Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Mailbag for October 23, 2006
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

October 23, 2006

In the past weeks I have expressed an interest in running Windows and Vista in Parallels under the Mac OS X, and exploring the use of a Mac for much - perhaps most - of what I do. Macs are particularly appropriate for generating podcasts. There is also good Web construction software. I am at present contemplating just which Mac to buy, but there's little question that my next machine will be a powerful Intel Mac with a lot of memory. A long time reader says:

Subject: OS X shift

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

Since you have, on several occasions, shown an interest in Macs as a possible platform, I thought I'd like to reciprocate in a small way for the information you've passed on through the years which I've found helpful.

I have a long experience with PCs, including hardware support and software support (read: countless versions of DOS and Windows), and I have a somewhat shorter experience with supporting the Mac environment, but it happens that that is what the vast majority of machines in my present location happen to be, so I've learned a bit about Macs now.

I still use Windows in my private work (currently, Windows 2k3x64 and Windows 2000 Pro and Windows XP). At the workplace, we run a variety of Macs, though not yet the Intel versions, because at least one legacy program which we still need occasional access to will only run in Classic mode (or OS 9), and the Intel Macs do not support Classic mode. Hence, my experience has been strictly with PPC machines so far.

Since I arrived at this company, we've passed through Jaguar, Panther and now Tiger. We try to keep all our machines using the same OS, although I have Panther on one machine in order to access a legacy system through AFP, since Tiger changed it's version of AFP and made it incompatible with this older system. Parenthetically, Apple has even less conscience about making changes which adversely affect users than Microsoft does, I think.

OS X is a remarkably stable operating system. I have found it next to impossible to crash the OS, and this has been true from 10.2 through 10.4. Occasionally, of course, applications will quit or quit responding, but this rarely has had any effect on other running programs. Hard reboots are almost never required (not that my clients don't sometimes do it anyway). Even on comparatively slow machines with marginal amounts of RAM, the speed of the system is acceptable.

On the other hand, the file system seems to me to be a bit fragile. Corruption of preference files is not uncommon, and corruption of the file system database is more common than one would expect. OS X does have a utility to repair problems, but it is too often not capable of making the repairs, particularly if the node structure of the database is corrupted. Fortunately, there is a commercial product called "Disk Warrior" by Alsoft that is extremely capable and thorough at making repairs, even to seriously damaged file systems, usually with no or very minimal data loss. But I am a bit concerned at the frequency with which this happens. Most of the time, but not always, it is associated with improper shutdowns of the computer. Maybe this is common to systems based on a *nix foundation; I don't have enough experience with that to know. But certainly it seems to me that filesystem corruption in OS X is more common than registry corruption in Windows, and harder to combat. So if you do get a Mac, get a copy of Disk Warrior and don't leave home without it.

I honestly have very little preference of one system over the other (except the x64 version of Windows might yet give me ulcers), with the exception that there remains MUCH more software available for the PC. With the advent of the Intel Macs, a variety of options now exist which makes it possible to actually USE Windows on a Mac. Virtual PC was never a satisfactory solution and Microsoft has no plans to develop a version for the Intel Mac, which makes perfect sense, since no one in their right mind would buy it.

One problem remains for those of us who need to use a mix of PCs and Macs, and that is that the Mac mounts NTFS volumes in read-only mode, so any external drive has to be formatted as FAT32, and increasingly people are finding the 4GB file-size limitation of FAT32 to be a real barrier for people doing video editing or even some photoediting, which can produce huge files. Further, and I add this tentatively, it SEEMS that one is better off formatting the external drive with a PC instead of a Mac's version of FAT32 (there is a lot of room for debate on that, but I believe it myself), but the format utility in XP/2000 won't create volumes greater than 32 GB, so one must use a third-party utility to fully partition a large drive as FAT32 in Windows. The 4GB file-size limitation may be unavoidable, but the restriction on volume size is a mere artifact that Microsoft seems to have implemented to promote the use of NTFS, I suppose. They should fix that. I'm not quite sure why Macs can't deal with NTFS properly, but that, too, should be addressed, for ideally one would do away with FAT32 at this point whenever possible.

Perhaps nothing here is new or useful to you, in which case I apologize for repeating what may be common knowledge. I did appreciate your printing my query to you about 64-bit drivers in the Mailbag; I'm beginning to have a bad feeling about that issue!

Very sincerely,

Joe VanZandt, Ph.D.

Thanks! Peter Glaskowsky comments on Dr. VanZandt's letter:

I used to see this [file system corruption] a lot before Apple deployed the "journaling" feature on the file system. Journaling records pending changes to a special file so that if the system crashes before all the changes are written to the disk, the journal can be consulted and the changes applied as needed.

Since journaling appeared, I haven't had any problems to repair, even after forced reboots. It's made me perhaps a little overconfident; I do crazy things without worrying about it. For example, this week I got a link to a 359 MB .png file (no relation) from a fellow who said he made it with an image-stitching program but didn't have any Windows software that could open it without crashing. I downloaded it and double-clicked to open it in the default MacOS image viewer called Preview, and it ran for some unknown length of time overnight. The next morning, there it was, no problem.

- png

All of which confirms my decision to make my next system an Intel Mac.

Last week we looked at the new Microsoft licensing agreements for Vista. The discussion continues.


Yesterday I replaced a failed mother board in a Client's PC. Windows XP wouldn't boot, so I got out the XP CD and did a repair install. Everything came up just fine and XP told me that there had been "Significant" hardware changes and that reactivation was necessary. I did an Internet activation and everything was just fine.

Several months ago i had to do the same thing and this time Internet activation told me that I would have to call the 800 number. I did and after the waste of 10 minutes or so activation was complete.

What inference may be drawn from this rather limited sample? Maybe Microsoft is actually listening to its customers again.

Bob Holmes

Captain Morse adds:

When I built my new box three or four weeks ago I had the same experience as Mr. Holmes. The XP installation was based on a retail package purchased the first day of general availability and has been through about four machines since. It has been years since reactivation didn't require the telephone tango, but for some reason this one, flagged as the result of significant hardware changes...i.e., every bleeding component except one hard drive... cleared automatically.

I just figured they didn't love me anymore.

-- Ron

Chaos Manor Associate Eric Pobirs notes:

There are more factors than just hardware components to how they decide whether the machine has become 'new.' Each of the major components is assigned a timestamp. So a machine could migrate to entirely new bits over a year but not a month. Otherwise a LOT of repair situations would run afoul of activation. I've only needed to use the 800# once for my own equipment. The numerous other times were for client who'd done far greater damage than I'd ever produce.

As mentioned in the rebuttal article on Thurrott's site, this is a big problem for enthusiasts who alter their systems frequently and those users are often big spenders whose economic contribution to the market deserves some consideration. A lot of them are avoiding WGA entirely and using sites like www.windizupdate.com to keep up with OS updates without connecting to the official Windows Update site.

Eric Pobirs

And from Bob Thompson, author of the definitive O'Reilly books on building and maintaining your PC:

More on Vista licensing

This is worth reading:


The guy has spoken to a Microsoft representative, and gotten an apparently definitive statement on Vista licensing. Swapping out your motherboard once or your hard drive once counts as changing the computer. A second change means you have to buy a new Vista license.

Basically, it sounds to me as though the Vista *retail* license is now more restrictive than the XP *OEM* license.

-- Robert Bruce Thompson

Which is pretty much the sum of what we know just now. Thanks.

Here is another view on the issue:


Reading the section on Vista copy protection, China, Russia, et. all. I'm just back from China (the middle of nowhere China). Over there time is NOT money. S/W and H/W resources are money. Thousands of Chinese engineers/hackers, whatever, will work on breaking Vista's copy protection. If Microsoft is doing this to make money in China, they are kidding themselves. Maybe in 10 or 20 years when the standard of living is higher, but not now. Russia is probably just as problematic.


In any contest between publishers and the computer using community, I generally bet on the hackers. Digital Rights Management and copy protection and the rest of it are always vulnerable. Someone knows the shared secret; and there are a lot of means for finding it out.

The discussion on the desirability of net neutrality, and whether we need new legislation/regulation to achieve it, continues in the column. Rich Heimlich observes:

Another point on Net Neutrality. IF it can be written correctly, the point is to get the providers to stop playing "bait-and-switch".

I pay them for a service and, often, what I get on the other end is a flimsy rendition of the service I thought I was getting.

I pay for 8mb down/768k up service. Of course we all know I don't get that. That's one thing. However, when providers then also start to limit me in a myriad of other ways it becomes entirely unacceptable. As I mentioned in previous mail, several companies have been known to throttle specific ports to limit overhead on them or to make their own services look better. Users have found that if they get phone service from someone other than the ISP, port 5060 gets throttled but that if they get it from the ISP suddenly port 5060 is completely unthrottled. Port 5060 is the standard VoIP port. VoIP players will tell you that they have to play games with specific ISP's by moving their traffic to different ports to avoid this problem. Vonage is rumored to have paid ISP's to not throttle their traffic. All of it is BS.

Gamers often find ports for popular games throttled. BitTorrent defaults are often throttled.

It's just not right. This idea that you sell me bandwidth and then limit it at every turn is just wrong, especially if you do it to make your own products look better. Imagine seeing a display of beautiful apples and upon taking your apple to the counter to pay for it, the cashier takes it, puts it back on the display and hands you one that has 2 bites taken out of it. Hey, it's still an apple right? Would you accept that? This is exactly what's going on here.

I don't want to hear about some customers using too much bandwidth. Either you have the bandwidth you CLAIM to have or you don't. Which is it? Either you have enough nice shiny apples to go around or you don't. To find out later, upon looking in the bag, that the cashier switched my purchase to something I didn't choose is just wrong any way you try to cut it. I'm certainly for any legislation that would put an end to these sorts of shenanigans. Of course that assumes we could get a well-defined, well-thought-out bill, but that's another argument for another day.

Rich Heimlich
Industry Consultant

I have complete sympathy for that view. The question is, do we already have in place the means to assure this? Perhaps more staff for the FCC? New emphasis on enforcement of truth in advertising through the Federal Trade Commission? But certainly your point is valid.

Subject: Root kits and Speeding Up Windows

You mentioned the Sony Root Kit, but have you seen the U3 software by SanDisk? I had no trouble with the Sony since I seldom have Autorun enabled, but the U3 makes part of the flash memory on the card appear to be a new CD-ROM which Windows installs with (duh) Autorun enabled, so the included software is installed. SanDisk does have uninstall software on their site (now) but the U3 program must be running to be uninstalled! I haven't seen any mention of this exploit yet.

Please mention that the cheapest way to speed up a Windows system is add a second hard drive and use it for the Virtual Memory cache. It's far cheaper and faster than more memory or another CPU. I don't know if this actually helps Linux or Apple as I've had at least two drives in my systems for the last two decades, so I've no comparison data.

This also improves recovery greatly as I keep all my data on the non-boot drive (and usually copied onto several networked drives.) I can move to a working machine and be back in business in minutes.

Don Miller

I wouldn't think that adding a dedicated fast disk drive for system swap Virtual Memory would be faster than adding memory, and the way memory prices are falling it may not be cheaper forever, but it's sure cheap if you already have the drive.

User education vs security threats

I've had two friends recently refuse to install hardware firewall devices despite my clear recommendation.

One is a home user whose computer was so overrun with malware that they had to reinstall the operating system. I pointed out that before they can even finish downloading the security updates that they'd be reinfected. But they thought $50 was more than they could afford to spend just then.

The other was someone going to college and living in a dorm. This one didn't have a reason. She just flatly refused to purchase a router.

I have no idea what to do about users who do understand the warnings but choose to ignore them.


Isn't there an old proverb about leading horses to water? Think of it as evolution in action. The problem is that all of us are hurt by those who will not protect themselves from the zombification of their equipment yet leave it connected to the Internet. My wife received about 20,000 "system administrator returns" today; some spammer forged her return address to a mass junk mailing. I would like to find and remonstrate severely with the person whose PC has been used to send that spam.

Last week's column had a review by Peter Glaskowsky of the new Sony Reader. Just after I sent off the final of that column, I got this from Chaos Manor Associate Eric Pobirs:

A quick review

Speaking of alternative readers, I've used the Sony PSP as a reader and it worked pretty well. The main issue is how frequently you have to scroll and the lack of ways to access local files. The built-in web browser does a decent job of sites that present large text files in the few formats the PSP understands. The Baen site works fine, for instance. (No PDF support yet, at least not in a form allowed by Sony.) But there is no provision to access files stored on the local Memory Stick. At the very least, even those who aren't avid readers might appreciate being to store a text file of hints for the game they're playing.

Battery life is extremely limited compared to the devices using e-paper but this is purely a bonus function for a gaming device. In no way does this compare to something intended to function as a portable book displayer. I'm pretty disappointed by those deficits Peter mentioned. Sony has recently shown a dismaying habit of not thinking products all the way through. I hope they can produce a convenient to install update once they've taken in enough feedback.

It sounds like one would need to keep a text or PDF file on the flash card to provide full info on the potentially cryptic names of files.

It amazes me how some flaws get past the prototype stage. On of the worst in recent history was the first model of the Nokia Engage gaming phone. You had to remove the battery to access the card slot to change games. How did something so monumentally ill-conceived make it to manufacturing.

Not quite as bad was the first model of the Sony Playstation 2, seen only in Japan. Instead of being design to accommodate a standard 3.5" hard drive, the slot was designed for PCMCIA Type III drive. This meant much higher cost and lower performance for the consumer. They quickly changed it to use 3.5" drives but something like 300K units went out with original design and an adapter was later released to use a 3.5" unit externally. How did the thing get to manufacturing without anyone bringing up the issue?

As it worked out, Sony completely screwed up their hard drive plans and only a tiny portion of the PS2 installed base has drives installed. The PS2 lead its generation by a huge margin but even so, Sony missed the opportunity to pull a lot more revenue.