Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

Mailbag for November 13, 2006
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

November 13, 2006

We can begin with a comment from Dr. James Woosley, physicist, about last month's book of the month (Chaos Manor Reviews last week). I don't intend to start a long discussion of quantum physics, string theory, and whether or not it is futile to look for a unified field theory.

Shortly after I published my story "He Fell into a Dark Hole" - sometime in the 1970's as I recall - Dr. Robert Forward invited me to come to the Hughes laboratory out near the then new Pepperdine University campus. I took Niven and we had a delightful tour and lunch in Malibu afterwards. Dr. Forward thought he had detected gravity waves, and wanted to congratulate me on postulating them in my story.

I have since learned that most of the physics community interprets Dr. Forward's findings as not proving the existence of gravity waves. Since I have no expertise in this matter, and my only stake is a minor claim to have been the first science fiction writer to use gravity waves as a key plot point, I certainly have no right to an opinion on whether gravity waves have been proven.

Dr. Woosley is helping me put together a believable spacedrive for my in-the-plotting-stage novel about an asteroid civilization and a young girl who grows up there.

Subject: Mr. Holmes


I'm advised not to undertake any tasks requiring "important decisions" today due to mild sedation for a procedure earlier, but I wanted to comment about Mr. Holmes' e-mail about Dr. Smolin's book in the November 6 mailbag. So take two grains of salt, instead of the usual one...

1. I haven't read Dr. Smolin's current book; I did read about half of his earlier book on similar topics (Three Roads to Quantum Gravity) before I became unable to suspend my disbelief...

2. To the best of my knowledge, neither Dr. Forward nor anybody else has detected gravity waves. I think I have to agree with Mr. Holmes that this may begin to indicate that gravity waves as described in classical (i.e. non-quantum mechanical) general relativity may not exist. While this accords with my long-time contention that Dr. Einstein was brilliantly wrong, it doesn't address where he went wrong -- and, unfortunately, many aspects of the current multi-dimensional quantum theories also go astray on the same point that I would criticize general relativity on.

3. The preceding statement of course cries for an explanation of where I think that Dr. Einstein went wrong. It actually goes back to a fundamental principle of physics that Dr. Einstein got right: dynamics is an expression of relative geometry (and of course the time change in relative geometry) of measurable objects in space-time. While this understanding permits one to model the forces between measurable objects as also being geometric objects (in classical general relativity, the curvature of space-time), the fallacy lies in assuming that the underlying forces are in fact geometric objects, rather than of some not-yet-defined nature. The 1921 extension of general relativity to include electromagnetism as a geometric object by Theodor Kaluza, and all derivatives of such multidimensional space-time theories including string theories, at least partially embrace the same fallacy. Note that this does not mean that the theories are wrong, any more than Newtonian theory or general relativity themselves are wrong; nor does it mean that multidimensional theories are wrong. It does mean that the assumptions require review.

The introduction of virtual particles, and the concomitant admission of entanglement, among other consequences, by quantum mechanics does provide a non-geometric mechanism for force generation. But there remain problems, particularly in the integration of the successes of classical general relativity with quantum mechanics, as Dr. Smolin discusses in the earlier book cited above.

In conclusion, Mr. Holmes' contention that gravity waves are not observed because they propagate in the higher dimensions of string theory is at least a recognition of the fallacy noted above, and as such is (at least to me) an interesting suggestion. It doesn't "feel right" in the sense that it flies in the face of the successes of classical general relativity, but it is a suggestion worth considering precisely because the fallacies make those suspect. (My personal belief is that it remains rooted in the local nature of general relativity, which is the area which is most likely to be exploited for faster than light transportation, but I am far from being able to prove such a statement, and I'm certainly not as knowledgeable of string theory as I am of classical general relativity.)

Jim Woosley

Another comment on last week's column:

Subject: Backups of bootable drives

Hi Jerry,

Here's another approach to backups:

Install identical hard drives PCs and make a duplicate bootable copy on the second drive after major software upgrades have proven stable AND BOOTABLE. I myself use Casper XP software that I find dependable and reasonably priced (http://www.fssdev.com/).

A different strategy is needed for interim changes to data files, e.g. burning them to DVD (for high volumes) or keeping zipped copies in a reserved directory on the second hard drive (as I do with my low-volume changes).

Cheers, Alan Messer

And of course most motherboards come with ways to set up RAID with mirrored drives. None of this protects against operator error.

The best backup software I ever used or know of was Palindrome, which I used until the company was purchased by Seagate and vanished from view. I sure miss it.

And a story to note:

Subject: Not all XP discs are the same Dr. Pournelle,

I found out the hard way that you're incorrect in saying in your 6 Nov column that all windows XP discs are the same, and are differentiated by the activation key. I have a horror story and minor rant regarding how I found this out.

My winXP MCE (OEM CD) system I use for a home theater PC became corrupted, and although I had the key I was unable to locate the CD. The microsoft support guy almost choked trying not to laugh when I tried to ask if there was a way to get a replacement OEM CD, so no joy there. I tried illegal means, and was not able to find one that way either (I suspect incompetence on my part). Being military stationed in Korea, I could easily get an OEM CD from a street vendor but then I'd have to learn how to read Hangul. Knowing that windows CDs USED to be all the same as you say in your column and MCE is really winXP Pro plus some utilities, I located a winXP MCE retail CD, a winXP pro OEM CD, and a winXP MCE upgrade CD, and proceeded to attempt to use them to repair my bad winXP MCE installation.

To make a long story slightly shorter, exactly as MS intended, I lost all data on the hard drive because not only would the machine refuse to proceed past the key entry screen during a repair installation, the system was locked tight enough in the installation script that I couldn't even get it to boot far enough to copy data off the drive even with an un-activated installation. Attempting a full install resulted in the same thing, except now the hard drive was freshly formatted and just as unusable, locking up after rejecting the key. The key was simply refused even though it was 100% valid, because not all XP discs are the same anymore, even for the same version of XP. OEM, retail, and upgrade XP CDs will apparently utterly reject keys for the other versions during the installation process, and as I found out this can inadvertently result in the total loss of the installation if you can't find the cd that your key belongs to.

Not being willing to go so far as to use an illegal key, I gave up, gave MS the virtual *finger*, and installed linux on that machine in 1/10th the time I spent in my winXP re-installation attempts, and have had no problems since. I will be hard pressed to come up with a reason to buy windows vista knowing that the licensing restrictions are even tighter. They think they can charge me a $109 fine for losing my CD (the going price for winXP MCE OEM cd) because I was foolish enough to buy an OEM license as part of a do it yourself system build? Not in this lifetime. When winXP is no longer sufficient for my needs, I suspect linux or a Mac will be good enough.

Sean Long

I stand corrected.

Subject: Comment on Computing column


I was reading your November 6 column, and note that in the segment detailing the e-mail flood you commented: "We'd have no choice but to let them download and let my rules reject the bogus returns".

I have my Outlook mail account properties set to "download headers only", thus I only deal with headers on a refresh, allowing me to delete items without downloading if I find them suspect or suspiciously large.

If I'm being naïve in assuming you don't use this mode of operation, I apologize.

(Tools->options->[mail setup tab]send/receive->edit) in my version.

John Morales

I fear that we get far too much mail to make it feasible to examine the headers by hand before downloading the mail; and headers do not, alas, identify spam, spyware, and phishing mail. I have a number of rules that will do that, and another secret weapon in InBoxer, a Bayesian expert system that learns when the bad guys develop new forms; but alas, it has to read the mail, not just the header.

More satisfied Intel Mac users:

Subject: Brief Update on my iMac 24"

Since my first note to you on my iMac experiences, I've got Boot Camp working.

Briefly, the problem with Boot Camp on 24" iMacs appear to be firmware based in some weird way. The symptom is that Windows cannot use the builtin display *on some machines* -- attaching an external monitor allows Windows to be installed and used but even installing the Boot Camp provided drivers doesn't resolve the issue. The problem is not apparently video card specific as Mac Pro users with 23" Cinema displays report the same problem.

As a posting online pointed out, the test for whether any given machine has the problem is simple -- just boot your Mac using any DOS or Windows CD by holding down the "C" key during boot (I used a NAV 2002 install CD that boots Win98) -- if you can see the text on your display, Boot Camp will work fine, if not (you have only a black screen) you'll have to wait for Apple to fix the problem, whatever it is.

FYI, because I'd already activated XP Home under Parallels, the activation using Boot Camp failed (the real hardware obviously looks nothing like the virtual hardware). A simple phone call to an 800 number and answering the question that I was installing on a single machine, got me an activation code -- both copies are now activated and can use Windows Update, etc.

Sean Keeley
Toronto, Canada

Captain Morse also has a new Intel Mac, which he got just after Peter Glaskowsky got his. Brian Bilbrey's remark to Ron Morse was "You didn't!" Of course Brian is very much a Linux enthusiast.

I did. Core2Duo. 15 inch, 120GB. 1GB RAM. Way too much money.

It just works. Literally. All I did was turn it on.

It gets hot...not so much as the Compaq or the iBook, but hot. Display is...the aspect ratio is all wrong until you work with it. Then, it's perfect. It's too small, but then again, it's just fine. Everything about this thing is like that. It's wrong, but use it and...it's perfect. Not right, mind, perfect.

It's like the first time I went to China. It's all there, but totally different...incomprehensible in many ways, but you can still get things done even if sometimes what happens is different from what you thought you wanted when you started. There's a Zen to this thing I don't get quite yet, but I can see it.

As a laptop it probably sucks...I mean Compaq has a model for half the price that does the basic laptop thing as well, or perhaps better (certainly faster), but there are things going on here that transcend form factor. It knows what to do with objects. Images, DVD, audio CD...you give them to the machine and what is supposed to happen...happens. I can't yet describe it more cogently because I'm not used to this experience with computers.

I couldn't figure out how to get e-mail...configuring the account was easy enough but once all that was entered, how do I get mail? Look in the inbox...it's all there! How?

It's for the spousal unit. I've been warned that if I touch it again I am a dead man, but she takes naps and I don't. Certain risks...


Peter Glaskowsky noted:

Just so this doesn't get misunderstood, I'll point out that the MacBook Pro is offered with the fastest laptop processor on the market. I don't know anyone selling a machine with the fastest Core 2 Duo for half the price of Apple's, either-- that would be $1,250 or so, which is only about twice the nominal wholesale price of the processor (maybe 2.5x the actual price after all discounts and co-marketing incentives).

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All of which caused me to say, you guys are making me hope I can get 100 new subscriptions this week so I can afford one of those things! It sounds absolutely yummy.

Captain Morse continued:

The setup process is illuminating. Things...just happen.

I think a good example of how different Apple's approach to users (as opposed to customers...I really had to work hard to buy this thing, but that's another story) is what happens when you set up the user account and profile. There is a space in the form for an image, so the software automatically activates the little camera in the unit's lid so you can put a picture of yourself into your profile. You get a monitor so you can see what's the camera sees and this makes for convenient pose and preen until you're satisfied. The image automagically gets inserted into the form when taken. The _only_ user action needed is to click on the take picture button (and preen and pose). I can only imagine what this would be like in Windows, and I simply can't imagine what it would be like in Linux.

Another telling example. When the unit is closed and sitting on table or desk, the apple logo appears to be upside down. Until you open the lid and realize that anyone looking across at you would see the logo right side up. This kind of thinking does not happen by accident.

It's not all sweetness and light, of course. I am really bothered by the abject proprietariness of it all, to the point where I would not want to use a Mac as my primary machine simply on principle. But, my wife is not so encumbered and she has to live with it.

Philosophy aside, though, it's a great little box, full of neat tricks and I'm blown away by some of the things it has shown me so far. Tomorrow it goes to work.

Once a bit of the new wears off I'll be looking at what is involved in getting a Linux of some sort working on that platform.


Many years ago, Peter Glaskowsky observed me trying to do something complicated with my PowerBook Mac. He said "You will find that with the Mac everything is either very simple, or impossible." I have repeated that remark so often that I am usually credited with having said it. I later modified it to "With the OS X Mac, everything is either very simple, or impossible unless you know a lot of UNIX in which case some impossible things just become very difficult."

And that will do for this week's mail.