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Computing At Chaos Manor:
July 14, 2010

The User's Column, June/July 2010
Column 359
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2010 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

This column will incorporate a Summer Book Review.

My enthusiasm for the iPad continues unabated. I remain convinced that iPad and its successors will have a major impact on the future of both computer use and publication, particularly magazine publication. Much of that influence will be from the next generation of iPad-like systems, of course, but the current iPad is itself selling well and creating a market for new applications. See my last column for more.

If you don't have an iPad and are wondering what it can do, find a copy of J. D. Biersdorfer's iPad The Missing Manual from O'Reilly. If you already have an iPad, the Kindle edition is cheaper and can be read in the Kindle iPad app. Oddly enough, there is no iPad Books edition, or if there is I can't find it. Of course you may not need a manual, missing or not. The iPad advertises that "you already know how to use it," and for the most part that's true. The missing manual looks at apps, and summarizes what you can get in iWorks (3 apps: Pages (word processing), Numbers (a spreadsheet) and Keynote (presentation maker), each $10) and what you can do with them. You can find out most of what you want to know about the iPad from just fooling around with it, but the missing manual can save you time on learning how to do things including organization. I'm glad I have it.

The AT&T Experience

One of my objections to both iPad and iPhone was that they are both locked to AT&T. Actually although I have a 3G-enabled iPad I have never set up an account on it; it turns out that I've had no need to use it in places without Wi-Fi. The iPhone is a different story. I have no choice but to use AT&T and I hate that.

AT&T cell phone signal strength at Chaos Manor varies from non-existent to awful to just barely acceptable depending on where I am: it's sort of acceptable in my office and out on my balcony, it's awful in the breakfast room, and it's non-existent in the back part of the house. Repeated attempts to tell AT&T about this through the "Mark the Spot" application on the iPhone have accomplished nothing, not even an acknowledgement of the complaint. The application was free. I recall there was some difficulty in downloading it, but I didn't log that and it wasn't serious enough that I remember it. I've used it several times without discernable results.

Of course I used my Wi-Fi for the application download operation. Wi-Fi works just fine - up here in the office. Alas, my Wi-Fi fades the further I get from this part of Chaos Manor. My next step at improving internal communications here will be to bore some holes in the walls and put a Wi-Fi router out on the back balcony, where it may do a better job of getting through to the back downstairs bedroom. Or may not. We'll just have to see. That's for another column.

When my cell phone service was called Cingular it worked quite well, but after Cingular and AT&T became AT&T the cell phone service has never been good here. A few months ago AT&T began advertising a new remedy to the problem. I rushed to the web site only to find that the new service wasn't available in my zip code area. Then, about three weeks ago, I tried again, and I was told that a fix was available, go visit my AT&T Store. Meanwhile, several readers advised me to look into the AT&T MicroCell.

Friday morning my morning walk with Sable took me to the local AT&T store, where I discovered that the "remedy" for my problems was in fact the MicroCell. The MicroCell is a Cisco-made miniature cell phone tower. The price was $149, but there was a notice that the price was shortly to be reduced to $49, and meanwhile there would be a $100 rebate. I decided to get one. Of course I could have saved myself a few dollars by waiting, since I had to pay city and state taxes on the full price and none of that would be refunded, but I decided it was time to fix my rotten AT&T cell phone "service" once and for all, so I bought it and carried it home. A nice young man named Sareth Ney took care of the paper work and offered to activate the MicroCell on the spot, but I thought I'd want the full experience of doing it myself.

I didn't get around to setting it up until Sunday afternoon.

The instructions were clear enough. First I had to activate the MicroCell, then plug it into the Internet. They recommended that I put it near a window so that it could see the GPS satellites and locate itself. It all seemed simple enough, so the first move was to go on line to the indicated address and try to activate the MicroCell. Of course the indicated web site had absolutely no indication of how to do that. There was no "Activate" button, nor even a mention of the MicroCell. Nothing.

Eventually I Googled up a site that told me I'd have to go to "My Account". Doing that asked me for a login name and password, or I could start a new account. Going there got me a demand for something that qualified me to have an account. Since I had no idea what that might be, and it was still early Sunday afternoon, I took another trip down to the AT&T store, where I found Sareth Ney ready to take care of things for me. It turns out the "qualification" demanded could have been satisfied with my AT&T cell phone number. I suppose I should have figured that out, but long years of dealing with AT&T which trains all its manual writers to explain things so that it's clear if you know what they want you to do and otherwise is - I presume intentionally - murky made me reluctant to try to guess, and besides, the AT&T store is only about five minutes away. In any event, the account was activated without problem. A temporary password was texted to me on my iPhone, and later I used that to change the password to something I might remember. I have no trouble accessing my AT&T mobile account for all the good that does me.

Once I had that done I came back to Chaos Manor to set the MicroCell up. That is supposed to be simple: turn off your cable modem and Wi-Fi router. Wait a minute and turn them back on. Now connect the MicroCell to an Ethernet port on the Wi-Fi router. Power up the MicroCell. Look at its indicator lights. It should show power on, then that it is connected to the Internet. Those lights should be solid green. Wait a bit and the GPS light will begin to flash, as will the 3G light. Wait some more. The GPS light will turn solid if the system can see the satellites. Now wait 90 minutes as the 3G light flashes, and at some point the 3G light will turn solid. You're done.

In my case everything happened but that final step. The 3G light continued to flash after 90 minutes. I have gone through all the AT&T troubleshooting procedures. The light still flashed. I thought that might be because they just don't work on Sunday afternoons.

I then went to the AT&T site and registered the thing again, this time adding Roberta's cell phone number. Just after I did that I got a text message congratulating me on registering. About an hour later the 3G light on the MicroCell stopped flashing.

Alas, while the MicroCell believes it is in proper order - all lights are steady and green - my iPhone doesn't believe the MicroCell exists. I still have three bars max in my upper office (where the MicroCell resides at the moment). It is now Tuesday, and that remains the situation, and the deadline is upon me, so the ending of this story will have to come next month. I am told that the MicroCell works very well - when it works. My next step will be to take the whole mess back to the AT&T store and see what they can do about it. More next time.

Of course the simple solution to all these problems is to throw the iPhone away and get a phone with any service other than AT&T. More when I know more.

iPhone 4G

Some think it the biggest story of the month, maybe of the year: Apple lied to the customers. Others think it all a tempest in a tea pot.

The basic situation is this: the iPhone G4 uses the stainless steel bands wrapped around the iPhone as the Wi-Fi and GSM antenna. On the lower left side of the iPhone there is a short gap between bands. If you cover that gap with your hand when holding the iPhone, that will attenuate the signal - both incoming and outgoing. According to Consumer Reports the attenuation is about 20 dB, which means it is reduced to about 1% of what it would be if it didn't have that problem. Bob Thompson tells me there are reports of 24 to 32 dB attenuation - i.e. down to about one millionth of the signal strength you'd get if you held the phone in a different way. That much attenuation of signal is frequently enough signal drop to cause dropped calls. The 20 dB drop that Consumer Reports found is serious enough.

Note that even with 32 dB attenuation, call drop is not inevitable. Leo Laporte noted that he was getting fewer signal bars (sometimes none) when he held his new iPhone 4G in the usual manner (i.e. in his left hand with the lower left corner of the phone in his palm - what has been called the Vulcan Grip of Death by some wags), and took it to the Apple store, where the first question they asked him was "Are you getting dropped calls?" He confessed that he wasn't, and indeed when in the store (where we may imagine that the signal strength was about as high as it gets) he was able to hold the phone in a way that got him fewer bars, but never did get a call dropped, nor did he get any degradation of performance with those fewer bars. He discusses this with me, Steve Gibson, and RF engineer Spencer Webb on TWIT for 3 July, 2010.

The reason he got fewer bars but no call drops is that digital cell phones are digital. Bits is bits. If there's enough signal strength to connect at all, it will not in general matter whether you have 1 bar or 5. Signal strength matters, but for voice it matters only in a binary fashion: either there's enough or there isn't. Moving a few feet may drop your call if you're in a low signal strength area to begin with, but it won't much matter otherwise.

Apple's response to early reports of "I get fewer bars and more dropped calls if I hold the iPhone this way" was a rather surly "Don't hold it that way," a flippant remark that didn't help their public relations a bit.

Then they came out with a story that some don't believe at all: Apple investigated the software that generates the "bars" display, and the company was shocked, shocked, to discover that the number of bars displayed was only loosely related to the signal strength received. They promised to fix that software.

Many commentators didn't believe Apple. How could they not know their display software was defective? They must have been lying about it. Law suits were filed. Some pundits condemned Apple roundly.

Rich Heimlich summarized the affair this way:

Apple's stock is down 2.7% which is a big deal for them and it's tied directly to concern about this issue. Their handling of it has continued to be a problem and their solutions so far are anemic at best. No one wants to pay hundreds of dollars for a phone to be told it really only works if you buy this flimsy case to go with it or, worse, put a rubber-band around it.

They screwed it up royally, then tried to pass it off as not an issue, then suggested you hold the phone a special way then were "stunned" to find out about incorrect reporting of signal strength, etc.

This is the sort of coverage you get when someone isn't being straight about something. They're creating their own Frankenstein here and that's absolutely worth discussing in detail and not just suggesting everyone else doesn't get it.

Apple detractors are piling on. Some have reported that the iPhone drops calls more often than other phones no matter how you hold it. I haven't found any reliable evidence of that, and most of my reports from readers are that unless you use the Vulcan Grip of Death it doesn't drop calls, and even if you do it doesn't seem to happen very often.

Apple supporters, meanwhile, don't find it hard to believe that Apple never knew the bar reporting software was defective. For what it's worth, my view is that Apple lab engineers knew that there wasn't a lot of relationship between the number of bars displayed and signal strength detected, but they didn't care much because, since bits is bits and phones either work or they don't, the number of bars doesn't matter. The phone either works or it doesn't.

As to whether they knew or didn't know that if you hold the phone wrong you get 20 dB (or more) degradation, I have no idea. I do know that their field trials were with iPhones in disguised cases, and the disguise always and forever prevented the signal degradation. The field testers never noticed that holding the phone wrong got you fewer bars and perhaps dropped calls.

On Bars and Attenuation

Peter Glaskowsky says

The problem here is that the fifth bar covers a range of around 30 dB, and the others are around 13 dB in total.

This is a GOOD thing in normal operation; you only need to be warned that you might lose your signal when you actually might! But it does lead to highly non-intuitive relationships among signal strength, bars, proper operation, and so on.

I find that illuminating. It means among other things that if you have 2 bars you probably won't need or notice more; which is why my iPhone with its wretched one and two bars in much of my house, works more often than I believe it will. It's not intuitive, and those who understand it will think of the relationship between bars and call drops in an entirely different way from those who don't. I just learned it, and I'm still contemplating the implications.

The Rubber Band

Consumer Reports shows a video in which they say that you can fix the dropped call problem with duct tape. That may work with genuine aluminized duct tape which is conductive (although what they show in their video doesn't appear to be actual aluminized tape), but it won't work with non-conductive tape of any kind: Scotch, electrician tape, gaffer's tape, the aluminum-looking plastic "duct" tape in most homes, etc.

The signal degradation comes from capacitive coupling of your hand and the antenna. It has nothing to do with hand conductivity. You're not "shorting out" the antenna. The remedy is to get your hand farther away from the sensitive area of the antenna. Engineer friends who have done the experiment say that electrician tape isn't thick enough to do that. I doubt even conductive tape would work - that would just make the tape a big capacitive plate close to the antenna. It makes me wonder what CR based their "tape fixes it" report on.

In any event, almost any case for the iPad 4 will fix the problem. In particular, the Rubber Bumper band case that Apple sells for $30 will do the job nicely, and I don't understand why Apple doesn't just give those away with the iPhone. An alternative is to get a $1.00 biker wrist band, make a slit in it to accommodate the 30-pin connector, and use that.

Rumors continue to abound. Apple will recall the iPhone 4. Apple thought that a software fix would fix the Vulcan Death Grip Problem. So far as I can tell, none of this is important: the iPhone 4 works fine if you hold it right, and any kind of case (including the rubber band around it) fixes the Death Grip problem. I am still using an older iPhone, and it has been in a case since the day I got it. I'll always have my glass phone in a case, because I'm fairly clumsy and I don't want to break it.

Phil Tharp adds

Apple was clearly trying to provide a better set of antennas for the iPhone 4. After all, it's still physics and 900 MHz still requires more antenna than most cell phones have for good efficiency. Since almost everyone but Steve Jobs at demos puts their iPhone in a case, it is no big deal. Further bar displays on all modern cell phones bear little resemblance to digital reception quality. They are hold-overs from AGC levels.

Peter Glaskowsky reminds me that the iPhone 4 actually works across a large spectrum:

I'd point out that the iPhone 4 antenna system works with radios operating in many bands: 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100, and 2400 MHz. No wonder it's so difficult to get it right.

I have known that antenna design was a black art from the days when I was part of the Bomber Weapons Unit for the B-52 and got involved in Electronic Counter Measures.

Of course I learned my attitude toward "bars" from early cell phone days.

This controversy over signals vanishing and other such stuff has mostly obscured the fact that the iPhone 4 is a major step toward the Pocket Computer Niven and I described in 1974 in The Mote in God's Eye (alas not yet available in Kindle edition; we're working on it). It deserves to be considered without the distraction of signal degradation by the Vulcan Death Grip, or, for that matter, Jobs's rather surly remark on how to hold it. More on the true value of the iPhone 4 another time.

Antec Notebook Cooler

We went down to the beach house the other day. I carried my iPad, and also the ThinkPad laptop. As usual I set things up with the Microsoft Wireless Comfort Curve keyboard and mouse, and an elderly ViewSonic 19" monitor. This is pretty well the same setup I use at home in the Monk's Cell when I write, so I get a fair amount of work done on these trips.

I also carried the Antec Notebook Cooler BASIC which is a simple foldable grid - go look at the picture and it's self explanatory - that raises the laptop slightly off the table and allows air circulation. When I use the ThinkPad's keyboard (rather than the wireless external keyboard) it serves to tilt the ThinkPad to a decent angle, but mostly it just sits there and keeps the laptop from overheating. It folds nicely, and easily fits into the carry bag with the ThinkPad.

There's not really a lot more to say about this: as the name implies, it's BASIC. Antec has some more elaborate notebook and laptop coolers including several that have active fans. Some extreme gamers tell me they need actively to cool their laptops when they're really pushing them, but I've never needed anything like that. I have noticed that my ThinkPad gets fairly hot to the touch - not painful, but I wouldn't want it on my lap - if I set it on a smooth tabletop and run it a while. My remedy for that in the past has been to carry an APC folding laptop stand, but it's thicker than the Antec Basic, and thus harder to get into the laptop carry bag, so the Antec Basic will replace it for travel.

Winding Down

Since the Summer Book Review Section follows, we'll skip the book of the month.

The game of the month was Company of Heroes, an older game you can find if you look for it. The attractive feature of the game for me is that you can give orders during pause. (Pause is activated by, of all things, the Pause key that now appears on most keyboards.) The game is a bear to install, since it needs about a dozen patches and they have to be applied in order; it takes about five hours to get it installed. After that, though, it works pretty well (there are some crazy glitches now and then, but they're endurable). The graphics are good, most of the conventions are not so unrealistic as to be jarring, and it sure can eat time you don't have.

And I am out of time.

Summer Book Review Section

Windows 7 Annoyances

Windows 7 Annoyances David A. Karp, O'Reilly. The earlier O'Reilly "Annoyances" books tended to deal with actual annoyances and for that matter bugs in Windows and various popular applications like Office. This current work is better characterized in the subtitle "Tips, Secrets, and Solutions" than the title itself. It's more a supplement to the O'Reilly Windows 7 the Definitive Guide than anything else. Of course there's a lot of duplication, too.

Life isn't long enough for me to make a detailed comparison of the two books. My personal preference is for Karp's "Do it this way" style, and certainly it has a number of instructions on things you might want to do with Windows 7. On the other hand, it's written for Aunt Minnie's clever nephew, not the old girl herself. It's not an introduction and doesn't pretend to be. I'm glad I have it, and it stays on my permanent bookshelf. Recommended.

Windows 7 The Best of the Official Magazine

Windows 7 The Best of the Official Magazine from Microsoft Press isn't quite aimed at Aunt Minnie either, but she might appreciate it. It's definitely for the general user, and covers topics from creating resume's to computer maintenance to filing and storing and sharing photographs to improving homework to - well, you get the idea. It's a series of short and snappy introductions to things you can do with a computer. It's in a breezy style that's easy to read, and while it doesn't go into depth about much, it's fairly complete on what it gets you into.

The section on "Using Microsoft Live Labs Listas" told me about some free Windows 7 applications I had never heard of. There are a number of other Windows 7 features that Microsoft had to leave out of Windows 7 itself for legal reasons (it's not fair competition to give something away with the operating system; you have to make the user download it and install it herself, in case she wants something else). Other books cover Windows Live and other free Windows 7 extensions a little better, but this one is good enough, and it's great for telling you what's available. Recommended for new users, and for long time users who haven't paid much attention to all the new features of Windows 7.

Windows 7 Enterprise Desktop Support Technician

Windows 7 Enterprise Desktop Support Technician by Tony Northrup and J. C. Markin, Microsoft Press is a "self paced training kit" that prepares you for MCITP Exam 70-685.

As many of you know, Microsoft has a series of certification examinations that provide credentials. For more on that go to this link . Certification examinations are a way of gaining credentials without having to attend formal schooling. For my money that's the wave of the future. One of the criticisms of private for-profit colleges has been that they aren't all accredited and thus don't qualify their graduates to take certain professional certification exams, which to me misses the point: certification exams are ways to escape the rent-seeking credential gatekeepers. Either you know it or you don't, and does it really matter if you learned in an accredited school or through a spiritual medium channeling a dead mentor? In any event the gatekeepers haven't got control of the computer technician certification process.

This training kit comes with a number of laboratory examples and practice tests. To run them you'll need a 64-bit Windows 7 machine capable of running Windows Server 2008 R2 in a virtual machine. (Sun VirtualBox works and is free.) You can also use the Hyper-V feature of Windows Server 2008 R2.

This is a structured self-paced training kit, and it is systematic. Certification requires that you know how to do stuff, but it also requires that you know the standard lingo so that you can explain it to superiors - or ask for help, for that matter. This book teaches both: the terminology by drills, and doing stuff is by example.

I don't know if I could pass the certification exam but in the unlikely event I would ever need to, this is one of the tools I'd choose. It's clearly written, there are lots of examples, and it goes forward in a systematic manner with practice exams to check on progress. Recommended.

Social Media Marketing Book

The Social Media Marketing Book by Dan Zarrella, O'Reilly. This book is quite basic, which means that if you need it, you need it bad. From the Introduction:

"Something strange is happening. Your advertising doesn't work anymore, at least not like it used to. You used to be able to buy some TV time or put an ad in a newspaper, but nowadays everyone has TiVo or a DVR and gets their news online. ... Not only is your brand no longer the host, most of the time you're not even a welcome guest."

That should give you an idea of who this book is meant for: people who want to promote products by using the new social media like Facebook and Twitter, but who don't know the game: either because they're just getting started, or they are old fogeys who haven't kept up with the enormous explosions on the Internet. Incidentally, you may count me in the latter group.

If you are already active in modern social media you probably don't need this book. This is a book more intended to let you know what's going on, and what you've been missing out on. If you've never tweeted and can't imagine wanting to, you probably should read the Twitter chapter to see what others have done with it. If you've heard about social marketing and think you'd like to get in on it but haven't the foggiest notion of how, this book is likely to be useful in giving you some directions on how to get started. And if you've hired consultants who tell you all the wonders they can accomplish using social media marketing, and you haven't the foggiest notion of what they're saying other than it looks expensive, you certainly need to know what's in here. Given those strictures, recommended.

Open Government

Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice, O'Reilly. There is a Kindle edition, but it costs more than the quality paper edition and I wouldn't recommend it.

This is a collection of serious essays organized around a principle. One of the essays is by publisher Tim O'Reilly, who says:

"As President Obama explained the idea during his campaign, ‘We must use all technologies and methods to open up the federal government, creating a new level of transparency to change the way business is conducted in Washington, and giving Americans the chance to participate in government deliberations and decision making in ways that were not possible only a few years ago.'"

Discussion of how much of that has been implemented is not part of this review.

This book takes the statement seriously, and a score of authors, many highly qualified, take a stab at methods for implementing that goal. Others look at the whole concept of management in this information and communication age. A city Chief Technology Officer (a post I held briefly in Los Angeles decades ago) discusses legal aspects of open government and gives some case stories. Professor Brant Houston of the University of Illinois talks about using the Freedom of Information Act. Think tank thinkers wax eloquently on theories about Government 2.0. The list goes on.

None of this is particularly easy reading, and there's a tendency to take a mote of truth and puff it into a couple of pages, but if you take the notion of Open Government seriously and want to think about how to implement it, there's a fair amount of meat in here. And of course if you're a student in public policy strapped for term paper topics, this is a gold mine.

Getting Started with Processing

Getting Started with Processing by Casey Reas and Ben Fry, from O'Reilly. I had never heard of Processing until I got this book to review, which shows just how old fashioned I am: apparently Processing, a graphics design language, has been around since 2001 and is now taught in many classrooms. It is an interactive language, available free for Mac, Windows, and Linux, and it starts off simply enough.

This book tells you how to get started, and gives examples of what you can do with the Processing language. Processing may or may not be the language of choice for creating simple computer graphics for apps and the like, but it certainly deserves consideration for that. It's a lot easier to learn than any of the big graphics language programs. If that interests you, this is a very simple way to learn how to use the language and get started.

Windows Azure

Windows Azure by Sriram Krishnan, O'Reilly. Azure is Microsoft's entry into the race to the cloud. If you don't know what the cloud is, this is probably not the book to start with. If you do know that the cloud allows you to buy a wide range of services, from supercomputing time to giant servers to data bases and their management, getting the service instantly and paying only for what you use, (i.e. you don't need to buy any hardware at all to have an enormous server holding a huge data base) then this is a pretty good introduction to how Microsoft tries to provide those services.

As with the Internet itself, Microsoft came late to the cloud. How late, and was it too late, are topics for discussion in another place. This book is a low to mid-level introduction to Azure. I can't really do better than the author in describing what's in it:

"This book is split into two halves. The first half digs into how Windows Azure works and how to host application code on it. The second half digs into the storage services offered by Windows Azure and how to store data on it. The two halves are quite independent..."

I don't really find that to be true: that is, to understand what Azure is I needed some examples, and I found that reading the second half of the book aided in my understanding. Fair warning, to understand part two you will need at least some familiarity with Python and at least a nodding acquaintance with data base management programming. I'm way out of date on both concepts, but my aging experience with them was enough.

If you are wondering what Azure is all about, this is as good as way to find out as any I know. And if you're contemplating using Azure in your company and the people who will do the work are in your chain of command, you probably want to know at least what's in this book.

Mastering Photographic Composition

Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity, and Personal Style by Alain Briot, Rocky Nook Publishing. It doesn't say so in the title, but those familiar with Alain Briot's work know that he's a landscape photographic artist, and this is a book about doing wide range photos. I once sold such a shot to Geographic, back in the days when they only accepted K2 shots and my camera was a Miranda, nothing like up to the quality usually needed. I was fortunate to get a shot in Thera at just the right time of day, but it was sheer luck.

If you want to dig deep - deeper than I ever will - into both the philosophy and technology of great landscape photography, you'll love this book. If you just want a general picture of the subject, you're likely to find this tells you more than you really wanted to know. That's not an objection to the book.