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Computing At Chaos Manor:
March 21, 2011

The User's Column, February/March 2011
Column 366
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2011 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

This column is terribly late, and will be the February/March column for 2011. I have been unable to do as much work as I would like, and this may also be shorter than my usual columns. My apologies to readers.

As I write this, Japan is beginning to recover from a disastrous earthquake and tsunami. I extend my sympathies to all my Japanese readers, and express my admiration for the heroic achievements of the response teams including the nuclear power plant workers. There is a great deal of fact and judgment on the Japanese nuclear situation in my View at www.jerrypournelle.com.

The January column traditionally presents my reviews of the year and the Chaos Manor User’s Choice selections along with the annual Orchid and Onion Parade. We didn’t get to that in January, so they will be presented now. User’s Choice awards are based on my personal experiences. The Orchid and Onions are my choices but many of the nominations come from readers.

Product and Trend of the Year

The Chaos Manor User’s Choice Product of the Year goes to the Apple iPad, which, I am sure, comes as no surprise. The iPad has sold millions of units and has led some people to carry the iPad as their only road warrior system. I hasten to say that I don’t accept that. I need more capability on the road than iPad gives. On the other hand, I carry my iPad anywhere I will be taking a brief case or larger carry bag.

The most significant technology development of last year was the continued restructuring of the publishing industry. By December 2010 eBooks were outselling both trade and paperback books on Amazon, and the trends of all eBook sales were up. The iPad contributed greatly to this trend, but the Reader War between Amazon and Barnes and Noble to drop the price of eBook readers attracted many others. Of course the more eBook reading machines there are out there, the more eBooks will be sold. A great many iPads and Kindles were given as Christmas presents, and most of those generated several eBook sales. Now everyone is rushing into the eBook business, and it all changes like dreams. A fairly good summary of what was going on last fall is rapidly going out of date as the publishing world changes.

More and more eBook readers are being sold, and the price is falling. The iPad 2 is out, and iPad sales continue to rise.


Electronic book sales continue to rise while traditional publishing tries to restructure. Some publishers will get in on it. Some will go under.

I still buy printed books, but I find lately that most of my purchases are eBooks. I also find myself reading more classic works, including some I already have in my library, because it’s easier to read them on a good eBook reader than to find a book I haven’t seen in years among the thousands in my library.

I do most of my eBook reading on the iPad using the appropriate eBook app, but I use the iPad for more than reading books. My wife prefers the Kindle. I have friends who prefer other reader platforms, and meanwhile I keep wishing for a “real tablet” that would function as the pocket computer we described in Mote in God’s Eye back in 1974. More and more tablets are coming out. One recent article says

'We could have four competing tablet platforms six months from now — iOS, Android, WebOS, and Playbook — and not one of them is from Microsoft.'

I agree, and I will add that I would not count Microsoft out. Gates was the big tablet fan at Microsoft and now that he isn’t running the company the tablet enthusiasts have less influence and access to resources, but they aren’t gone, and Ballmer can read the trends in publishing as well as you and I can. Plenty of people have gone broke betting against Microsoft; and Microsoft has a long history of waiting for trends to develop before deciding to “embrace and extend” after someone else blazes a trail. Microsoft historically likes to set standards for the rest of the industry.

One trend is obvious: eBook readers are getting cheap. The trend line goes to zero later this year. (Ref: The Technium) Clearly it won’t get to zero, but there are already package deals offering a number of books and a subscription to various publications in a bundle with an eBook reader. You may expect to see more such. The reader won’t be free, but the cost may be buried in the package.

2010 Personal

My recovery from brain cancer and from the 50,000 rad of hard x-rays that cured it – or at least removed it – continues. My checkups continue to indicate that I am cancer free. I am also recovering from the effects of the radiation that got rid of The Lump for me. My thanks to all who have wished me well, and to all my readers and subscribers.

User’s Choice Awards

The Chaos Manor User’s Choice Awards go to products which have been useful to me. Unless explicitly stated, they do not imply “best” in the sense that there is not somewhere out there a better product or one just as good that sells cheaper. There’s just too much out there for that. What I can say is that any product that gets one of my User’s Choice Awards has served me well.

Disk Defragmenter

As usual this goes to Golden Bow’s VOPT. I have used VOPT for more than three decades now. It has always worked well, and I have never lost a byte of data because of this program. Defragmentation is nowhere near as important as it was when hard drives were small and expensive, but it is useful to arrange that frequently loaded programs and data files are not fragmented: they load faster and loading a defragmented program puts less strain on the disk drive elements. Microsoft furnishes a pretty good defragmenter, but I have always preferred to entrust my data to Golden Bow.

Antec Cases and Power Supplies

Every Windows desktop at Chaos Manor was built here. All use Antec power supplies. For the past several years I have chosen Antec cases and power supplies for the Chaos Manor User’s Choice awards for the year, and this year is no exception. Antec gets the 2011 Chaos Manor User’s Choice Award for both cases and power supplies. I will also add this tip: I have never regretted choosing a power supply of too large a capacity, and I have several times been glad because I was able to upgrade an old system with new equipment such as additional drives or a more powerful video card without having to change power supplies.

Falcon UPS

One of Pournelle’s Laws is that if your work is at all valuable it is worth protecting with an uninterruptible power supply or UPS. All of the UPS systems in use at Chaos Manor come from Falcon Electric and have for several years. If your work is important it’s worth protection with a Falcon: their systems just work, and my experience has been that their batteries last considerably longer than those of other brands. Falcon gets the User’s Choice Award and a Chaos Manor Orchid.

Kingston Memory

The best improvement you can make to most computer systems is to add some memory. There are a lot of good sources of memory, and most memory you buy will work no matter what brand and price. Alas, that’s not always true, and although they are rare, an intermittent memory problem is one of the most difficult problems to troubleshoot you will ever have. To avoid that problem I have always use premium brand memory in any important system: it doesn’t cost that much more, and it’s one less thing to worry about. I long ago chose Kingston as my primary memory source. I have never had any reason to change that decision. I have no hesitation in giving Kingston memory the Chaos Manor User’s Choice Award for 2011.

Building Your Own PC

If you build your own Windows desktop systems – and given the sorry state of technical support in today’s computer industry you ought seriously to consider doing that. If you do build your own system you will need Building the Perfect PC, Third Edition by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson (O’Reilly). If you are wondering if you can build your own system, you should get this book; it shows you just what is involved. This is an easy choice for the User’s Choice Award. See also the December 2010 column.

Orchids and Onions

A big Chaos Manor orchid to Intel, for their continuing improvements in everything, and a particularly large one for Sandy Bridge. Of course Intel also gets an Onion for putting out the Sandy Bridge chipset (the supporting chips, not the processor itself) with significant bugs – but then another Orchid for speedily rectifying the problem, recalling the systems, and letting everyone know about it.

Orchids for Apple’s new Macbook Air. I am tempted to trade in my older Macbook Air. The new ones are smaller, lighter, and while they won’t quite fit in a pocket they come close. Actually, my older Air is still cool and quite Good Enough for what I do, but the new line is sharp.

Reader Orchid and Onion Parade

Every year I collect nominations for Chaos Manor Orchids and Onions. I go through the nominations, and select the ones I think most interesting or deserving. Most items which make the selection list have multiple nominations; I choose what I think is the appropriate nomination letter to publish.

By far the largest number of nominations were for the Apple iPad. I have no problems at all giving the iPad a Chaos Manor User’s Choice Award as well as a large and very well deserved orchid.

For what it is worth here are my votes for 2010:

1. Orchids

Kindle 3. Makes reading a snap and can be read for much longer than the iPad.

Canon T2i. Very high performance amateur DSLR for an almost reasonable price.

Apple iPad (of course). Brilliant device that has redefined pad computing. I disagree heartily that it is suitable for reading books (my eyes feel like they are falling out of my head after 45 minutes) but is excellent for email, reading news and magazines, watching personal movies via Netflix etc.

Apple MacBook Air. Amazing devices. Provides all the iPad functions in a package that is not much bigger (the 11” model anyway) and has a real keyboard.

Nikon D7000. Just the right camera for the prosumer crowd. Small and easy to handle, superb performance etc.

Android phones who have made a credible effort to provide competition for the ubiquitous iPhone. Competition breeds innovation and that is to all our benefit. In danger of fragmentation though which cause them to loose critical mass.

2. Onions

Canon 60D. A step backward in the prosumer dslr camera war. Far outclassed by the new Nikon D7000 and Pentax K5.

Microsoft Windows 7 Phone. They are 3 + years too late and have the features of the original iPhone in 2007. What is wrong with them? Microsoft also do not have the ability to set up the eco system that Apple has created. The iPhone is not the best phone but it is the best all round phone, browser, email, media device on the market and it has a vast eco system to support it. Microsoft's effort is too little too late and there is no compelling reason to move to it from the iPhone.

New Apple TV. I liked the ability to buy movies and shows with the old ATV. The new one is a streaming only device which requires you to either stream from iTunes/Netflix or buy them on your computer and stream to the box. To me a pointless step backwards and the fact that they have stopped supporting the old ATV (no Airplay for example) is a travesty and totally un Apple like. Very disappointed.

Most of the TV media and studio companies who seem to be trying to fragment and destroy the internet. Let's not make our content available since that will make people buy cable or use an antenna!! They need to wake up, now.

Chrome OS. Why? Use Android....

iPhone 4. Not a significant enough step forward and traded size for resilience. Antenna-gate is a media hyped non event but the phone is not a significant enough step up from the previous model. Form over function, always an Apple weakness, has reached a pinnacle here (even though I own one!!)

All the best,

Peter Jackson

I have no experience with the Canon 60 D camera, although all my previous experience with Canon products has been good. Cameras are so good now that the worst of them is far better than what all but a few ever had until recently. I have several other recommendations of the Canon 60 D. Having said that, I continue to like my Panasonic Lumix at half the price. Looks official, takes good pictures, and just works.

I can agree that Microsoft has a lot of catching up to do in the Smartphone business, and they don’t seem to be making much progress.

I would not go so far as to give Apple’s iPhone 4 an onion; the camera is a distinct improvement and the screen is brilliant. I have decided to make do with the iPhone 3 until the 5 comes out sometime this spring, but that’s largely because my Sony Cyber-shot pocket camera is still working reasonably well (it’s a bit harder to change menu settings) and while it would be useful to leave it behind and rely on my iPhone as my point and shoot camera, it’s not a pressing need.

Orchids and CES

Dr. Pournelle,

I have a (perhaps) unusual nomination for an Orchid, since I believe the competition is more for utility than recreational programs. I don’t know if you are familiar with the Mass Effect series from BioWare; they are action roleplaying games focusing on a human military leader’s effort to protect the galaxy after only one generation of humanity’s introduction into a multi-species interstellar civilization. The first game details Cdr. Shepard’s efforts to stop a traitor from aiding an awesome species threatening all sentient life in the galaxy. Mass Effect 2 was released in January 2010 and continued the story with Cdr. Shepard trying to find out why human colonies are disappearing without a trace. I’m nominating it for an Orchid for two reasons:

The story is completely compelling; it has been compared to The Empire Strikes Back both for its darker tone from Mass Effect as well as its way of progressing the story (the enemies from the first game are not necessarily as evil in the second).

Both games allow the story to change based on choices the player makes as the game progresses, but Mass Effect 2 is unique in my experience in that those choices will follow through the series: there is one subplot in Mass Effect that players may believe exists simply to get the character experience, but their choice may cause a follow-on encounter in Mass Effect 2 that not only causes another reflection on a supposed enemy but suggests a major impact for Mass Effect 3 (tentatively expected to be released Christmas 2011).

I would argue that Mass Effect 2 (if not the series as a whole) should be nominated for a Hugo or Nebula award (if they had an appropriate category), which is why you should consider it for an Orchid.

My second nomination is for an honorable mention simply because of circumstances; it is The Literacy Connection. I got it for my niece, who was diagnosed with high-functional autism. The therapist felt she was not ready for the program, but used the materials that came with it in her therapy. When I visited my sister for Christmas, my niece was just as communicative as any other four-year-old, with no signs (that I as a layman) could see of any social or cognitive disability. I hope to nominate it for an Orchid next year once she has had a chance to use the program to learn to read.

On a separate note, I thought you might be interested in a story G4 ran as part of their CES coverage. There is a Japanese effort to produce 3D displays in midair; the story is online at http://g4tv.com/attackoftheshow/ces2011/73289/Japans-Laser-3D-Image-Display-Preview---CES-11.html. R2D2 projecting Princess’ Leia’s message to Obi-Wan Kenobi can’t be too far behind.

Best regards,

Bruce Jones

Thanks. I have fallen far behind in keeping track of computer games, so I can’t comment on Mass Effect. Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey says

I like the story and game-play of Mass Effect 2 as well - you might not have as much fun because some of it is FPS, and simply requires fast twitch skills. But there's the balance of the game: conversational tactics, hunting for resources, and what research projects for new weapons, medical, or other capabilities get those resources.

That sounds like a game I would like a lot, I would look into it, but I’d have to cheat to be able to play any game that requires good reflex skills. Alas.

I certainly concur that The Literacy Connection deserves honorable mention, and indeed I have given it several orchids. For those who don’t know, it is Mrs. Pournelle’s reading program, and I heartily endorse it as a way to insure that your kids will learn to read.

Hello Jerry

I have a nomination for an Orchid: Macrium Reflect, a backup package. See www.macrium.com.

A bit of background: most backup software today seems to think that making a full copy of the entire drive is what is needed. If you work like I do, (and I suspect like you do) you need software that makes a full backup once and then just makes incrementals from there, only copying the files that have changed. You do this every day or so, to catch the files that have changed. Some of the packages available today can do this, but they do it rather mindlessly, because you need to have every incremental since the full backup to be able to recover the disk should disaster strike. Sooner or later the backup destination fills up and then you have a mess. Macrium does it differently. In addition incremental it does differentials, copies of everything that has changed since the last full backup. This has two advantages – you only need the full and the latest differential to make a full restore, and you can delete older differentials to free up space if you need to.

It all works, too. I had a drive fail totally this summer. Macrium Reflect was able to restore everything to the new drive with no muss or fuss. It just works, well and painlessly.

Karen Parker

Thanks! Captain Morse points out that

Reflect is a useful product, but just about every Windows backup utility I've seen, including Acronis TruImage, Nero's BackIt and Microsoft's own Windows Backup that ships with some Windows 7 packages, also supports the differential backup scheme. It's not unique to Reflect.


The good news is that there are a lot of good backup programs out there now, and mass storage media get cheaper all the time. Of course that doesn’t mean that people will use the backup programs. One problem with Microsoft’s backup program is that if you don’t use Microsoft’s default folder system, it can be tricky to set things up for automatic backups of Outlook and Word files.


An orchid for Western Digital Caviar Black and Scorpio Black hard drives. For a small price premium over cheaper drives you get an additional 2 years warranty, double the cache memory, and in some cases a faster onboard processor to enable higher sustained throughput. The Scorpio Black laptop drives are up to 500GB now, and the newest ones have an onboard accelerometer that park the heads if the drive detects that it is being dropped. They use hardly any more power than slower 5400rpm drives but they can really make a laptop feel more responsive.

WDC Caviar and Scorpio Blue drives get a slightly smaller orchid. They're nice basic drives with a reasonable 3 yr warranty, I've had great luck with their reliability, and their performance is decent considering their lower price.


Thank you. I can heartily agree that both deserve orchids. Mass storage is cheaper and more reliable and improves exponentially.

An onion for the low durability of the Microsoft comfort curve keyboards. I've had a dozen or so keyboards in my life and not one of them lasted less than 10 years, except for the comfort curve. I have 2, one lasted about a year and one lasted 3 days. From the reviews at newegg.com, this is typical for these keyboards.

I did find out that if one or two keys fail on the comfort curve keyboards, a sharp slap to the back of the keyboard may restore functionality. Dumb, but it works.


I find that odd. I have a number of Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboards, both wireless and cable connected; indeed they are the standard Chaos Manor keyboard and I used them on all my main machines. I have never had any problems with them. I even find that the battery life for the wireless keyboards is a lot better than I expected. I fear I have to disagree, and indeed Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboards my experiences incline me to award them another Orchid. Perhaps there was a bad batch of them?


Hi Jerry

I would like to nominate the Dropbox synchronization service for an Orchid. In case you haven't tried it: install Dropbox on several computers, designate a directory that you want to synchronize, and the contents of that directory will be quietly kept in sync across all of the computers. You can also access the contents directly from the Dropbox website. This also has the effect of being a decent backup service, and you can retrieve previous version of files. I have tried several synchronization solutions - Dropbox "just works".



At your recommendation I have installed Dropbox on just about everything I have, and indeed it “just works”. I have been using it to move eBooks onto my iPad. It isn’t always clear how to do that, but if one is persistent and keeps using Google to dig for that, you will find it. Getting it into the iPad Dropbox isn’t hard; getting it into the Kindle app is a bit less obvious. That is not intended as discouraging you to use Dropbox, which most certainly deserves and gets a Chaos Manor Orchid.

Simultaneous Orchid and Onion to developers, manufacturers, and carriers of smartphones/tablets:

* Orchid for supplanting laptop, charger, and bulky "et cetera" for most daily tasks.
* Onion for not supplanting laptop, charger, and bulky "et cetera" for ALL daily tasks, and for in fact actively working against this end.
* Special bonus Onion for a one year old Android phone being nearly unusable after the upgrade to the disappointingly crufty OS 2.2.

My HTC Magic (AKA MyTouch 3G) is, depending on your yardstick, 10-30 times more powerful than the computer I ran Windows 98 on. There's no reason it shouldn't be capable of doing anything a ten year old PC or Mac can do. Which is everything but modern gaming, of course.

The only inherent limitations on these systems are form factor and power considerations. Even these should be solvable by docking to a keyboard, monitor, and power supply. I don't want a walled garden from Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, T-Mobile, etc. I want a data pipe to my pocket and everybody else out of my way. I'm living in fantasy land, of course, but it makes me livid to see all the players in the game actively removing options rather than providing them, or at least not obstructing them. Watching a friend try to get his new Windows 7 phone to a point of usability was extremely eye-opening in this regard.


The invisible hand works, but sometimes it takes a while to find the proper direction. Thanks!

Once again I find that I must give Microsoft a huge stinking rotting Onion.

As I have pointed out several times in the past Windows has a Z Order problem. (Z Order is the order in which windows are displayed on top of one another over the desktop.)

Today I went to my Windows 7 partition and started it. (I still use Windows XP SP 3 as my primary OS. This is mostly due to inertial on my part, but not completely. My Windows 7 installation is x64 and I sometimes need to install an old program with a 16 bit installer.)

There were several updates that needed to be downloaded and installed. One of them was for Windows Live. I got the download started and walked away to do other things. When I came back to look about 30 minutes later I saw that the updates were in the installation phase and update 2 was being installed. I went away again and came back about 30 minutes later. What to my wondering eyes did appear? A progress bar that was at the same point as when I had left. This didn't make any sense since this system has an AMD 4 Core 3.2 GHz processor with 8GB of RAM. I investigated further and found a dialog box behind the Windows Update window waiting for me to tell it how I wanted the install to proceed.

Bob Holmes

I agree. This happens to me a lot: things look as if they are hung up, no progress, nothing happening. In fact there is a dialogue box hidden behind almost anything else including automatically opened windows. This happens nearly every time when updating Firefox, but it also happens on Windows updates. A large Chaos Manor Onion to Microsoft for defective Z order software.

Nominations for this year’s Orchid's and Onions:

AppleTV - An orchid bud. The 2nd Generation AppleTV is almost everything that I'd hoped - it's a lot of potential, but still isn't fully baked. Far more than a hobby with 1 million units sold, it has the potential to be a game changer with a few more software kinks worked out. The big gap is in content - as soon as I can subscribe to FoxNews and get baseball and hockey games on it, I'll cut my cable completely.

Apple Trackpad - an ergonomic orchid. This has been a lifesaver for me this year, after developing nerve issues from posture and repetitive motions in my entire right arm and shoulder. The trackpad gives me full control of my system, without having to move my shoulder or wrist - one of the rare cases where ascetics meet ergonomics and win. Much better than a mouse (now if we could just get a real Mac ergonomic keyboard from Apple!).

Verizon MiFi - an Onion. It's a great piece of hardware, but the Verizon software has some serious issues. It prevents you from using the mobile hotspot when charging via USB , instead you have to use it as a tethered modem. That means that you have to travel with a specialized a/c adapter for it if you want to have it both powered and on wi-fi.



I will go further and hand Apple a full orchid for Apple TV 2. Now all I have to do is get a good Ethernet Cat 5 or 6 line into the room where we usually watch TV. This is an older house, and getting things strung without leaving wires out to be tripped over is more difficult than it appears. I’d have done it but you can tell by the tardiness of this column that I have been falling behind.

I have no experience with the Apple trackpad. I control my Apple computers with Microsoft mice...

I have no experience with Verizon MiFi but yours is the third onion nomination. On the other hand, Peter Glaskowsky says

I have a Novatel-branded GSM MiFi, which I use on AT&T, and I'm very happy with it. I made a short USB cable that doesn't connect the data wires, which allows it to draw power and operate normally from any USB port.



Dr. Pournelle,

An onion nomination to Linksys/Cisco for discontinuing the WTR54 series travel routers.

I read your blurb about the travel router in your column but I am still regretting the loss of my Linksys WTR54GS. That little gem of a router not only would create a wireless hotspot from a wired connection, but also had both a WAN and LAN port so you could use it as a wired hardware router anywhere you didn't trust the WAN network security (most hotels with wired internet, for example). Yes it had some drawbacks (primarily with acting as a wired access point to an existing wireless network) but it was far more useful than the current crop of travel routers.

I don't see any purpose behind taking a perfectly good but unsecure wired network, and turning it into a wireless signal. If it is not necessary, then why make it wireless? I need a little wired router 99% of the time, a wireless hotspot for that 1% of the time when... Well, I can't even think of a single time I've ever needed a wireless hotspot when I had access to an ethernet port or wire sticking out of the wall.

Linksys discontinued the WTR line and all of the new ones only have the single WAN port, bummer. I lost my WTR54GS and now I'm going to have to travel around the world (literally) with a full sized Linksys router in my baggage so I can plug into any wired network with a reasonable level of security. I could do that with my WTR54 but they're discontinued and the remaining few in stock cost around $190 on Amazon. So I get to lug around a huge router, and Linksys gets an onion for discontinuing a really useful product line. I took that thing EVERYWHERE (which is apparently why it got lost) and it never failed me even when connecting to known hostile networks. I just have no use for a half-ass travel router that takes a wired signal and converts it to a wireless hotspot, when all I want is a travel router with one WAN port, one LAN port, and the ability to be an access point to either a wireless or wired LAN. None of the new ones (that I can find at least) can do all that.


Having no experience with the Linksys travel router, I can only report your nomination.

Almost all the communications equipment at Chaos Manor is D-Link by preference. I have long and satisfactory experience with D-Link equipment, some of which like my major Ethernet switches have been operating for years without problems. I use D-Link routers for my Internet connections and my local Wi-Fi, and I am pleased to award D-Link a general purpose Orchid for 2011. I do hasten to add that I seldom do comparison tests any longer, and I am certain there are D-Link competitors that could easily merit orchids.

User’s Choice Award nomination:

Google Sky on Android.

This thing is slicker than anything.

I am a theoretical physicist but have convinced myself to start an observational astronomy research program as a means of mentoring undergraduates. They just don't have the sophistication in either math or physical theory to be particularly productive as theoreticians.

I've taught astronomy as long as I've been teaching but never been involved in it as an active area of research. So we're looking at variable stars, which is a reasonable thing to do from downtown Atlanta as it is a differential measurement (star - background). But you have to be sure what you're looking at. And that involves getting the telescope precisely aligned to the Earth's axis of rotation.

Many of them make this easy these days with various computer devices, including the telescopes I use. But you have to be able to locate specific calibration stars. I know the sky OK, but that doesn't really matter from downtown Atlanta where the limiting magnitude on a good night is about three or less.

Google Sky reads the accelerometer to determine the phone location and depicts the sky in that direction. But the killer feature is that you can search. So when the telescope tells me to find a particular star for alignment, I search for it in Google Sky. It pops up a red arrow that tells me which direction to turn to find that object, and then a yellow circle around the object when I get there. It also has live data for solar system positions.

If you need to find your way around in the sky, this is the bomb. That's especially true when you're in a light polluted sky trying to recognize a constellation based on the one or two brightest stars in it.

There might be something equivalent on the iPhone, but I don't know. I won't give Steve Jobs the time of day, let alone my cash.

Dr. Paul J. Camp
Physics Department
Spelman College
Atlanta, GA

I intended to try Google Sky to direct observations, but it has been rainy and cloudy in Los Angeles and l haven’t tried it: fortunately I have multiple nominations, and I have no problem awarding Google Sky on Android a Chaos Manor Orchid. It’s worth a visit to the web site even when it’s raining out.

So, after ten years of hand wringing and frustration I was finally able to get back to the one and only thing that I have ever been good at: a local ISP has hired me as a computer technician.

Now, granted, I've only had the job for a little over a month at this point, but I've had enough machines cross my bench that I've been able to come up with a list of absolutely essential tech tools that, in my humble opinion, no geek should be without.

First on the list is a piece of open source software called Parted Magic. Parted Magic is actually a series of programs which include, among other things, partitioning software, hard disk diagnostics, and disk imaging software, along with fairly complete network capabilities including web browsing. It's available as a disk image, or if you follow a fairly simple process, you can make a bootable flash drive version.

I've used this software for managing disk partitions, diagnostics, and for backing up data files to external storage prior to performing format and restore operations. My one and only complaint is that I have yet to be able to connect to the NAS device we have set aside for that purpose with Parted Magic, but I suspect that's due more to my own ignorance than any real problem with the software.

Parted Magic is available at http://partedmagic.com/

Incidently, Parted Magic is also available on the Ultimate Boot CD, which contains a far more impressive collection of essential utilities than Parted Magic by itself. That being said, for the most part I certainly find Parted Magic to be good enough, but having a copy of the Ultimate Boot CD kicking around makes for a damn fine plan b.

The Ultimate Boot CD can be found at http://www.ultimatebootcd.com/

Something I just started using today, actually, is Hiren's Boot CD. This CD contains an impressive set of utilities and gives you the option of either booting to a stripped down (and obviously hacked) version of Windows XP or a customized version of Linux. In addition to the usual collection of disk utilities this CD also contains an impressive set of malware killers and anti- virus software.

Hiren's Boot CD can be found at http://www.hirensbootcd.org/

Speaking of malware killers, two programs in particular have become vital to my efforts to keep end user systems safe and secure. The first is rkill, which is a process killer that disables running process for some of the more malignant pieces of malware, the ones that go out of their way to keep you from running your eradication tools. It's a tiny little utility that runs quickly and dumps a log of what it's done into a text file, which it opens when its done. Any time I get a malware infected system rkill is the first program I run.

The second program I run is malwarebytes, which is a fairly comprehensive malware killer. The free version is more than good enough, and the malwarebytes people are always adding more malware signatures to their database.

Rkill is available at http://www.bleepingcomputer.com/download/anti- virus/rkill and malwarebytes is available at http://www.malwarebytes.org/.

Michael J A Tyzuk, CDOSB
Tarnished Knight
Scotsman With Nae Trews

Thank you. I am always interested in the tool kits used by those who actually have to do the work...

I would like to nominate the new GI Bill for an orchid. My son is a USMC combat veteran and is now out of the USMC and going to college full time to get a 4 year degree in Chemistry and Physics. The new GI Bill is paying for:

1. 100% of his tuition and fees
2. $500 per semester for textbooks
3. $500 per semester for tutoring
4. $1520 per month for housing and meals (a first Sergeant's pay equivalent here in Houston, Texas)

If a young person is willing to dedicate four years of their life to the military and pay $1,000 in payroll deductions, the US Government will pay for up to 36 months of their studies at a 2 year or a 4 year college after their service.

Also, I am not a military veteran but I believe that the USMC did wonders for his maturity and learning what a blessed place the United States really is.

Highly recommended.

Lynn McGuire

I have no problems whatever with that. I got my undergraduate degree with the Korean GI Bill, and had it not been for that I probably would not have been able to go to college at all. Fortunately I was able to get research assistantship positions for graduate school. My only warning is that it’s easy to abuse: where there is money there will be people who want it, and some quite expensive “higher education” has been designed to offer as little as possible. Alas, that happened to some major universities who were lured into providing “special” programs for vets. I declined all those, but I had friends who enrolled in them to their detriment. I am not sure what can be done about that; but I will say to all those taking advantage of the new GI Bill, be sure that what you are getting is what you need, not some program designed to lull you. Real education should involve hard work. Sometimes very hard work.

I wanted to give Google Apps an orchid again. It just works. And the price is incredibly awesome for the standard version, free.

Google Apps incorporates the best of breed webmail app, gmail. And the other apps are well done also, Calendar, Docs, etc.

Another attraction for me is the low amount of management needed. Once we moved our mail domain record to Google Apps, the management required is virtually nothing.

The only downside is that one cannot purchase more online storage than 7.5 GB unless we upgrade to the pay version at $50/user account/year.

Highly recommended.

Lynn McGuire

I’ll go further. The entire apps development industry deserves a large basket of orchids. It’s changing the way we think about computers as well as the way we use them.

Onion nomination (my first ever). The Blackberry:

(1) The keyboard interface is not as usable as larger mobile phone keyboard interfaces; in fact, it's not as easy as an iPhone touch-sensitive keyboard.

(2) When you end a call it's necessary to manually disconnect, then close the calls screen. An accidental touch will automatically recall the number touched, and turning the sensitivity to minimum has not had any apparently effect. In fact, in once case I somehow managed to text a photo out of the phone's memory to someone by accident (I haven't even figured out how to do that on purpose yet). At the same time, the system hangs mercilessly whenever I actually want to do something.

(3) The screen lock is so positioned that, even if you engage it, odds are better than even that it will be disengaged pushing the device back into the holster. And touching the leather of the holster to the screen apparently is sufficient to initiate a "butt call."

(4) Almost everyone I know who has used a blackberry has switched to an iPhone or Android. I wish I'd known that when I bought it...

On the plus side, it's a very convenient way to read Chaos Manor :)


Thanks. I don’t use a Blackberry, but I do want to note that my son Alex practically lives off one, and I have several nominations of Orchids for the Blackberry...

orchid and onion

Another orchid for the Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 cpu. It is *almost* as fast of a cpu as you can buy for an older socket 775 based system, but it can often be overclocked by a huge amount. Stock it runs under 3ghz but enthusiasts routinely push it to 4ghz on air cooling.

A corresponding onion to Intel for restricting the supply on these cpus so they cost nearly double what they did a year ago. They're trying to force people into platform upgrades and soaking everyone who has no other viable upgrade option.

I report this because it’s interesting, but I never recommend overclocking. I have never been tempted to upgrade the processor in Bette, my Intel Core 2 Quad 6600 system: Bette runs 64-bit Windows 7, and functions as the main system here for everything but games, and despite the heavy use of rules and filters in my Outlook account I have never felt any need for more speed. I built Bette as a “good enough” sweet spot system several years ago. The 6600 is quite a low end chip now, but it still does a lot of work.

Orchid and Onion

I'd suggest an Orchid for Microsoft Security Essentials as originally released and an Onion with double garlic clusters for the update.

You know the reasons for the Orchid.

(I'm disgusted by this turnabout and beating the horse. Feel free to stop reading at any time that you've gotten the point).

The new MSE makes any machine with only one processor (no matter how fast the processor) useless at random intervals (like when MSE decides to update itself at 3 PM EST and even a simple text editor stops working) and for a LONG time after a reboot.

If used on a laptop, you need to boot the laptop 30 minutes before you need it, unless the laptop has been off for a few days then it's about an additional 10 minutes per day. It is worse on a netbook, making mine useless until I switched back to Norton.

Since some of what MSE does is critical and should run first, it schedules EVERYTHING it does as critical and runs with highest priority, even if a CPU bound signature table update.

Norton AV turned into a pig over a number of years. MSE got worse than Norton (while Norton got better) all at once.

Fortunately MSE seems to be single-thread, so dual core processors still work and simple tasks can continue.

All my laptops are multiple processor systems, so I had not noticed that the update to Microsoft Security Essentials has done this. We can hope that Microsoft will fix this problem, because it’s clearly a severe one. I can heartily accede to the Orchid nomination: I have found MSE quite good enough for my systems, and I check them at intervals using Norton and Esad on-line scanning as well as a few other tricks. MSE is good stuff, easy to install, fast enough, and automatically updates. Alas, I have to agree on the Onion for the update if you have single-processor systems.

After consultation with a number of users including my wife, I am happy to give Norton Security a Chaos Manor Orchid for the year. They got rid of the awful mission creep and feature crud that got it onions in previous years. I have several Onion nominations for Norton, but they are all based on bad memories of previous editions. Norton already got onions for the bad old days. They fixed that, and they deserve a reward for listening.

Game of the Year

By far the largest number of nominations for Game of the Year went to Sid Meier’s Civilization V. I have it and installed it, and I find that it’s fun. I did not find it as fascinating – meaning compulsively time consuming – as I have found some previous games, including earlier versions of Civilization. For that I should be thankful. Of course the problem may be with me, and not with the game. Here is a different opinion:

Nomination for a "game" orchid definitely goes to Civilization V.

I find that this version is a major improvement over Civ 4, and I played the hell out of that game. I don't miss the army stacks, and find the new deployment more realistic. I like the Social Policy screen over the previous versions civics. I didn't like the beginning of Civ 4, which was "who gets to adopt Buddhism first" (seeing as it was the easiest religion to discover). I also have the Colonization version, which I'd love to see redone as a Civ 5 game.

The city-states feature is a neat one, and I really enjoy it playing as Alexander (huge advantage there).

I've been playing Civilization since 1991. I thought that Civ 4 was the ultimate edition, until I played this one. This is the best PC game I've played this year. So there's my vote.

Best regards,

Bill Kelly

I have no problem giving Civilization V a large Chaos Manor Orchid, but I can’t quite come up with Game of the Year for it. Orchids also go to Starcraft II, but I have not found it as compulsively intriguing as the original Starcraft which stole so many days from me. I suspect my views on games has changed a lot since the old days. I blush to say that if I had to choose a game of the year, it would be the DOSBOX version of Conquest of the New World (Deluxe) which I still find interesting enough to play when I have game time.

I have never been addicted to or even much interested in first person shooters, so those who like that genre shouldn’t (and don’t) pay much attention to my games opinions. I used to like “real time strategy” games, but lately I find it harder to keep up. One I do like is an older game Company of Heroes, which allows you to give orders while the play is halted; but it’s World War II, not science fiction or period historical. I remain interested in the Total War series, but I confess that I use the “cheats” to make some changes in the initial conditions to get the game going faster. It’s a bit nonsensical to command a Byzantine army without the scarce but highly effective cataphracts you can’t build until after many years of play. I have read CWC Onan’s Art of War in the Middle Ages, and the Byzantine combined arms tactics of the period work quite well – but you have to have a Byzantine army to use them.

There is no User’s Choice for games this year.

Book Reviews

Programming Principles and Practice Using C++ by Bjarne Stroustrup (Addison Wesley) This is a reprint of the 2008 book that remains the best complete text and exercises manual for learning C++ that I know of. Stroustrup was the original architect of C++. He is also a compulsive teacher. His explanations are clear with good redundancy – as he says, he’d rather explain it again than send you looking for it. The book is intended to take novice programmers through to a more or less professional level of programming skill in C++ (assuming the student has the talent to get there) in about 14 weeks at about 15 hours a week. It is possible to work fewer hours a week for longer, but that is not the recommended pace. The author assumes that the student will do the exercises complete with drill: will actually write the programs discussed in the book. Skipping those drills is unwise. Some things simply have to be learned by repitition.

The book is intended for serious students; it won’t be a lot of use for someone who simply wants an overview of the C++ language—not that there’s much chance of anyone using an 1100 page book for that purpose.

Long time readers will know that I have never been a great fan of the C programming language family. I prefer strongly more strongly restrictive languages; but this isn’t the place for that discussion. C++ is a very powerful and widely used language, and those who know how to use it will have a strong advantage in today’s programming environment. I have not done this, but I am reliably told that those who go through this book and do all the exercises and drills will in fact emerge with considerable skill in writing C++ programs. Recommended for all programming students.

Excel 2010 Data Analysis and Business Modeling by Wayne L. Winston (Microsoft Press). This book assumes a passing familiarity with Excel although not necessarily Excel 2010, and a passing familiarity with what is meant by a business model. There follows 600 pages of really interesting questions and how to answer them using Excel.

When Excel was first introduced (surprisingly for a Microsoft product, for the Mac, not for PC’s and DOS) I was impressed. Its use in operations research was obvious. Over time it became even more powerful. Operations modeling of business activities has been around for a century, but until small computers in general, and Excel in particular it has always been easier to develop models than to solve them in a timely and accurate manner. Excel remedies that.

This book will show you how to build a Monte Carlo model of a game of Craps under Los Vegas rules, and show how to run simulations that will converge to the theoretical results you would get from probability analysis. There are models for data mining sales reports. There are models for determining market strategies and setting prices for maximum return on investment.

There is more information in this book than used to be given in a year’s courses in business management. There is a fair introduction to the use of probability estimates, but I do caution you that computer-assisted cookbook models solve models, but don’t give you much help showing their limits. That’s the sort of activity almost guaranteed to bring you a Black Swan sooner or later.

Knowing how to build and solve models is an enormously useful skill. This book, studied carefully, will give you more of those skills than just about anyone had twenty years ago. If that interests you, it’s a good investment. For those already skilled, it’s probably worth while to see what new powers Excel 2010 gives over previous versions. Excel remains a very powerful program, and it was improved in 2010. I recommend this book.

Historical note

I was digging around looking for something else and came across this link, which points to an old INFOWORLD column I wrote just after the Microsoft conference announcing how they and IBM were developing OS/2. The only mention of Microsoft Windows was as a part of Presentation Manager. It was also the occasion of IBM's declaration of war on Microsoft. Not everyone saw that at the time, although I thought IBM's behavior was exceedingly odd.

Winding Down

The books of the month remain unwritten – that is, they are my own works in progress, and are one of the reasons this column is so late.

For the same reason, there is neither game nor movie of the month. Another time.

Apologies for being so late. I’ll try to keep up in future.