Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor

Mailbag for September 25, 2006
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

September 18, 2006

Continuing last week's discussion, Peter Glaskowsky said:

Except Linux and OpenOffice actually suck. Somehow, Linux and OpenOffice enthusiasts can't see that. They assume that 99% of the world is like them, but that's not how reality works. People who do the atypical things are not like 99% of the world. They're atypical. The rest of the world looks at Linux and sees something that is years behind Windows or Mac OS in visual appeal and ease of use. Sure, Linux is more hackable. Most people don't merely not care, they actually don't want that. Big surprise.

This is Robert Bruce Thompson's reply:

I take strong exception to that. I live and work in Linux and OpenOffice.org. I'm not a hacker, nor do I have any interest in hacking Linux. I just want tools that work for what I need to do, and Linux provides those. OpenOffice.org is far, far better than Word for what I do, which is writing books. MS Office periodically ate my documents, which OOo has yet to do. Linux is stable, secure, and I consider it superior to Windows in both visual appeal and ease of use.

I've converted numerous people to using Linux, OOo, and other Linux apps. They range from my sister-in-law, who'd never owned a computer before and seldom used one; to my friends Paul and Mary, both Ph.D. organic chemists, who just want something that works; to Paul's 71-year-old father, who runs Linux on his first-ever computer; to my 13-year-old friend Jasmine. I'm getting ready to install Xandros or Kubuntu for Stephanie, my 33-year-old next door neighbor, who's a stay-at-home mom.

None of these are computer people, and all of them have just sat down and started using Linux. I set it up for them and then walk away. I never get calls from them to come fix something, as I do frequently from my friends who still use Windows. Linux Just Works. No viruses/trojans/malware. No unexplained crashes. No DRM. Linux Just Works.

Now, it's true that Linux isn't suitable for gaming, but none of these people care about gaming. It's also true that Linux doesn't have driver support as good as Windows (although better than OS X). But that problem is overstated. I've *never* had any problem getting standard peripherals working in Linux. It just detects them and works. The only exception is scanners, which are very problematic. Older models are generally well-supported, but there are few or no current models that Linux supports, at least reasonably priced ones.

I'm looking forward to Jerry installing Xandros 4. He'll run into some problems, sure. But for every time he's installed Linux, he's probably installed Windows 100 times. We'll get him past those problems, and I suspect Jerry will recognize Xandros as suitable for Aunt Minnie. Someone has to set it up for her, but someone has to set up Windows for her, too.

-- Robert Bruce Thompson

I have set up a machine for Xandros Linux. It will share keyboard and monitor with my main writing machine, and run OpenOffice; it will also have an Office 2003 installation (the Premium edition of Xandros 4 has software to run some of the most popular Microsoft software including Word). I'll be using that machine a lot, and we'll see. The real test is whether I can get Roberta to use a Linux machine.

Continuing the discussion on Linux

Just a quick response to Peter's comments in the Chaos Mailbag for September 18: I'm not a Linux advocate; instead I focus on net business value. Sometimes what users want isn't what's best for the business. I was at one Fortune-500 company that deleted MS Access from all desktops because we couldn't control mission critical data (and related SOX compliance issues). The users raised a ruckus, but the decision stuck.

He makes good points about Linux and OpenOffice not meeting the needs of power users, but they are a small portion of the population. If I've got 30,000 locked down call center desktops running a well-defined set of line of business applications, a responsible CIO will give serious consideration to alternative platforms. When deployment, deployment failure and maintenance costs are factored in, thick-client applications often provide less net value than a server-side application. Like anything, there are complex factors and tradeoffs that have to be balanced - but they are about business value, not user desires.

I suspect that large organizations will end up with a split environment (my own employer already supports both Linux and Windows desktops) based on user role. For the first time since OS/2, there is a viable option to do so - the confluence of technology has opened a door to denting (but not eliminating) the Windows monopoly. Some will, some won't, but all should evaluate. And that should have Microsoft worried.


Actually, Linux works pretty well for power users. It runs scientific and engineering software very well indeed. The problems come when it's time to generate documents, particularly documents that someone else must edit. Since the Thompsons use fairly complex templates and formatting for their computer books, it's self evident that Open Office can do that work. How easily is a matter of judgment, and until I have some experience with it, my opinion isn't very useful. Stay tuned.

Last week's column included a warning about certain settings in My Computer that could cause you to lose data when you think you are making a backup. You will know when you get the dreaded "Delayed Write Error" and the volume you were writing to appears to be (and may actually be) blank. I say "appears to be" because at least once after I got the dreaded Delayed Write Error I rebooted the system and discovered that my Seagate external drive was not blank at all.

Thompson continues:

Regarding the delayed-write failure problem, note that this was a reasonably recent vanilla Windows XP installation, fully patched, and with no unusual software installed on it.

Also note that delayed write can be enabled separately for the external USB hard drive (which is apparently the default) and for the internal SATA hard drive. I had already disabled delayed writes for the external hard drive, which I do routinely. Thus, I was very surprised to get the delayed-write failure error message.

When I checked, delayed writes were still disabled for the external drive, so I didn't understand why I was still getting the error message. It wasn't until I searched the MS KB that I realized that delayed writes could also be enabled for the internal hard drive. I had not enabled delayed writes for the internal hard drive. Something did it, but it sure wasn't me.

As is often true with Microsoft error messages, the one I saw was misleading. It specifically referred to drive E: (the external hard drive) even though delayed writes were already disabled for it. I know that I didn't enable delayed writes for the internal hard drive. The only programs I installed were vanilla things like Firefox and OpenOffice.org, an astronomy charting program, and so on.

I can't imagine that any of the software I installed would have any reason to change the default setting for delayed writes on the internal drive. But something did, and I have no idea what. That this option is even available to be enabled makes me distrust Windows for storing any critical data. It was only by great good luck and my mania for redundant data storage that I avoided losing data to the corruption caused by the delayed write problem. It could happen again at any time, so the only way to protect against corrupted data is simply not to store anything important on a Windows file system.

Incidentally, several of my readers reported similar problems. They hadn't enabled delayed writes, either, and were at a loss to explain how that feature came to be enabled.

For more including the remedy see last week's column. The important point to note is that Microsoft points to a problem with the "System cache" option under "Memory Usage" rather than blaming the "delayed write" setting for data loss.

Mr. Thompson insists that he made no changes to the system settings. While I would not go so far as to say that one should not store anything important on a Windows system, one probably should check the settings (see previous column). I also note that a couple of years ago the "Delayed Write Error" caused me at one time to believe USB 2.0 to be unreliable.

Note also that Vista doesn't allow any optional changes to the "delayed write" "feature". It's permanently disabled.


I just read the Sept. 11th Computing at Chaos Manor.

I was intrigued by the question that was raised: "Why go to Vista at all?"

I too, am never an early adopter. My first Win XP install was years after it was released, relying on Windows 2000 Pro up to then. Stability and reliability aside, I ask myself whether an upgrade to the latest and greatest is really necessary. As long as the computers that I have do productive work as they are at the time, I see no need to "fix" anything.

Aside from the above Vista presents yet another issue: The value of eye candy. While I fully support applications that provide a positive user experience, I wonder how important it is for the OS to do the same. Most users sit down in front of the PC because it is their job and most use one or two applications. I have even seen users who know nothing about Windows.

They turn on their PC, log in, start their app, do their work and at the end log out. They do so mechanically as they have memorized (or written down) a series of instructions that they follow blindly. This set of instructions is all they need to do their job. They know nothing of cut and paste, file dragging, copying or even that Control Panel exists.

For these people, what matters is that their application responds to their needs. It is the application, not the OS that will either make or break them. I perceive that MS wants the OS to be the application, or said another way, for the tail to wag the dog. I believe that if an application provides a bad user experience, it won't matter how much eye candy the OS has, it simply works or does not work.

This is only half of the issue, the other half being the cost of the eye candy, but that is another story for another time :-)

Thank you
Salvador Garcia

Regarding my desire to run World of Warcraft in Vista on an Intel Mac:


The following is an excerpt from this MacWorld.com article, dated August 16, 2006:

"For right now, Parallels isn't optimized for gaming: there's no 3-D graphics support, for example. But that's expected to change by the end of the year, when Parallels introduces a new version of Desktop that it says will support 3-D graphics acceleration. Once that happens, Mac users will be able to run Windows and Windows games alongside Mac OS X."


And until then, there's still dual boot. We're still saving up for a new Intel Mac.

Subject: For Microsoft OneNote fans


I wonder if anyone ever wrote a song about the Apple Newton...

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Background: a few years ago Peter Glaskowsky talked me into getting a Newton. I found one and we were conditioning it for my use, when HP sent me my first TabletPC. I fell in love with the TabletPC at the time, and then Tablet plus OneNote became available. OneNote and TabletPC are a major reason I have not simply converted to an Intel Mac for just about everything. OneNote can change your life.

And yet more words on the Great Camera Envy


Further to Captain Ron Morse's comment (September 18 Mailbag) that "it's mostly a religious argument", he's got a point, but I should add that a lot of it has to do with the investment factor. When a DSLR maker releases a new body, it's not that easy to grab market share, because anyone who switches will likely lose money on all their current lenses, while staying with one vendor can mean new life for your old lenses. A good analogy is switching between PC and Mac: the costs are not limited to the basic hardware.

IMHO it's also a religious argument in the way some supporters of one camp completely dismiss the other camps. There's a tendency to portray the DSLR market as a 2-horse race between Nikon and Canon, the two big advertising spenders, but Olympus are still around, and Sony is now in on the act with their decent A100 (having bought out Konica/Minolta assets).

Then there's Pentax, the Johnny-come-lately who has so far concentrated on the enthusiast (low) end of the DSLR market, not trying to compete at the "professional" top end where the press shooters hang out. I'm a longtime Pentax user, going back before DSLRs were on the market, so the announcement of the K10D is immensely encouraging to my "sect". It's going head-to-head with the Sony A100 and Nikon D80 on price, but (on paper) outclasses them in many areas, such as construction and lens compatibility.

Call it a religious matter if you like, but I have several Pentax lenses, some over 20 years old, that I have yet to get the best out of. Getting just an upgraded body sure beats the idea of selling the lot and starting over with a new "religion".

Thanks again for keeping up the good work!

brian thomson / dublin, ireland

To Be Continued...