Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2010 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

January 24, 2010

I got this some time ago, and I've thought about it at intervals:


You said on your site under the mailbag about the possibility of Microsoft every going out of business being very remote. In the 1960's people would have said the same about General Motors, yet GM has effectively gone bankrupt. Largely the two companies are similar in that they are very large, and basically thought they could do whatever they wanted, and people would buy their products.

GM was getting huge per unit profits from their big V8 powered cars and behemoth SUVs, until something happened, the price of the fuel that such vehicles use in vast quantities started to go way up, and sales went flat, then the economy in the US collapsed, all of a sudden you had 100,000 units sitting on the lot that you couldn't give away at cost.

I suspect that a similar situation will befall Microsoft, someone will develop a hot new technology and it will not run on Windows, without a major rewrite of the foundation underlying the system, something that is fairly easy to do in the modular foundation of Linux. Microsoft will then be left trying to rewrite the guts while companies adopt the new technology using something else.


It certainly could happen. When Bill Gates ran Microsoft he always ran scared, and he took the "Network Computer" threat very seriously in the late 1980's and early 1990's; it's one reason for Microsoft's aggressiveness in getting Internet Explorer out at what he called "the right price," which is to say, free.

Today's Microsoft management may not run as scared as in the earlier days, but the habit of looking over the shoulder to see who's gaining is embedded pretty deep into the Microsoft culture. The Big Security Scare and Microsoft's response is an example of that.

As to a killer application changing the entire market, that certainly happened in the early days. Apple exists today because Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston wrote VisiCalc for the Apple computer, because that's what they had. If they'd written it for an S-100 buss CP/M system the computer world would have an entirely different history. VisiCalc was clunky and had bugs, but it was the first spreadsheet, and it worked well enough that many business owners went to their local computer store and said "I want to buy a VisiCalc." When it was explained that this was a program and they'd need an Apple to run it on, they bought an Apple, and the Apple II "broke out of category" from a computer hobbyist system to an important business machine. The VisiCalc success story was an important factor in IBM's decision to build its own "entry level" Personal Computer.

Whether that can happen today is more questionable. The installed base of Windows PC's is much larger, but more importantly the systems are so powerful that a good machine can run many different operating systems. Of course if you want to run Apple applications you will need a Mac unless you're a very stubborn guru, but the reverse isn't true. Modern Apple systems will run Windows quite well; we'll be covering more of that in future columns.

Bill Gates is fond of saying that in the late 1980's he went to all the applications developers and asked them to write applications for Microsoft Windows. "But they wouldn't do it. So I went to the Microsoft Applications Division, and they didn't have that option." People don't buy computers for the operating system, they buy them to run programs, and it will be a long time before there are as many Apple application developers as there are PC application developers.

I found this in back mail. It's still applicable:

Download Progress

If you hit Ctrl-J from a Firefox window, it opens a new "Downloads" window that shows the download progress of anything Firefox is downloading--including PDF files. I do not have particularly fast broadband, but it took that 24mb file under 5 minutes to download on my system. The "Downloads" window gives a 'percent of progress' bar.

Also, on the virus front, I have only ever gotten viruses using Microsoft's Internet Explorer. I wonder if your wife was using that, instead of Firefox. After I switched to Firefox many years ago and switched to broadband with a NAT router between me and the Internet, I never again have had a single virus. The fact that I was getting viruses by just visiting certain websites using IE was reproducible. After that, I no longer trust IE at all.

--Best regards, Chuck

The reference is to the New York Times page that managed to contaminate Roberta's computer by popping up a warning that her computer was contaminated, click here to download the fix. She understood that she should not do that, but tried to close the scare window by clicking on the little red X up in the upper corner of the popup. Since the entire popup had the same link, that had allowed the worm to enter her system. I tell you this story so that I can remind you that if you ever see a popup like that, close the entire browser; don't click anywhere in the popup window. That particular trap has been fixed, but there are others, and while contamination through Firefox is less likely than through Internet Explorer, it's by no means completely safe; no browser is. Meanwhile the bad guys are getting better at fooling you into cooperating with them, as Roberta did by clicking on the little X which she thought would close the popup window.

Continuing that story:

Your wife's sick computer

Hi Jerry:

I've spent several evenings back in May clearing a relative's computer of a nasty rootkit virus, Win32:Rootkit.Gen. I ended up downloading the Avira AntiVir Rescue System, a linux-based application. Booting into Linux using a CD burned with that tool, I found and eliminated the rootkit and after it was gone, Windows based tools got rid of the rest of the malware. You might try something like this for your wife's problem computer.

Rick Hale

My solution to the problem was to retire the computer, which was pretty old – it's the cobbler's children who don't wear new shoes, right? I set Roberta up with a new system that runs Windows 7, and she loves it.

I retired the old system by copying all the important files onto a USB external drive. I used the Voyager S2 "Toaster" (between $30 and $100, depending on connectivity other than USB 2) and it worked like a charm. I then connected that drive to one of my machines and used the ESET On-line scanner to scan that drive. It found that none of the files had been contaminated, which was what I had expected: the infection she had glued itself into operating system files, not data files. When we set up her new machine we transferred the data files to it, and as I've said above, it all works fine now. She has her files.

I thank the several dozen of you who wrote with detailed instructions on how to use Linux-based programs to fix Roberta's old system. There seem to be many of those, generally based on downloading Ubuntu, making a bootable CD or DVD, and booting the machine with that, without installing Ubuntu. There are then a number of ways to proceed. Several readers recommend Bleeping Computer as a place to go for further instructions. In may case, Roberta's machine was old, and it was time to replace it anyway, so I didn't do any of that.

Had I been required to decontaminate her machine, I'd have done that with fear and trembling, and I would never have been entirely confident that I'd got it all. Root kits are nasty things, often requiring you to delete system files and replace them, and if you make any mistakes along the line the worms may find new places to establish themselves. I'm still convinced that the best remedy to a real infection is to save the data, and scan the saved data. Then nuke the machine from orbit, and reinstall the OS and all applications. That's tedious enough that you really don't want to do it. When I was an editor of Survive Magazine back in the days of the Cold War I had a slogan: the best way to survive a nuclear war is not to have one. Similarly, the best way to survive a computer virus or worm infection is not to get one.

The principles for not getting an infection remain: don't cooperate with the bad guys. Don't open mail attachments unless you are absolutely sure not only that the mail came from who you think it came from, but also that the sender knows what's going on: in Roberta's case she got a link to the infected New York Times page in email from her sister.

Keep your system current with updates (Roberta's was), and make sure you have something like Microsoft Security Essentials. And be careful out there.

On the lighter side

Dr. Pournelle,

Just a couple of links on the lighter side to provide comic relief for all the heavy new we have been getting.

This first is provided by people who have way too much time on their hands. It ia called Extreme Sheep Herding.

The second is a T shirt company for devices, most of which you and authors like you have been forcasting for years and we still do not have them but:


Patrick Hoage

I think I've recommended the Extreme Sheep Herding video elsewhere, but it's worth bringing up again for anyone who missed it.

I like the notion of retrofuture: nostalgia for the days when we really thought we'd get flying cars and individual rocket ships...