Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

Mailbag for November 27, 2006
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

November 27, 2006

This will be two weeks' mail, since I took a vacation during Thanksgiving weekend. There are a lot of subjects, including the infamous Microsoft Windows Delayed Write Error...

Begin with the continuing discussion on quantum physics. This began when I listed Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, as a book of the month for October. I expect this will be the last letter on the subject.

Jerry (Note: this does NOT address "Einstein's fallacy" as described in last week's CMR mailbag and in fact emphasizes that nobody yet understands how Einstein's insight translates into mechanism.) [link]

Scientists now have evidence that dark energy has been around for most of the universe's history.

Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, researchers measured the expansion of the universe 9 billion years ago based on 23 of the most distant supernovae ever detected.

As theoretically expected, they found that the mysterious antigravity force, apparently pushing galaxies outward at an accelerating pace, was acting on the ancient universe much like the present. <snip>

This latest finding is consistent with Einstein's <link> explanation for what dark energy is, the researchers noted. Einstein's "cosmological constant" idea, which he called his biggest blunder and later rejected, turned out to be the same thing that scientist now see as the repulsive form of gravity called dark energy.

The findings will be published in the Feb. 10 issue of Astrophysical Journal.

The AOL item is much more sensational:

NEW YORK (Nov. 17) - The Hubble Space Telescope has shown that a mysterious form of energy first conceived by Albert Einstein, then rejected by the famous physicist as his "greatest blunder," appears to have been fueling the expansion of the universe for most of its history.<snip>

Jim


I get a lot of mail complaining about Windows. This one is a bit unusual:

Subject: Re: Windows Prone to Slowing?

Hi,

Westley Annis wrote:

> I expect my desktop to slow down, since I am adding new programs here and there, not to mention always on the Internet and downloading a ton of email. I just figured the PocketPC should stay close to its original speed.

I'm nearing the end of Jared Diamond's Collapse. A very anxiety-generating book. The chapter I was reading last night was about why groups don't take action, when signs of disaster loom everywhere. One of the key psychological factors he mentions is "creeping normalcy," a slow, imperceptible change in what people consider normal until decades later, they realize how drastic the total change has become.

Last week I was trying to set up a backup system on a client's Windows box, and I was truly amazed at how slow the thing was to respond. It wasn't that old a machine, but it had just collected a bunch of cruft over the months of use.

Today, a business associate couldn't log into my wireless network because a critical update for Windows broke his wireless driver, and the thing would give a BSOD every time he started up. He had to do a system restore to even get to his desktop.

I don't even dare trying to fix these things anymore--the last couple times I tried to clean Windows machines of spyware, I left the machine in worse state than when I started--things like Outlook quit working after deleting the malware. Managing a Windows machine to me just seems like too much a waste of time. I no longer even try--I send out a local Windows guy who makes a fine living just cleaning up these machines.

> Not that I'm trying to start a Windows bashing thread here, but I've just got to wonder about Windows sometimes. I have to wonder, too. I wonder why people still put up with the crap, when there are several great alternatives...

I think it's another psychological tendency we all have, of having invested so much time, money, and energy on bashing our heads against the same stupid problems, that having finally achieved some small level of mastery, are afraid to even try an alternative. A manufacturing client of mine is slowly coming to the realization that having me try to figure out how to add a feature to their FilePro-based manufacturing system is throwing good money after bad--at a certain point it's much cheaper to replace a system entirely than to try to upgrade a system beyond its limits. (Anybody remember FilePro? No, not FileMaker Pro... something entirely different, a flat-file database designed for a TRS-80!)

Anyway, I'm happy to bash Windows... I do probably spend more time than most general users tweaking my computer to make it do things better. But having a desktop slow down over time? Just because it's running? That's not something I care to deal with anymore. I upgrade for new features, for the ability to run new software, to make my computer run faster than it ever did before. Reinstall the previous OS, just to make it responsive again? Why should I need to do that? The closest I've come is to have my profile messed up, lots of menu items in the wrong place. Create a new user account, copy the documents over, and it's better than new.

Linux has its share of problems, getting certain wireless cards to work, having your computer lock up when you suspend to RAM with the cool 3D desktop cube active, having a DNS setting stay set to an internal server through a VPN when your local hotspot refreshes your DHCP address every couple minutes, and today my printer was spitting out blank pages by the ream instead of a 2 page contract I wanted to print. But the solutions to these problems are almost never "reboot" and absolutely not "reinstall the OS." (Okay, I have to reboot to activate the proprietary ATI video driver when I want to connect my laptop to the TV to watch a video...) The gratifying thing about Linux is that it's always a new problem I'm solving--once I've solved a problem, it usually stays solved.

I tend to think that desktop Linux was as usable as Windows 98 by around 2001. By 2002, it was as good as Windows 2000. By 2003, it had matched XP. And while Vista has been through years of bug fixing just to get out the door, a steady stream of advancement in the Linux world has left it behind--now it's Window's playing catch up with Mac and Linux. Five years of creeping normalcy with Windows XP makes me wonder why anybody would want to throw more good money after bad, and even consider Vista...

If you haven't looked at Linux recently, check out the latest Ubuntu, Fedora, or SuSE distributions. Particularly, look at the breadth of additional software that can be installed with a few clicks, all for free. You may find yourself wondering why anyone would pay for crappier software, when the good stuff is free...

-- John Locke
"Open Source Solutions for Small Business Problems" published by Charles River Media, June 2004

Which summarizes a great deal of advice I've had lately. I note that Leo LaPorte is advising new users to get a Mac, which costs more but comes with most of the software needed. I suspect that operating systems will be less relevant over time; machines are getting faster, virtualization is more common, and there's a lot of computing power to spare. I haven't done it yet, but I will shortly be trying a fast Mac running Vista and/or XP under Parallels. We'll see how that works, and how much I am tempted to move applications from Windows to the Mac itself.

Brian reminds me that the non-business versions of Windows Vista are not (at least not yet) virtualization friendly, at least by license. I don't know about technically: the only Vista I have toyed with is "Ultimate". This is also discussed in the column.


We had a lot of mail about the infamous Microsoft Delayed Write Error. I have done considerable research on this, and I don't understand it much better now than I did before. It seems to happen when you transfer very large files through USB 2.0 to an external drive, but I had it happen once when connected by Firewire. When it happens you have problems.

Microsoft had a registry patch that was supposed to fix this problem (they thought it was caused by improper time stamp calculations) but also claims that the problem was taken care of in XP Service Pack 2. I can guarantee you that it was not cured in SP 2. Since the "Delayed Write Error" bites when you are trying to make backups, and in my case at least damaged files on both the C:\ drive I was trying to back up, and the F:\ USB external drive I was backing up to. I have "solved" the problem by installing another internal drive and backing up to that, but it's not a solution I much like.

Jerry, one more thing: I found it disturbing that in this week's Review discussing your communications machine problems caused by the Delayed Write failure, your morals are focused on what you did wrong. I didn't read anywhere that there's a lot of blame to be shouldered by Microsoft by allowing data loss like this to occur. It's 2006. It's utterly unacceptable that your OS can destroy your data. If it does nothing else, the OS must first and foremost safeguard your data.

- Robert

I can't really quarrel with that. I have yet to find a definitive solution to the Delayed Write Error bug, despite much advice from experts. See also this link.

There remains the problem: how to do safe backups.

Subject: Backups

Just read the 11/13/06 Chaos Manor Review and understand your concerns. I've been very suspicious of image programs that operate when Windows is running (Ghost 9, Ghost 10, Save and Restore (aka Ghost 11), TI9 native, etc.) to the point where I've only been doing backups after booting from CD.

Recent problems with TI9 made me go back to the old standby - Ghost 2003. With a modern laptop (no floppy, recent chipset, etc.) the Ghost 2003 install (recovery) CD doesn't work with my external USB drives, but I was able to use FireWire successfully. You would have no problems using Ghost 2003 (booted from CD) with two internal drives.

For a more detailed discussion of this rationale, see:

http://ghost.radified.com/

Mike

I have never had a problem with Ghost. I have had some problems using Norton Save and Restore. I still use both because I am convinced the Save and Restore problem was not Norton's fault, but I have a possibly irrational preference for the older Ghost.


One problem with recovering from the Delayed Write Error was that I didn't have a proper backup of the system registry.

Subject: Very Easy Registry Backup

Jerry,

If you use a utility called ERUNT found here:

link

you will no longer need to worry about registry backups. I have been using the program for a couple of years now and it has saved me multiple times including last night. It will make a backup of the registry every time you boot the machine or you can make a manual backup. It will save a copy of the registry in a dated folder so you can chose wich copy to restore. To repair a failed machine just boot up with the Windows Ultimate Boot CD ( you did make one of those didn't you ? ) and run the restore part of ERUNT. In 30 seconds you will be bacl to normal. And the best part. It's FREE !

The other way to make a backup of the registry, and the system state, is to use the backup program that comes with XP. It works great and also does not cost you extra. Plus you can use it to backup the data as well. The only thing is that it will not backup to CD or DVD but you can burn the backup file made by the program to CD or DVD after the backup is finished.

Dean Peters

Thanks!


After recovering from my previous meltdown I had the problem of putting my system back where it was. One was getting Microsoft OneCare Live working without having to buy it again.

Subject: One Care restore experience

Jerry,

I just read your most recent column about having to scrub a drive and start over. You were wondering about restoring MS One Care and how that would work.

Two weeks ago I had a very similar problem. I had to scrub my system and start over (persistent virus that I just could not get rid of), and I too had downloaded One Care and did not have the "authorization", etc.

I found it very easy to fix. I just downloaded One Care again from the MS site and gave it my original user name/email account/password and the software/system was smart enough to know I was a valid user putting it on one of my 3 valid machines, and they did not charge me for the reinstall!

That to me is a great way that Microsoft manages their user base. I have been critical in the past of MS practices, but this was a great experience and done right. Hopefully you have had the same experience by the time you get this message?

Chris Burns

System Architect's Quote : Before the war it's opinion. After the war, it's too late!

It took me a while to realize that I should log on with my Microsoft Passport Username and Password. That worked, and all is well. They do indeed allow you to protect three machines with OneCare Live, and so far I have found it quite effective. There was a problem with internal networking caused by the OneCare firewall; I'll cover that in the column, but the story has a happy ending.

My Firewall problem brought in this mail which was irrelevant to my difficulty but I find interesting:

Subject: Windows problems

I had a lot of similar problems in an office peer-to-peer network with some computers seeing but unable to access other computers.

All our network cables were tightly bundled where they dropped out of the ceiling down to the wall mounted hub. I suspected cable problems and wanted to move a problem computer close to the hub. I had to cut the ty-wraps to remove a cable to open up a jack. When I cut the ty-wraps and moved the cables slightly apart, the problems stopped. Left it that way and the problem has not returned. This is not on any troubleshooting chart.

Bill


We have had several Mailbag reports from Captain Ron Morse on setting up and using a new Intel Mac.

Subject: Capt. Morse and the Apple

Jerry,

Please remind Captain Morse that OSX is built on top of Apple's Darwin Unix. All he has to do is open Terminal, and he should have nearly full functionality equivalent to Red Hat. The only difference I noted is that help files on the version of Darwin on the G5 I used to use at work claimed that Darwin only implemented the C/C++/Obj-C elements of gcc, but I had no trouble using g77 the one time I tried to compile a Fortran utility.

Now if they would just come out with a Tablet version (even if it has to run Windows to boot the Tablet utilities :) I want one too. :)

Reference: link

Jim

I definitely want an Intel Mac Tablet PC too...


I have said often that the device you have with you - camera or notebook - is the one you will use. After Peter Glaskowsky's remarks in last time's mailbag, Brian Bilbrey of the Chaos Manor advisors had this to say :

Treo meets "the note-taking device you have with you"

On the subject of the Treo, I have one as well. It came about as the result of corporate budget allowing for a device that IT could carry about that could securely store passwords and such. A couple of folks bought Palm devices. I knew that I simply wouldn't carry a phone *AND* a Palm. So my best choice was to combine those. That led straight to the Treo. The 650 was too new, and had memory organization issues, so I went with a model 600.

I went with Sprint as the provider, since they have a $15/month data plan, much better than any of the other major carriers. The phone itself I bought from Palm, rather than through Sprint, as the Sprint model didn't have the Camera, even though it was the same price.

So, I take notes on it (using the thumb-board), I can browse the web and check email (rarely, usually in airports, occasionally in traffic). I keep my calendar on it. I have an SSH client, so I can actually connect to systems at work and remotely administer them. I've used the camera to document things when there was nothing else close to hand. And that's all it's good for, the Treo camera sucks, but "sucks" is still way better than nothing. And it's a perfectly serviceable phone.

Voice memos, too, eh? Not a bad thing to try next. Unlike most multi-purpose devices, the Treo has been keeping up with me and most important, I continue to use it and carry it everywhere I go. That counts, eh?

.brian

And indeed it does. I carry the Olympus WS-100 for voice notes and I depend on it, but it's one more thing to have with me.


Hi, Jerry--

Always appreciate and enjoy your Chaos Manor posts.

A couple of things:

[1] I have a great keyboard that no one else seems to have heard of: The Versakey. It has sixty (count 'em, sixty) extra function keys that are programmable by the keyboard. Thus, you can take the keyboard to another computer and have all your macros set to go. (I've never done this, but it's no doubt good for someone who regularly uses two computers.)

Actually, rather than programming the macros directly into the keyboard, I make them with the macro program, Macro Express. I then program the keyboard to the Macro Express keystrokes and CTRL-ALT A to O, CTRL-SHIFT A-to O, etc. This way, should the keyboard somehow lose the macros, I can reprogram them as CTRL-ALT A., CTRL-ALT B, etc, rather than having to redo the actual macros.

Anyway, the keyboard enables me to satisfy the religious commandment that no command or boilerplate take more than one keystroke. (I also have AL-Letter and CTRL-Letter macros in Macro Express.)

[2] If you're ever in a mood to knock Microsoft: I know it isn't difficult to find examples, but here are two:

A. Word is too dumb to realize that, when you select text and then print, you want to print just the selected text. You have to tell it to print just the selected text. When you just press "print", it tries to print the whole document. I can't tell you how many times I've done this and had to stop the print job.

Even in DOS days, WordPerfect knew that, when you selected text and then printed, you wanted to print only the selected text.

B. I'm something of a nut on ToDo/Appointment PIMs. I don't use them for appointments, but for dated ToDos. The problem is that nearly all appointment/ToDo programs relegate the ToDos (tasks) to a small part of the screen and don't permit the functions they permit appointments. Actually, I use a Windows program (OnTime) from 1994, a program that includes many suggestions I gave the manufacturer. One nice quality is that it has 1-99 priorities, not just high-medium-low.

To the point: Outlook fails completely doing what I want. A birthday ToDo for a given date shows up every day until that date. And there are a number of other problems. (I've asked a couple of online experts about this. In both cases they were surprised to find that Outlook couldn't treat ToDo's in the way it treats appointments, but concluded it couldn't.

Hope all is well with you,

Steve

I am still looking at keyboards. When we get the new Intel Mac (Real Soon Now) I'll get a genuine Apple Keyboard and see how I like using that. I still like the Ortek keyboards, but I don't think they are still for sale; I haven't found any. They feel great, but I have worn the lettering off the keys, and mine are wearing out in other ways. I don't like the feel of the Microsoft Sculpted keyboards as much as I do the Ortek, but I have been using the Microsoft Wireless to write fiction upstairs and it's easy to get used to. What I'd really like, though, is a sure source of Orteks with their great feel and sound. My current Ortek keyboards are PS/2 connection only, but Belkin makes a good PS/2 to USB connector adaptor (there's electronics in the cable) so the lack of USB to the keyboard is not a major problem. If I could find several Ortek keyboards I'd probably buy them.

I am also still looking at Calendar and Personal Data Assistant programs, and I agree that Outlook isn't really the right one to use. Alas, it's what I have until I find better. I need to try out Franklin's latest. The pre-2000 Franklin Ascend was the best calendar and task management program ever written, and if they'd just go into the source and change to get right of the Y2K bug they could sell a lot of them. Alas, they don't seem interested in doing that.


And now for an open problem:

Hey Jerry,

I wanted to get your view on something that just happened. It's one of those "I knew better but..." stories.

First, a bit of background. I own about 350 DVD's. You can see most of my collection online via a link on my blog (very slick interface that my family and friends actually use to reserve titles from my collection and that can send out reminders when titles are late coming back). Among all those is my collection of the new TV series remake of Battlestar Galactica.

Anyway, I'd gotten to the point where I'd seen the whole first season and still needed to get through season two. I'm a bit miffed that someone decided it was a good idea to essentially charge me twice by breaking season two into two halves but that's another argument. I'd gotten part way through season two when I had to go out to Chicago for a solid week. That trip would include several tired hours at night back in the hotel room. I figured it would be a good chance to catch up on BSG. I then grabbed the DVD's but there are two LARGE boxes. I try to pack light and those boxes were just not going to be very space-friendly among the rest of my luggage.

What to do...... Well, I first thought, let me rip the shows off the DVD and put them onto my laptop. After a few hours of searching around the Net I came up empty on how best to make that happen. I'd installed a couple utilities (worried about viruses, etc.) and none of them worked. I finally decided, to hell with it, and put Bit Torrent to work. I found the episodes on a site and downloaded them. They were terribly compressed, full of glitches and often had audio that was out of sync but at least I could get them on my laptop and catch up.

I went on my trip, caught up and came back home. Now, about a month later, I get an e-mail from Comcast. It's informing me that they've been contacted by the copyright owner and that I'm now being targeted as a copyright violator for having downloaded the shows. Comcast is also mentioning that I've violated their EULA and can be terminated at their discretion. I called my attorney only to hear exactly what I already knew. Even though it makes little common sense, my owning the DVD's has no bearing on this. Owning the DVD's doesn't give me the right to download the shows. He said the entire state of the law is currently contradictory. You have a right to make a backup of any media you own (and work from it) but that the DMCA prohibits anyone breaking or getting around the protections on a DVD.

I'm now waiting to see if I hear from the rights holder to see if I'm to be sued over this but the entire thing still irks me. Here I am, the kind of customer these people want. What percentage of consumers owns 300+ DVD's? I also downloaded a substantially inferior version of what I already own. Can someone please explain to me why this should be a problem???

I now have very little interest in going back to watch BSG simply to tell Sci-Fi where to get off but of course they won't ever get that message.

I knew what I was doing was questionable, if not illegal, but why should it be? I understand that if you don't own the product you shouldn't download it. This is just going too far in my view. Am I just not seeing this from the right perspective?

R (name withheld to avoid persecution)

I see the problem. I suspect that "Digital Rights Management" is self defeating, and something will happen reasonably soon, or the computer community will find ways around it. I also suspect there are ways to be more anonymous in using Bit Torrent, and I am pretty sure there are reliable ways to copy protected DVD's although I don't know them.

If I need to carry several DVD's on a trip I take them out of their boxes and put them in a disk carrier, but again that's a work around.

On this subject, Brian Bilbrey asks:

So here's a question for Jerry. Let's say I bought a copy of High Justice but I don't want to carry it on the trip, because it's signed by the author and I'd hate to lose it. So I download an E-text version of the book via bittorrent, probably extracted from that Baen extravaganza e-book thing. It's detected. Do I get a call from the author's lawyer? Or just notice of a suit?

.brian

To the best of my knowledge, no publisher tracks downloading of books, and most ebooks are sold with no copy protection, so the answer to your question is that nothing would happen at all; it's between you and your conscience, and I suspect that any reader who treasures a signed copy will have a concern for the author's interests as well.

What would get you attention would be if you then advertised copies of High Justice for sale. I'm not terribly worried (yet) about electronic book downloads by individuals - Baen puts up a number of books for free download and finds that increases the sales of printed copies - but we do worry about our stuff being sold.

And can I ask you to put in a link to the Baen Extravaganze ebook thing? I got a good advance for those electronic rights, but if enough sell it will earn out and I can get more...

[[ Consider it done. Ed. ]]


Baen Books is offering the CoDominium Future History Bundle, nine e-books for $21 US. Can't beat a deal like that with a stick, if you dig e-books and Pournelle.