple OS X Snow Leopard

I am pleased to award Snow Leopard a big Orchid. It installs easily, and while it does require a networking readjustment (if you have Windows systems in the network) that's not all that difficult. I love that Microsoft and Apple are competing to make things easier for users.

FileMaker 10

A large orchid to FileMaker 10; this will be about the tenth orchid I have awarded to FileMaker over the years. It's easy to install and simple to use.

Voyager Toaster

A large Chaos Manor Orchid for the Voyager Toaster, a USB, Firewire, and SATA external SATA drive connector: the drives pop in and out like toast in a good toaster. The unit has its own power, it's ridiculously easy to use, and it can be cheap or expensive depending on the device to computer connections you choose to pay for. It accommodates both full desktop size and laptop size drives, and has proven to be one of the handiest devices at Chaos Manor.

Intel X-25-M SATA Solid-State Drive

Several readers nominated this drive. Long time readers will recall that back in the 1980's I said "Silicon is cheaper than iron," and predicted that solid-state drives would replace spinning metal for mass storage. In those days a 5 megabyte hard drive was a big deal, and the enormous DEC 32-megabyte platters with removable disks over a foot in diameter were considered the state of the art in mass storage. When I was on the board of the Lowell Observatory one of my first moves was to get a couple of large Winchester hard drives to replace the DEC's on which Gene Shoemaker kept his asteroid and comet data.

It took a long time, but silicon is finally catching up with iron. Not entirely, and silicon can't come close to competing on price, but it's catching up. We have an Intel X-25-M solid state drive, and it's great. There's nothing special about installing it, and it's faster than lightning. The only drawback is that it is "only" 160 gigabytes. It wasn't that long ago that 160 GB was larger than any drive in Chaos Manor, and it has been an even shorter time that we had anything that big for a laptop. This can easily be inserted into a Mac Book Pro, and it really speeds things up. An Orchid to Intel for the X-25, but do note that the price remains high. Sean Long adds

SSD drives get a perfume scented picture of an orchid... Maybe next year the bang for the buck will be reasonable enough to earn an orchid, but for now they cost too much. Plus if your drive and OS don't both properly support the "TRIM" command (think defrag for flash memory), the drives slow to a crawl after only moderate use. The current generation is good and TRIM is supported by windows 7; the next gen will be better but must also be a lot cheaper.

Reader Orchid Nominations

I am choosing from among hundreds of nominations here. By far the largest user nominations went to Windows 7 for Orchids; there were many fewer onions. Maybe the computer business is growing up. I won't include many of the Windows 7 recommendations, but this one stands out:

From Bob Holmes

I would like to nominate Microsoft Windows 7 for a Orchid. This time Microsoft got it pretty much right. It is almost as if they were really listening to the people that have to use Windows. The Family upgrade for Windows 7 Home Premium with three licenses is also a nice touch.

I would also like to nominate Windows 7 for an Onion. Too many confusing versions and the XP compatibility mode is only offered for Professional, Ultimate or Enterprise. Anyone with an old program that runs in XP 32 bit mode and uses a 16 bit installer is out of luck with any version of 64 bit Windows 7, and lots and lots of systems with more than 3GB of memory are shipping with 64 bit Windows Home Premium.

It stands out for two reasons. First it was the only Windows 7 onion nomination, and second, this may be the first time Bob Holmes, a veteran system programmer, has ever nominated any version of Windows. If Microsoft is finally getting Holmes' approval, it has to have made a lot of progress.

From Karen Parker:

I have a dual Orchid suggestion. Windows 7 is a slam-dunk, but the combination of W7 and VMWare Workstation 7 is really great. VMWare can import the XP Mode windows XP machine that comes with W7 and run it with all the normal video acceleration, USB support, shared folders, etc. that VMWare provides. It just works, and melds well into my world of doing everything in virtual machines.

So, my suggestion is VMWare Workstation 7.

And indeed I completely agree. VMWare also works for older versions of Windows if you need that.

Sean Long:

Western Digital Scorpio Blue ATA-6 laptop hard drives. If you have an older laptop that doesn't use SATA drives, these are probably the best upgrade or replacement drives you'll find. While they aren't as cutting-edge as the newest SATA laptop drives and feature only up to 320GB and 5400 RPM rotation speeds, they are reasonably fast, quiet, and run cool. They are probably going to be the last really good ATA-6 notebook drives made. I have 2 and even though they're not as good as the new SATA drives, they're more than good enough to keep my old laptop out of the recycle bin.

Also from Sean Long:

Google chrome browser. An orchid for at least trying to make a lightweight, fast, yet extensible browser.

I have no comment on this one since I have no experience with Chrome. I will take the time to look at it when I get a novel finished. For the record, if I had to give a browser award I would hand FireFox both an Orchid and an Onion; but I have decided to let those cancel out.

From Lynn McGuire:

I would like to nominate Google Apps for an orchid.

We moved the domain record for our email (the MX record) to Google apps about a year ago. We use the standard version of Google apps (the FREE version). I think that Google would prefer that we use the business version ($50/year/email address) but there has been no pressure to move up to that level.

The move of our MX record for our domain was easy. The setup of Google apps is easy and there are actually few steps in the configuration. We actually do not use the Google apps email web app (the same as the gmail web app) so we POP our email down to MS Outlook, MS Outlook Express or Thunderbird.

The changover has been dramatic and a blessing. Our spam has been cut by over 90%. I used to get 500-600 spam per day, I now get 30-50 spam per day. All spam is automatically placed into the web app spam folder which you can peruse whenever you want or have it deleted automatically after 30 days. My office manager was getting up to 10,000 spams per day and almost quit over it. She is also at 30-50 spam per day now.

Google Apps does occasionally place a good email into the spam folder (a false positive) but it is trivial to move the email back to your inbox.

Google apps also has several other apps other than email like calendar, docs, chat and others but to be honest we don't use those very often.

I use the Google calendar personally and find it to be good about tracking and notifying you about events. Much better than my own memory.

Highly recommended and used hourly at WinSim Inc. for over a year now.

Sincerely,
Lynn McGuire
Presdent
WinSim Inc.

I have to admit that I have neglected Google Apps, largely because I find Outlook Good Enough. My ISP uses Spam Assassin and I have it set to delete the most obvious spam, but given that it's hard to distinguish spam from press releases I have to rely on local processing to deal with the rest. In my case it runs to about 200 a day. InBoxer gets about half of that, the Outlook junk mail filter gets some more, and I have a number of Rules to deal with more. Even so, weekly I go through the suspected spam and I generally find one or two false positives. Like most Outlook users I give Outlook a bunch of orchids surrounded by onions.

Dr. Peter Jackson has a number of interesting recommendations:

1. Apple Magic Mouse. This is a superb and easy to use mouse that removes the needs for balls, buttons etc. on the mouse itself. The only mechanical operation is the actual down click. The mouse is nicely weighted and precise to use. This is real innovation as new operations can be added with software.

2. Intel i7 and i5 processors. A major step forward in architecture with a reasonable price. True multithreaded, multicore software applications are awaited to take advantage of them but there is now no longer any need to wait for the hardware.

3. Kindle 2. A superbly easy to use eBook reader that gives an experience that is close to that of a book. Now that the pdf issues have been solved and battery life improved while on a wireless connection, this is easily the easiest to use and best eBook reader out there.

4. Nikon D5000. A remarkably flexible and reasonably priced DSLR. It is compact, takes video and has near the performance of the D90 for a lot less money. This is a camera that you will take with you because of its size and weight thus making sure you actually take pictures when they are available.

I agree with all of those, recommendations, and I'm happy to hand out the requisite Orchids.

Paul Camp says:

Orchid to IrfanView. Need I say more? You use it, we all use it. Every iteration is better than the one before.

And I completely agree.

Dr. Camp adds

Major Onion to Microsoft for providing no upgrade path from XP to 7.

There is no reason for this at all. You can buy third party software that will manage the transition. You can upgrade to Vista and then 7 without problems. Both of these demonstrate that an upgrade is not impossible, and since XP is far and away the largest installed user base for Microsoft, failing to provide a real upgrade option is the very definition of stupidity. Everything Microsoft has said on this subject is a lie. Basically, they are punishing us all for not riding the Vista upgrade train.

And while I'm at it, Major Onion to Microsoft again for the performance degradation that follows on every upgrade Tuesday. Computers that have not changed run slower and slower and slower with every patch. Every version of Windows is "the fastest ever" until 6 months of patches have been downloaded, at which point it is just as much a big fat pig as any previous version. There's no real reason for this except that code bloat in not even on Microsoft's radar screen.

--
Dr. Paul J. Camp
Spelman College

I haven't noticed the Patch Tuesday slowdowns as more than a temporary phenomenon. My Windows 7 machines don't seem to be slower now than when I first set them up. I have noticed that sometimes after a Tuesday update my network doesn't respond properly when connecting XP to Windows 7 systems, but a bit of gnashing my teeth fixes that: that is, either a later update, or some mysterious internal insight, or both takes care of the matter without my intervention. Just at the moment everything is working splendidly. I agree that the lack of a decent upgrade path from XP to Windows 7 deserves an onion. We used the LapLink migration tool and that seemed to work just fine.

Winding Down

There was no movie of the month in December. We both came down with something like flu and didn't get out. Obviously Avatar deserves attention - it will probably be the movie of the year - and I intend to see it, although I regret that Jim Cameron chose to remake Dances with Wolves rather than start with one of my novels...

The gadget of the month is Franklin's New York Times Crossword Puzzle Dictionary, a cigarette case sized specialized pocket computer that does just what the title implies. Crossword puzzle addicts will love it, once they get past some of the initial hurdles of the interface.

The iPhone App of the month is Dan Bricklin's NoteTaker. Software Garden Products: Dan Bricklin's Note Taker App. It lets you write notes on the iPhone with your finger. It would be tedious to write anything of length this way, or at least it would take a lot of practice to get used to it, but for jotting down phone numbers and addresses it really works.

The book of the month is The Vorkosigan Companion, edited by Lillian S. Carl, from Baen Books. This is an exhaustive exposition on the universe of Lois McMaster Bujold and includes maps, family trees, lists of characters, plot summaries, ship descriptions, and just about anything you would like to know about the Vorkosigan Saga. If you don't know what I am talking about, you shouldn't get this book; the best introduction to the Bujold universe is a Bujold novel. If you are already a Bujold fan, you probably already know about this book, but if you don't, you'll love it.

The computer book of the month was Stanek's Windows 7 The Definitive Guide, from O'Reilly. I know I featured it last month. It deserves another mention: it's the best way I have found to learn about new stuff buried in Windows 7. The companion work, David Pogue's Mac OS X Snow Leopard: The Missing Manual, also from O'Reilly does for Mac OS X what Stanek does for Windows 7. You really must have one of these books depending on which operating system you use. It will be a worthwhile investment.

I have a very large number of technical books that should be reviewed, and my solution will be to start a quarterly book review feature here at Chaos Manor Reviews. Of course my ambitions sometimes get ahead of my abilities, but I'll try to make this a regular feature.