Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
Special Report

Larry Niven's Computers
Eric Pobirs,
Copyright 2007 Eric Pobirs and Jerry Pournelle


by Jerry Pournelle

Larry Niven is my long time friend and collaborator, and has been using small computers to write fiction since Tony Pietsch built Ezekiel, my original machine that ran Electric Pencil. Larry looked at old Zeke and had Tony build two just like it: one for him, and one for Mrs. Marilyn Niven (her friends call her Fuzzy for reasons we needn't go into) which also served as a spare. In those days computers weren't as reliable as they are now, but with few exceptions fiction writers take one look at how we work with computers and want one.

Indeed, some years ago I arranged for many of the members of Science Fiction Writers of America to get press credentials to attend the first Saturn encounter by NASA spacecraft. As part of that I had a big party at Chaos Manor; when it was over a dozen more science fiction writers ordered computers including Gordon Dickson and Greg Benford. Frank Herbert saw my system and wanted one, but allowed a firm of consulting engineers to make him a new design; that took so long that when Frank wrote a book on writing with computers, he had to use a Selectric typewriter and send draft chapters to me to ask if it made sense...

Last week Larry told me his system wasn't working properly, and we spent a very productive day working here. He called Eric. For some years now Eric Pobirs has been doing most of the maintenance on computers in the Niven household.

Computing at the Niven Household

by Eric Pobirs

About two years ago, Dan built an identical pair of machines for the Nivens. A bit overly gaming oriented for their needs but good solid machines in general. Fuzzy's is still doing fine but Larry's turned evil recently.

This was first shown in failures to shut down properly and a need to use safe mode before the system could reach the desktop normally again. Last Thursday I was over there to diagnose a DSL problem when, after a forced shutdown, Larry's system refused to boot fully, perpetually getting halfway through loading the OS and then resetting itself.

Notably, the DSL modem and router, both of which have now been replaced, were attached to the same APC 1400 protecting Larry's machine. This has made me wonder if the item intended to protect the equipment is doing the opposite. On the other hand, I've seen numerous Westell WireSpeed units of that vintage give up the ghost. The router may have been alright but I elected for a clean sweep, especially since have no current WiFi support in the house and WiFi routers are so inexpensive. As it happens, the entirety of CompUSA stores in LA County are being closed, so I was able to get a nice bargain on the modem and router, equivalent to what the modem alone would have cost elsewhere.

After a lengthy amount of time spent letting disk diagnostics try to restore Larry's system, it became apparent this was a problem that wasn't going to be solved with the tools on hand or available at that hour. (If the local Wal-mart Supercenter can be open 24/7, why not Fry's?) After a few hours of trying the next morning I came to the conclusion that the existing system could not be restored, nor did a clean OS install go much better. The install itself went OK, albeit with some odd pauses that should have caused more alarm than I granted. But trying to get things going from there went downhill quickly, soon duplicating the unbootable state.

I then needed to break off to take Alex and Dana to the airport and then pick up the parts to change out the innards on the evil PC. The was nothing to suggest anything was wrong with the case, PSU, ATI X800 128MB video card, or drives, so it was just a mainboard, CPU, and RAM needed. Since both drives of the mirror set had received the same corruption, I decided to use just one drive for the rebuild and apply the second differently.

The original setup was an AMD Athlon 3000+ on a DFI Lan Party SLI board with 400 MHz RAM. Dan customized this a bit with a mighty third party heat sink and fan that reduced the operating noise some. For a straight replacement that would have allowed continuing to use the same heatsink and fan and possibly the RAM, Fry's had a bundle of nForce 4 mainboard and dual core 4200+ for $160. I asked Niven if this was satisfactory or if he wanted to go for a bigger upgrade. He opted for deluxe route. Looking to strike a balance between usable performance and not having a lot of enthusiast features that would only have served to confuse and annoy Niven, I got a Core 2 Duo E6600 (2.4 GHz, 4 MB L2 cache), a Gigabyte 965P-DS3 mainboard, and 2 GB of 667 MHz RAM. Faster RAM is supported but the amount of gain for the cost premium didn't seem worthwhile. By the time 1066 MHz RAM becomes essential an entire new machine will make sense.

This is when I made my big mistake. Most of us have taken a hard drive with OS and apps installed and transferred it from a dead system to a working system, and that is what I set out to do with the drives from Larry's system. What this didn't take into consideration was that the failure had not only been during runtime but had caused some strange corruption that made the Windows install unusable and would go undetected by diagnostics. This cost me a great deal of wasted time on Saturday trying to figure out why so many things wouldn't work. The onboard NIC was immune to the drivers from the CD, the site, and the chipmaker's site. As well, a Kingston PCI NIC with native drivers in XP was also unusable. I was able to get a PCI WiFi card to work but this merely allowed me to continue the magical misery tour.

I finally realized my error and did a clean install. Shockingly, everything simply worked. System runs fine and performs well enough that Niven could notice the difference just in Office stuff, like opening a Word document from Outlook. I told him he'd need to get some more recent games to really see the difference.

He's now having a fair amount of difficulty dealing with small details on the display. I did some adjustments to improve visibility of the mouse and text cursors while bumping up the display fonts. When more of the software out there takes advantage of the visual scalability functionality in WPF, an upgrade to Vista will be in order. But that they may take long enough to be reserved for another machine. By then, anything with less than four cores should be an embarrassment in that neighborhood.