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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

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

January 30, 2011

Subject: More justification for breaking up Microsoft?


Paul Thurrott, owner of "WinSuperSite", recently posted some pretty harsh criticism of the way that Microsoft has managed the Windows Phone 7 platform since it launched 3 months ago. What caught my eye was this:

The problem is, Microsoft isn't so much a company as it is a sprawling empire of often-warring fiefdoms that rarely talk to each other let alone collaborate in any useful way. It is full of intelligent, driven, and wonderful people who are driven to change the world for the better through technology. Sadly, because of the company's size and the sheer weight of its corporate hierarchy, Microsoft is also a company that can't get anything done quickly. It moves like the proverbial ocean liner, and must communicate its desires to change course well in advance.

Recent slow-moving responses to market changers like iPods (Zune), smartphones (Windows Phone, more than three years after iPhone), the iPad (still nothing), and the Wii (Kinect, more than four years later) all make the point. Microsoft, once a leader, is now a follower. And sometimes it can't even do that effectively. Sure, it still generates tons of cash from legacy products such as Windows and Office. But so does IBM. Profitable and huge, yes. But boring.

This reminded me of a book I read several years ago called "Big Blues: The Unmaking of IBM". A central theme was that, after it became large and dominant, IBM took its eyes off the outside world, and managers turned inward, devoting way too much time to internal political battles. It sounds like something similar may be happening at Microsoft.

It does seem to me that, when it was younger, Microsoft was a very paranoid company, perceiving threats to its existence on every side. (Maybe this had to do with Gates's competitive personality?) When Netscape and the rise of the Internet seemed a threat to their dominance, the company responded to that very quickly. But its behavior lately suggests more complacency than paranoia. Seems like they need something to reignite a sense of urgency....

CP, Connecticut

Bill Gates always ran scared. He knew from the early days that computer companies could bubble way up and then vanish. He saw it happen often enough. He also provided the vision for the company.

1. On the dedicated word processor vs computer question ... . I faced that issue c. 1980 when I first encountered a word processor, a dedicated Wang, while visiting for a quarter at UC Irvine. I concluded that a dedicated word processor would cost about as much as a personal computer that could run a word processing program, so I bought an LNW80.

I also concluded that, prior to the invention of the word processor, no books were written. It's just too much work.

2. On the question of graphics capability without a separate processor ... . My MacBook Air 11", a lovely little machine, can run WoW at respectable frame rates.

3. On the question of what to read Ebooks on ... . You don't mention the third alternative--a pda or smartphone. The screen is a bit small, but not unworkably so, and it's a lot more portable than either an iPad or a Kindle. I've been doing it since back in Psion 3 days.

David Friedman

I sometimes read books on iPhone with Kindle app or even direct books, but I only do that when I’m standing in lines or caught somewhere without a book. I like reading on Kindle or iPad, but the iPhone is a bit small for me.

I continue to hold the view that general purpose computers are better than dedicated task computers, but that breaks down at the commodity consumer level. A large wide screen TV does its job well, better in general than a desktop computer with big monitor can. Over time, even computers become commodities. Specialized machines do their specialty well, often spectacularly better than a general purpose system, so the decision rests on price. My first S-100 bus CP/M general purpose computer cost $12,000 (of which $6,000 was the Diablo printer), so the decision wasn’t trivial. Now hardware is cheap enough that dedicated systems can be preferable.

Peter Glaskowsky comments:

David Friedman mentions the LNW-80. I bought an LNW-80 kit and when I first powered it up after I assembled it, all the tantalum capacitors blew up, splattering molten metal all over the board (and some on me). The silkscreen on the board was wrong. The place where I bought the kit (in Denver) and LNW Research agreed the silkscreen was wrong. But they wouldn't give me my money back. I bought a Max-80 instead, and remain resentful. :-)

-- png --

Marty Winston on CES

I made a last-second decision to come and flew in Wednesday. I had done 4 months of homework on CES, contacting vendors to ask what they would show and in some cases getting products in early to review. (I've learned to ask for three times as many products as I can cover in order to get enough to fill my 5 weekly slots). I made specific plans not to eat the "Press Chow" - a few hundred meals for 5000 badged participants seemed like bad math.

The single most exciting product of the show for me was a cold cathode light bulb with power consumption on a par with LED bulbs, higher brightness bulbs available now, longer runtimes (35-50,000 hours) and pricing $12-20 per bulb. Game changers.

In terms of best - my own picks of the (never more than 100) hottest/coolest new products of the year will return next year, in 2012 - Cherry Picks will be back, its hiatus ended.

Tablets: Not sure if you saw it, but I saw the RIM PlayBook - smaller screen - more practical to carry - I'm fond of it.

3D: the problem is that with all the technologies, the display looks like layers of 2D planes and the acceptable viewing angle never reaches more than 45 degrees off-center.

WiFi at CES: I tend to turn it off - helps battery life.

New CPU in old motherboard: JJ at ASUS says these can handle it but recommends making sure the firmware is current.

Martin Winston, Editor
Newstips Bulletin

I saw but was unable to determine the shipping reality of a number of tablets, some looking quite attractive, but it’s hard to tell what they’ll really be like until I have some experience with them. I note that others have come to the same conclusions.

The right place to eat lunch at CES is Pat Meier-Johnson’s Lunch at Piero’s. She never invites too many, and the exhibits are usually pretty interesting. When I went over to Piero’s I discovered that The Beach, a nightclub across from the Convention Center, was entirely gone. Apple used to take over the whole place and put exhibits in it while leaving the games machines going and providing entertainment. It was an odd experience. I first saw several new Apple products at The Beach. Now it’s a parking lot.

Apple doesn’t go to CES, and their presence at Macworld Expo has changed greatly. Peter Glaskowsky comments:

Apple has a permanent booth at Macworld Expo! It's four blocks away, but it's much nicer than all the other booths. Of course, I mean Apple's retail store in San Francisco.

-- png --

Microsoft graphing calculator app now free

[Microsoft link]

They used to ask $20 for this but it is now a freebie. Pretty much a must for any student carrying around a compatible machine.

Eric Pobirs


Thoughts on ebooks

Dr. Pournelle:

I received a Nook (WiFi model) last October. I have used it almost daily since then. I have purchased about 12 books. Here's some thoughts:

- I find the process of reading the book quite easy. The font used is easy to read, and I like the ability to easily change the size of the font. That is very useful if I happen to not have my reading glasses nearby. I usually have it set at the 'large' font setting (looks to be about 12 pts) and use my reading glasses (strength +2.50). Without glasses, the next size up is readable. The only disadvantage is a the font size I use, there is a bit more page turning than a paperback or hardbound. The buttons to turn the page are easy to reach and to use.

- The 12 books that I have purchased are a mix of current best sellers, and some older publications. The best seller prices were above $12. I tend to read books only once; some authors will get a second read. I read mostly fiction, with some being 'series' books with recurring characters. If I like a particular character, I will often read previous books in that series, usually in order of publication. This is a pattern I have followed with hard-copy books, and have done the same with the ebooks I have purchased.

- In the past (pre-e-book), I have purchased new books from the bookstore. I have also purchased at used book stores, and used book exchanges (like BookMooch) where I will send out books I have read, and receive used books I have not read yet. Again, I usually only read a book once, and then I am done with that book. I will lend or give books that I have read to others.

- The cost of e-books can give me a bit of pause before purchase. I have been the same way with printed books. There may be a new book that I wish to read, but I often will wait until the paperback version before purchase. In the past, I have seldom purchased new hardbound best-seller books, athough there are a few authors that I espcially enjoy that will get my hardbound purchase. But more often, I will purchase books on sale, especially hard-bound books in the 'bargain bin'.

With e-books, my "I'll buy it" price level seems to be about $9.00. If an e-book costs more than that, I will often defer the purchase, or puchase another book at or below that $9.00 price point. I have read some free e-books -- and if I enjoy the book, I may purchase another book from the same author. Some 'free' books are just 'teasers' -- not full copies of a book, or an 'intro' version of the book. Those 'teaser' books tend to irritate me; especially if they are not a full version of the book.

- I enjoy that the Nook is easy to carry around. It is always in my work bag / valise, I will take it with me on a solo lunch jaunt, and it will often accompany me to that small room in the house with a fan. It is easy to use, easy to view, and it appears that I will purchase e-books much more often than a hard copy book.

Regards, Rick Hellewell

My guess is that the “I’ll buy that” level is headed down, down, but that sales will go up as they do. I’d rather sell 20,000 copies at $2 than 1,000 copies at $9.00, and evidence is coming in that this isn’t an unusual ratio. We’re in early days of eBook publishing.

I’m getting A Step Farther Out into Kindle format, and I’ll put the Amazon minimum $2.99 price on it to see what happens. I’ll also be working on a new introduction to Two Steps Farther Out, another commented collection of my Galaxy columns, which I hope can be released not long after I get Step on Kindle. Preparing books for eBook publication isn’t difficult, but there is a learning curve; my daughter took three iterations before she got OUTIES to look right. The difficulties are mostly cosmetic, but of course we’re dealing with books: they ought to look right.

Rick Hellewell notes

Amazon has a "Kindle Previewer" here.

The basic instructions for formatting/reading the Kindle Book format from Amazon are here.


Gutenberg on Kindle iPad


This is in response to your post on getting Gutenberg books in to your Kindle on the iPad. I too was confused on how to do this, as the press release led me to infer it would be supported natively in the application. This is unfortunately not the case as far as I can tell. However, there are now two ways to get them:

1. Via the Safari browser. Open Safari on your iPad and go to www.gutenberg.org (or other sites for that matter). Find the book you want to download in Kindle format and click to download it. The book will now be on your iPad / Kindle software. 2. Open iTunes (on the Mac...unsure if this works on Windows). Make sure the iPad is plugged in, then go to the Apps tab on the Ipad within Itunes, then the File Sharing portion below, then click on Kindle. You can then upload books to the Kindle software on the iPad.

I'm really pleased that Amazon has added this feature; however, I don't think they got it right. A couple of points:

a. As they are marketing it as supporting Gutenberg, I feel they should have the Gutenberg library tightly integrated with something like adding a Gutenberg tab. I realize they don't do this with their store; however, I believe Apple prohibits the direct selling through apps, so they have to make a round trip to the browser and have it "pushed". This is not the case with free items, as other readers support Gutenberg directly.

b. The titles of the book do not show up in the Home screen on the software, instead you get a nameless icon that looks like an old palm device, so with a couple of books you have no idea which is which title.

Tip: If you prefer a cleaner mobile feel to browsing Gutenberg, go to http://m.gutenberg.org on your iPad...you get a lot more on the screen and can still download the books.

I believe b) not showing titles effectively breaks the solution, and hope that Amazon fixes it quickly. In the mean time, I'll continue using the free Stanza reader for Gutenberg books, but I sure would like the reading experience to all be in one application.


Ronald McCarty

The Stanza app works, as does the iStore app on iPad, but my favorite reading device is the Kindle App on the iPad. I like the scroll through the book button at the bottom, and I wish mightily that all readers had that feature. Indeed, I wish there were a standard, and I suspect that eventually there will be. It’s early days in the eBook revolution.

It had to happen

Jerry -

Ever since I committed to converting my Dad's books to Kindle, I've been wondering when there'd be a widely publicized DRM crack.

I just noticed this on the "Lifehacker" blog:

"Amazon's Kindle jumpstarted the ebook revolution, but that doesn't make it the eReader of choice for everyone. If you've got some Kindle books you'd like to use with a different device, here's how to remove the DRM so you can."

Naturally, once the DRM is gone, one can not only convert to other e-book formats, but can convert to formats that allow doing things like printing.

I haven't planned to use DRM on our books, but anyone who is publishing on Kindle and feels that DRM is important will want to know about this.

BTW, I haven't yet verified that it works.

David Smith

I do not foresee a long future for DRM of eBooks. I think it is more trouble than it is worth. Of course hacking it was inevitable: Robert Thompson says the DRM was cracked within a day of its public appearance.

flash cookies

[Register link]

But I'll still use my comedycentral.com test to make sure they're dead. And 99% of the users won't bother, just like UAC.

Don Miller

Most people say they fear tracking but they don’t act as if they do.

JVM written in Java

One of your correspondents in your Dec 2010 mail bag opines that a JVM written in Java may not be possible. Perhaps he should check out Maxine

Now granted, a small portion of this project is written in C - I am not sure if that's an absolute requirement because Java is incapable of doing certain things, or if it's merely to make the resulting JVM more performant.

Joshua Vanderberg


December mailbag, Java / Modula-2

Hi, Jerry. I just saw the mailbag.

| Interesting. I’m not a Java programmer, but I hadn’t thought that it | had strong type and range checking, and declaration requirements?

Java does have strong types and declaration requirements, at least for most values of strong.

What Java doesn't have is range types in the sense that Modula-2 does, where you can define integral types with a specified range and then do efficient mathematical operations on them and generate a runtime error if the range constraint is violated.

Java does know the acceptable range for its native numeric types (byte, short, integer, long, float, double) and will throw a runtime exception if the range of those types is violated, and Java does have support for enumerations, which satisfy many of the uses one would ordinarily have for limited range integral types.

Beyond that, one can uses classes to write new types in Java that can enforce whatever mathematical constraints you like.

For instance, I might create a type 'myInt' which allows a range of 0 to 17:

 public class myInt
   private int val;

   /* -- */

   public myInt(int val)
     this.val = validateVal(val);
   public void add(int val)
     this.val = validateVal(this.val + val);

   public void set(int val)
     this.val = validateVal(val);

   public int get()
     return this.val;

   private int validateVal(int val)
      if (val < 0 || val > 17)
          throw new RuntimeException("Value out of range: " + val);

      return val;

But then to use this type, my code would look like

 x = new myInt(5);

Something equivalent in Modula 2 would look more like

  x: [0..17];
 x := 5;
 x := x + 5

which is much simpler syntactically, but the object oriented tools Java gives you can be applied across a far wider set of problem domains.

I could write a class implementing an integer type that would refuse to hold anything other than prime numbers, for instance, and use it similarly.

Ironically, C++ supports something called operator overloading, which allows C++ programmers to define custom types that can be manipulated with ordinary mathematical operators while still implementing custom logic for value and range checking.

C++ gives you a lot of rope, but it also gives you a lot of tools to try to deal with it all. I am assured by practicing C++ developers that modern styles of C++ usage have very little in common with the bad old days of C.

I'm not sure I believe them well enough to want to use C++ for the sort of work I typically do, though. I prefer the type and runtime safety that I get with Java.

Others quite reasonably weigh the pros and cons differently for their needs.


Jonathan Abbey

Thank you. Clearly you have far more programming experience than I have, although there was a time when I was keeping up. My real point is that there ought to be far more progress in computer languages that use the compiler to catch bugs, so that if the program compiles it is likely to do what you intended it to do.

There doesn’t seem to be so much work on such matters now, which is odd, because we have the computing power to make the compilers do a lot more work checking logic. Programs ought to be easily understood. When I was programming it was certainly easier to understand programs in Pascal and Modula-2 than to read a C program and figure out what it was doing. C++ and C# are a lot clearer, but they can still be confusing.

At one time every major programming shop had considerable investment in developing natural language programming tools, but I don’t hear much about that now.

I was speaking to my partner about programming languages the other day. We both agreed something like pascal or modula is what people need for applications, C was designed to be a step up for systems level programing. Writing an O/S is different from writing applications. You have to do things to the processor that no sane program should ever do, and you have to do it quickly and often. We suspect that Ada failed because it tried to replace both the O/S level and the application level.


I never thought that systems programming would be done in anything but assembler or something like that. On the other hand, it is precisely in the OS that it is critical that the program do what you expected it to so. That is a dilemma I do not know how to get out of.

But for applications programs, there is no reason they ought to be written in anything but a simple and comprehensible language that uses every kind of checking a compiler is capable of.

Task Manager -

Good evening,

First: Happy New Year.

Second: By now thousands will have told you that right clicking on the task bar brings up a context menu with Task Manager on it...

Tested on XP, Vista, and 7.

Best Regards

Mark Baller

I confess I hadn’t known that. I am not sure why. It’s clear once you cotton on to it. One problem with being an early user of something is that you develop long term habits, and when they change the interface it’s hard to break them and learn new ones. Thanks. It’s a good thing to know.

Two items in today’s mailbag brought back memories from an earlier incarnation long ago and far away. I am referring to the mention of JFK jr crash and your trip in the Cessna Citation.

From 1956 until 1958, I was an instructor in the F86D/L All Weather School at Tyndall AFB Florida. My first thought when I heard about Kennedy’s crash was vertigo! Flying in hazy conditions without a horizon or ground lights is almost certain to induce vertigo even to an experienced pilot. I have had it so bad that I couldn’t keep the wing level without continuously watching the attitude indicator. Just taking my eyes off the attitude indicator long enough to change the radio channel resulted in rolling the plane into a bank of 30 degree or more.

We were getting close to the automated systems you described in your story about a trip in a Cessna Citation Mustang. It also brought back memories of an earlier navigation system in the F86L. Later versions could couple the autopilot to the VOR navigation system and the ILS instrument landing system. In 1957, I took an F86L to Miami for an Armed Force Day display. After taking off from Tyndall AFB and turning on course to the first checkpoint, I turned on the autopilot and coupled it to the VOR. I didn’t touch the stick again until I flared for landing after an automatic ILS approach at Miami. When it worked, it was great but everything used vacuum tubes and they often failed. I continued to fly with the AF and Air National Guard until 1979 and none of the later planes had the capabilities of the F86L.

Chuck Anderson

Digital transcriber

Dr. Pournelle:

Now that I am doing nonfiction freelancing, I've found some valuable tech items that have made life easier. While wearing your journalist hat you may find them useful.

I've abandoned my Pearlcorder and Panasonic microcassette recorders for an Olympus DS-30 digital voice recorder. It holds 17 hours of recording time and is much superior to either of my recorders. The recording fidelity is much higher than tapes. There's also no worry about keeping track of recording time to flip a tape from side A to B.

It is much smaller than the cassette recorders and the battery life [2, AAA batteries] is much greater. Files are copied easily and quickly to my PC using the Olympus recorder's USB port.

The only drawback is that it has no "pause" function that would allow transcription from the recorder. That lack of a pause led me to seek digital transcription software. I found Express Scribe Transcription Playback Software 5.10, distributed for free by NHC Software [http://www.nch.com.au/scribe/index.html].

The application has all if the functionality of my old Panasonic Microcassette Transcriber. Once launched, the user can load an audio file [of many flavors] and then the word processor of choice. While in the word processor, some function keys continue to control things in Express Scribe, such as pause, play, fast-forward, and rewind without the need to toggle between the transcriber software and the word processor.

Users can control volume, payback speed, backspace control, and other options.

At first I thought I would miss the foot-pedal controls of the tape transcriber, but the function keys now seem more convenient. A variety of add-on foot-pedal controls are available from a third-party link on the NCH website and the company even offers instructions for a homemade version.

I can highly recommend the combination of the Olympus recorder and Express Scribe software for anyone who needs to record interviews or make other audio records and transcribe them.

Pete Nofel

Thank you. I long ago went to a digital pocket recorder: I used the Olympus WS-100 which is ancient. It just resurfaced and I find it still works quite well. The transcription software sounds useful. When I worked with Steve Possony he often dictated chapters, and I had a transcription setup that made life (in those days of Selectric typewriters) much easier, but I later relied on Dragon Naturally Speaking for both a recorder and the transcription.

I may try this, though, since one thing I used to do was take a walk with a good digital camera and a recorder. I would take pictures, commenting on the pictures, making a kind of photojournal of the trip. Those were once popular, but I haven’t been doing them for some time. I should try that again, assuming I find any more time. I could have done that at CES, and if I ever go to a CES again I may try it. The iPhone has a perfectly good voice recorder, but I remember that the tiny little Olympus was very convenient just to make notes to listen to. Argh. I’ve just recalled why I quit using it. No way to export the recordings. I’d forgotten that. The Dragon recorder used flash memory cards.

What all this really indicates is that I have got out of the habit of dictating notes, which is odd: I once carried a microcassette recorder for that very purpose when I walked in the hills. I recall dictating scenes for novels as I walked. Then I used the HP iPAQ. Now I use the iPhone to type notes to myself, the iPAQ is lost in a box of stuff I no longer use, and the Olympus just surfaced because I was looking for something else and remembered that I once thought it was neat. I seem to have been at this for a long time and my work habits have changed a lot.



I suspect that within 5 years, a motherboard will simply be a square card about 10x10cm in size, and it will have a chip socket in the middle and various lines leading off that for the various devices, because the processor, GPU, memory, north bridge, south bridge, BIOS and controllers will all be in that single chip package. This will make for better hardware reliability, and fewer CPU pins needed. Be interesting to see a processor that has 16GB of RAM built in, but then again why not.

I've long questioned something, why we still use disk based operating systems, in 1977 the Commodore Pet would boot before the screen warmed up, because it booted off a ROM, with all the advances in memory technology, you would think it would make more sense to have a computer that contains a 16GB firmware chip, the operating system kernel boots, decompresses the OS off the firmware chip and runs from there. To upgrade the OS you just boot the DVD which then rewrites the firmware chip, when it's done it restarts running off the chip. Seconds from on to running.



I always thought the future lay with ROM based operating systems, but it didn’t happen that way. I expect the reason for that is the frequency of revisions and updates, which are required far more often than we expected them to be.

Peter Glaskowsky notes

Paul wrote "I suspect that within 5 years, a motherboard will simply be a square card about 10x10cm in size, and it will have a chip socket in the middle and various lines leading off that for the various devices, because the processor, GPU, memory, north bridge, south bridge, BIOS and controllers will all be in that single chip package."

Well, sure, there could be machines like that, but they won't be very popular.

By 1990 it would have been trivially easy to do a single-chip CP/M machine, but who would have bought it? People want modern capabilities, not the features of ten years ago reduced to $10.

Also, integration means a reduction in flexibility. A single-chip cellphone is quite possible these days (apart from maybe the RF amplifiers and a few other items) but with all the phones using a particular chip having the same features, they'd all share the same commodity pricing. No company wants to get into that business when there's real profit available in more expensive models.

So if users don't want maximal integration, and system vendors don't want it either, who wants it?

He also says "you would think it would make more sense to have a computer that contains a 16GB firmware chip" -- alas, individual cheap flash chips aren't very fast, as you can see by running disk benchmarks on USB flash drives and the cheap SSDs sometimes found in netbooks. Fast SSDs use many flash chips in parallel, which is why they're expensive. This isn't a bad idea, but in practice there aren't any appropriate high-bandwidth flash devices out there.

. png

This is of course, a variant of the dedicated systems vs. general purpose systems discussion. While a $10 CP/M machine the size of a thumb drive might not be the answer to many problems, it very well could be the answer to some if the alternative is a $25 dedicated chip. It’s a matter of manufacturing and intellectual property costs when you’re down at the consumer level. CP/M machines couldn’t do graphics, but they had a lot of computing power compared to an abacus...