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Computing At Chaos Manor:
November 29, 2010

The User's Column, November 2010
Column 363
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2010 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, 2011 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!

Facebook Mail

The big news this month is Facebook Mail, but in fact it's not news for users so much as announcements from the vendor. I don't know anyone who has it yet, and what is out there for review does not have all the promised features. For those who just live in Facebook it's exciting news, but for most of us we can wait and see what it really does. Facebook has not been entirely reliable in either its concern for or ability regarding security of those accounts. How will they do with email and all other communications?

Still, integration of communication and social networking does point toward possible futures. The integration of chats, real email, tweets, instant messages, standard phone messages, photos both still and video, calendar and appointments, and almost everything else is probably inevitable; whether that will be done by Facebook, Google, or someone else is not so clear. Google keeps pulling rabbits out of the hat, and they not only give away the rabbit, they often throw in the hat as well. Then there's Microsoft. The Microsoft policy of embrace and extend has worked well in the past, and Microsoft is not dead yet. Microsoft has not abandoned the field, nor will they.

Storage is cheaper and the price is falling. The same is true for CPU cycles. The computer revolution continues, but it's no longer just for a small group of geeks and enthusiasts. Everyone gets in on it, whether they want to or not.

Breakup?

The Wall Street Journal headline was "Microsoft Breakup Not in Cards", and it featured a picture of a defiant Steve Ballmer at the November 16 shareholders meeting in Bellevue.

Microsoft is a profitable company. It doesn't pay large dividends, but it does have real earnings. Why in the world would anyone want to break it up? Of course the Justice Department did a few years ago, but that was partly because Bill Gates wouldn't play by Washington's rules. Prior to the Microsoft anti-trust case, the Microsoft DC office was strictly sales and service. There were no lobbyists. They didn't hold big events with free food and liquor for Congresscritters and Congressional Staff. Here was one of the largest companies in the nation, and it had no Washington presence.

The lawsuit fixed that. Microsoft now has a big Washington presence. It also has competition, but one suspects that the lobbying effort has more to do with the Department of Justice's loss of interest than anything else.

But now there are stockholders getting in the act. The Wall Street Journal says that "The shareholder anger comes as Wall Street re-examines Microsoft, which has been unable to reignite its share price despite record sales of its Windows 7 operating system. A Goldman Sachs analyst said last month that a spin off of the consumer businesses could potentially unlock hidden value."

It's bad enough to have the Department of Justice after your scalp, but when Goldman Sachs gets into the game, it's really time to worry.

It's possible that Goldman Sachs is correct, but that depends on facts few of us know. Some Microsoft product lines might be profitable on their own, but they also rely on being part of the Microsoft package, and having access to the inner workings of other Microsoft products. Could the keyboard and mouse product lines compete as well if they weren't Microsoft? It's possible, but it's not obvious.

It's even less obvious when you look at the Applications Division. Bill Gates used to tell this story: "When we first brought it out, I went to all the applications developers and asked them to write applications and software for Microsoft Windows. And they wouldn't do it. So I went to the Microsoft Applications Group, and they didn't have that option." Gates told that story at annual stockholders meetings and in other conferences for years, and it's clear that he never forgot it. When Gates was in charge, Microsoft ran scared; Gates was well aware that the software industry was volatile, as the hardware business had been during the turbulent early years of the computer revolution.

Under Gates Microsoft didn't often distract itself from the primary mission, which was to get a computer on every desk, and in every home, and in every classroom, all of them running Microsoft products. That was the dream and the goal, and anything that didn't lead there was a distraction. It did not take Gates long to see how important the Internet/World Wide Web would be for making computers ubiquitous. What he didn't see was the threat to Microsoft, until the Netscape people began boasting of a web based OS that would put Microsoft out of business. Gates, who always ran scared (a good strategy in my judgment) put Microsoft into web tool development in a big way, not to make money off Internet Explorer - as he said at the product launch, "the price is right," meaning free - but to keep Microsoft in the game if things went that way. In those times storage costs were high enough to make big server farms quite expensive, so cloud computing didn't spring out immediately, but Microsoft kept looking at storage and server farm software well before computer pundits saw the need.

My point is that while Microsoft might have divisions with growth potential independent of being part of the Microsoft empire, it's not easy to figure out just which ones have a bigger market potential than Microsoft itself.

When Gates stepped out of active control of the company it deteriorated, and we got Vista. The Vista scare seems to have put some of the fear of God into Steve Ballmer, and Microsoft turned back to investing in keeping what it had rather than haring off toward other markets. That's all to the good.

The Growth Fixation

The stockholder originated "break up Microsoft" episode illustrates what I think is a fundamental problem in the current American economy: the notion that the only important thing about a company is "growth." One of the fundamental theories of economics is that in a free capitalistic society, prices will be forced lower and lower because any time there is "excess profit" in an industry, new firms will be formed to exploit that. That brings about an increase in supply, which forces prices down. The system is kept in equilibrium so long as the government does not make it too difficult to get into business. Where there is government protection by excessive regulation there won't be new entries into the market, and prices will remain higher because the startup costs must include compliance with the various regulations. Compliance has a minimum cost, and generally isn't competitive: firms don't get to compete on their ability to comply with regulations, so the minimum cost of getting into the business is raised - sometimes quite a lot, as in the example of drug companies. Lack of competition keeps prices high.

All of which is very well, but it also assumes that capital will be attracted to compete with established firms that have "excess profits," while established firms will be content to serve customer needs at reasonable costs. They will be motivated to give better service at lower costs just to discourage new entries into the market. Once again the customer benefits.

This seems to be breaking down. It is no longer enough that a company make steady profits and have satisfied - or at least not outraged and hostile - customers. Microsoft achieved record sales, but that's not enough: it isn't growing fast enough. It's not sufficient that Microsoft has successfully reacted to all those attempts to take away Microsoft's profits by giving better service at lower costs - think IBM OS/2, Apple, Linux, Open Office, and the myriad products that compete with Office. Now Microsoft is under attack because, even though it has over 90% market share - it was news when Microsoft lost a fraction of a percent in a month, mostly to mobile operating systems like Google Android - that wasn't good enough. Microsoft didn't grow and doesn't look like growing.

This mania for growth drives companies to buy out their competition rather than compete by giving better service and lower prices. The computer industry is hardly unique in that. That constricts supply, keeping prices up, but it can also build bubbles and stimulate market cycles. Some of this is due to tax structure. Corporate earnings are already taxed. If they are paid out in dividends that is taxed again. "Capital gains" income is taxed at a different rate. The entire structure is favorable to Goldman Sachs, but whether it is optimal for a Republic to have more and more of the nation's wealth put in the hands of those who manipulate markets rather than make things and service markets is not clear.

Just what would "growth" mean when you have 90% market share? The only way Microsoft can grow is for the entire market to grow, and these are not rapid economic growth times. As to breaking off parts, I have one question: What does Microsoft know how to make that has a small market share and thus lots of potential growth? And if it has a small market share now while under the Microsoft umbrella, what are its chances out there in the rain?

The pressure is on Microsoft to go into higher growth areas. Of course that means moving talent from where it is keeping Microsoft's market share high by continuing the tactics that built the company to new areas where growth may be possible but Microsoft may not have so much experience. The history of Microsoft's attempts to generate growth in video creating and editing software - think Softimage - might be instructive.

Apparently it's not enough just to grab most of a market and keep sales high. Now you have to invest in "growth" enterprises or face the wrath of the stockholders - who will be the first to denounce the company for recklessness if it abandons what it does well to go into less familiar enterprises. So it goes.

The Publishing Story Continues

The latest news here is that eBooks now comprise 9-10% of the publishing market - all of it. Moreover eBook sales continue to climb. They're certainly here to stay. Sales of eBook readers are also going up, and that's true both for the "low" end (Kindle, Nook, and lower priced competitors) and high end like iPad and Tablet PC's.

All that is without really big penetration into the textbook markets.

Eric Pobirs notes:

One quibble: On reading devices, I think you have low-end and high-end devices reversed. The simple approach is that the more costly device represents the high-end of the market but these are also of lesser quality for taking in lengthy documents. What price versatility vs. having the best device for each major application?

I regard something like a Kindle as high-end in that it requires laying out some cash for a dedicated device that does one thing really well and most everything else adequately or badly, if at all. If there is anyone who purchased an iPad with reading novels as their primary application, they must be a small minority. Meanwhile, anyone who bought a Kindle for anything other than its value as a reading device should probably be monitored and not allowed sharp objects.

If reading comfort matters to those who are already going to buy something like an iPad, then forking out the additional bucks to have a separate reflective display device is a high-end purchase.

-- Eric --

High end or low end, one can imagine a number of scenarios. As laptops become ubiquitous on campus, the pressure to put the textbooks on those laptops will increase - especially now as textbook prices grow and laptop prices fall. Some technical textbooks already cost as much as the newer inexpensive readers. The justification for such textbook prices is not obvious, but production costs are often given as one reason. With eBooks the editing and formatting costs don't change, but the cost of printing, binding, and shipping falls rapidly to tiny marginal costs as numbers "in print" rise.

The market - the number of people with eBook readers - continues to climb, the cost of becoming part of that market is falling; the projection is obvious. Ten years from now the mass paperback book may have gone the way of the 45 record and tape cassette recorder.

Encryption

Microsoft builds strong encryption into Windows 7. You can use it to encrypt your hard drives. In theory this is equivalent to what the military uses, and thus entirely secure. Of course you have to take Microsoft's word for it about back doors and secret entryways: you have to believe that there aren't any, and that if there were any Microsoft wouldn't have given one of them to the Department of Homeland Security.

If you want really secure encryption, you would do better to use an Open Source program, since those will be examined for errors and back doors. One of the best of those is TrueCrypt http://www.truecrypt.org/ which is free and has a number of features. Given that the government periodically considers making it a crime to publish - in some versions even own - an encryption system to which the government does not have a key, TrueCrypt may not continue to be available. Right now it's legal and you can get it for free.

PayPal vs. American Express

I had a recent learning experience. It cost me about twenty bucks.

I have been having some problems with one of my Windows 7 systems. I am pretty sure it's hardware, but to be certain I wanted to be sure all my drivers were up to date. The proper way to do that is to go into the Windows 7 help files, search for ‘update drivers,' and follow the suggestion to go to an online Windows web site and watch the video. If you want an update for a specific driver, go to Windows Device Manager, find the device (for example go to the video devices folder and click on your video card), select the driver folder, and tell Windows to take care of updates for it. You can do that for each device.

Incidentally, the only way I knew of to open Device Manager was to use Help, or type Device Manager into the search window on Start. I couldn't seem to find the path to it. I finally looked that up in Windows 7 The Definitive Guide, and found that it's in Control Panel, System and Security, as a small item under System. It's easier to use Start and Search.

The wrong way to update device drivers is to find the device name and use Google to search for updates. Depending on the driver you are looking for, that procedure may well take you to a "free" "service" that offers to handle device updates for you, then tells you that it wants twenty dollars or so. For reasons not clear to me - the best I can think of is that I took leave of my senses - I used PayPal to send this scam some money. That didn't work very well. The "service" doesn't really work, and I found it was easier to delete the whole mess and go through my device updates one at a time.

I then tried to get my money back from PayPal. After a month of this and that PayPal, which doesn't communicate with me or anyone else so far as I can tell, informed me that just because it was a scam and didn't work was no reason to refund the money, the dispute was resolved in their favor, and thanks for all the fish. They have provisions for non-delivery and various other reasons for being unhappy with a purchase, but this wasn't one of them. Perhaps there is a magic phrase I could have used.

This isn't a condemnation of PayPal. It works, but it's an intermediary. If you use PayPal to subscribe to my web site and you just hate it, or you got overcharged, I'm not hard to get hold of, and it's easy enough for me to get PayPal to refund your money, and I presume that's true of most of the people you deal with. If you know who you are paying, you can deal with them. PayPal just handles the payment transactions, and it does that well, and generally efficiently. I couldn't operate without PayPal. If you simply want to transfer money to someone else, PayPal does it efficiently and at reasonable costs and saves the payer a lot of time finding an envelope and stamp or typing in credit card numbers. The only caution I have is that you should be sure you want to make the payment.

If you have doubts, do as I should have done with the scammy "driver update service." Use American Express to make the payment. It's what I usually do if I have any doubts about the purchase, and I have always got satisfaction from the Amex claims people. PayPal is fine for transferring money but they don't really have a good mechanism for handling complaints about people I didn't have any business sending money to in the first place. It was actually a cheap lesson. Well, not exactly a lesson, for I knew it already. A reminder.

Book Review Section

Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred: Seriously Geeky Stuff to Make with your Kids by David Erik Nelson(No Starch Press) is pretty well summed up in its subtitle. Projects range from a box kite to a marshmellow gun. There are musical instruments including talking drums. A Cthulhu sock puppet. Mystery boxes that can serve as a good introduction to minor electronics. The book is written for serious beginners - that is, people who want to learn how to tinker with stuff and are willing to put in some time and effort on the projects.

The author is a science fiction writer and former high school teacher. He says

"Every single project in this book has three key qualities:
You will make a wicked awesome Thing.
You will do it for cheap (or free).
In making this Thing you will pick up a transferable skill or fundamental understanding of the Thing and thus be able to modify or make new Wicked Awesome Things."

If you're already into tinkering, the project list may be interesting; but if you're one of those people who has always wanted to do some fussing about with stuff but didn't quite know how to begin, you definitely need this book. Recommended.

Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters 2.0 by Jay Conrad Levinson and David E. Perry Print (Kindle edition) is a second edition of a work that many consider the standard on how to market yourself. It certainly knows how to market itself which is no bad thing. It's full of war stories, unusual techniques, and check lists. If you're looking for a job and haven't had much success, this book can't hurt and might help. The tips and stories are sometimes obvious and sometimes not. The check lists are fairly valuable. The very notion of having a job hunting strategy may be a surprise to many, especially those who never expected to be looking for a job. If' you're one of those who used to be a target for head hunters and job recruiters and now find yourself wondering what happens when unemployment runs out, this book may be just what you need. No guarantees, of course. Recommended.

Windows PowerShell Cookbook by Lee Holmes (O'Reilly) is pretty much what it claims to be, but that may not mean too much to many users. Before Windows there was the command line, and at one time one of the favorite panel topics at computer shows was "GUI vs. Command Line", with various people taking one side or the other, some quite vehemently. I sat in on some of those discussions, and a couple of times I was drafted into being on the panel, sometimes with other user-journalists like John Dvorak, but I never could understand the excitement. Surely there would always be a command line utility in Windows? After a while there wasn't any more interest in the issue, and after that many lost interest in the command line.

Microsoft never did, though, and there's always been some kind of command line in the various Microsoft operating systems. If nothing else there was the "run" command, and you could build batch files and run them through that. Then there's the Windows Command Processor, which you can find easily enough. And finally there's the Windows PowerShell, which actually runs all the commands you can run from the Command Processor, but also lets you build quite complex programs incorporating more features. To get to the Windows PowerShell, click run and type in Powershell. You get a command shell window that you can do interesting things in.

Fooling around with Windows PowerShell
Fooling around with Windows PowerShell

The Windows PowerShell Cookbook is 800 pages on just what you can do with PowerShell, from simple interactive command line processes to elaborate scripts for creating or editing event logs. You can fool with Windows 7 System Services, and the neat part is that there's a "what if" command that will show you what the program would do without actually doing it, which can be a lifesaver. The Windows PowerShell is hooked deeply into the Windows 7 Operating System, and has a very large recognition vocabulary. If you have any interest in this sort of thing. This book will tell you more than you probably want to know.

Head First Networking by Al Anerson and Ryan Benedetti (O'Reilly) continues the "Brain Friendly Guide" series. My first reaction to the breezy style and light hearted approach used in these books was negative. I didn't think the books could be rigorous enough. I have changed my mind on those. They are well constructed, generally thorough in coverage, and well edited. If you can't stand the breezy informal style then you won't care for the books, but I found I can get used to it much faster than I thought, and after a while it actually grows on me.

Head First Networking covers the basics of networking at a practical level. Anyone looking for a job in which network maintenance may play a part really should know everything that's in this book. Most readers of this column will know a lot of it already, of course. If you're setting up your own network, or you have to work with other people's networks, and you have any doubts about how routers and switches and hubs work, and what IP and MAC addresses are, you need this book. It will take between a couple of days and a couple of weeks to work your way through it, exercises and all, but you'll be glad you did. This isn't a book for network administrators in large companies, but it's a very good work for the IP jack of all trades in a small outfit.

Beautiful Security by Andy Oram and John Viega (O'Reilly)(Kindle) has the subtitle: "Leading Security Experts Explain How They Think", which means that it is a mixture of techniques, reminiscences, and war stories. Some of the contributors did formal papers, and they read that way. Others just told war stories, and that's far more interesting to me. Some of the stories are horrifying, as they detail just what some enterprising people did once they discovered holes in Windows and Internet Explorer. See for instance Benjamin Edelman "Securing Online Advertising: Rustlers and Sheriffs in the New Wild West" on how Sanford Wallace and Jared Lansky exploited a particular vulnerability in Internet Explorer. They built the exploit into advertisements, which they then paid legitimate banner advertisement companies to distribute.

That was the start. Then, "Later in 2004, British IT news site The Register was hit by an exploit that installed malware on users' computers, showed pop-ups, tracked user behavior in great detail, and even converted users' computers into spam-spewing zombies."

There are also speculations on just where security needs to go in future. One requirement is to protect social network users. I am not a security expert, and understanding some of the discussions would have required me to do homework I don't have time to do, but overall I learned a good bit from this book. Some of the discussions of the underground economy and its social networking may turn up in a future novel.

Winding Down

The book of the month isn't a book. It's an on-line comic strip called Freefall. The link leads to an index page. My advice is that you begin at the beginning and go through to the end. The entire ten years worth of comics covers about two weeks of real time.

Over time the strip grows in complexity. In the beginning it seems to be a rather odd broad farce with sight gags, and the characters make no sense and have no motivations. That turns out not to be the case. There is a complete back story to every major character, and over time you'll learn about it. I will give away this much: the first character you see, Sam, is not only not human, he's not humanoid. He has an entirely different evolution, and he wears the environment suit for a reason. He also has good evolutionary reasons for acting the way he does. There are reasons why Sam isn't just thrown into prison and left to rot there. Among other things, he can sort of claim a diplomatic status. Sort of.

Sam's companion is an artificial intelligence robot, and various laws of robotics and their consistencies and contradictions make up much of the reason the strip is interesting; and if robotic AI isn't enough, the third character, who wasn't intended as the main object of interest but became so - at least for me - is an "uplift", an experiment in giving sentience and intelligence to a non-human species. Her name is Florence, and she is a Bowman's Wolf, and her back story is to me the most interesting part. You can, if you like, dig up the whole back story complete with the author's notes, but I think you'll find all this more interesting if you just read it through from the beginning. Florence is more insightful than most humans, and she is slowly discovering more about herself. By reading the story in order the revelations are even more interesting. The strip's origins as a comic farce surface once in a while, and that can actually be shocking - that is, the story is absorbing enough that it's not hard to begin suspending disbelief, and the farcical episodes tend to negate that. Perhaps it's just as well, since it's fairly long, and very absorbing. Highly recommended.

The game of the month is Sid Meier's Civilization V, but having said that, I don't really find it all that much better than the classic earlier versions. It does prevent you from using the "giant killer stack of doom" strategy of moving an invincible army around the planet, but it does that by preventing any kind of military stack. That puts a huge premium of having a high tech experienced army, which is realistic some of the time, but we all know that it doesn't always work, as with the USSR in Afghanistan. Ah well.

The movie of the month has to be the latest Harry Potter film, but seeing it is as much duty as it is fun. Harry and his friends have become surly teen agers, and while that's realistic, and there's some interest in what happens if you have teen agers with magic powers, it's not always pleasant or fun. As always the movie is very true to the book; and since this last volume was easily the least pleasant of the series, the result is inevitable. The grand climax of the book made the whole thing worth it, but you don't get that in this movie. When ditsy Luna becomes the most interesting character, you do wonder. The last Potter movie will be released next June.