Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

Mailbag for December 4, 2006
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

December 4, 2006

We had a light mail bag this week, so I have taken the opportunity to bring in some older mail on still current matters.

Last week I proposed a new schedule: the mail bag up on Monday and the column on Tuesdays. This makes my weekends work just a little better. I asked for comments, and I got quite a few. This one is representative; I got none complaining.

Subject: Schedule

> If any of you have comments on that schedule, I'd like to hear them.

I always believed that I got incredible value for my annual subscription to you along with my Byte subscription. Now I feel like I'm getting even more for my money, which doesn't happen all that often these days.

Any schedule that makes it easier for you is fine by me. The Monday/Tuesday schedule gives me two days at the beginning of the week to anticipate. It's hard to argue with that..

Thanks ..
Rob
Political correctness is affirmative action for lousy ideas.


On The Egregious Microsoft Delayed Write Error:

I was bitten by the bug as well, but it didn't get my c: drive.

I was using Acronis TrueImage (recommended) to backup my system onto an external USB drive. At some point during the backup I got the error and the USB drive was trashed.

After going through the experience more than once I think I've figured out what's happening. My speculation:

The backup programs create giant files that take forever to write and close. Something in Windows (or supporting hw/sw) decides that the file has been open too long and - either based on some timeout or when the process is done and the software is "unspooling" the file onto the disk - it gives the message about "delayed write". The disk gets corrupted by the data that didn't quite get written.

Instead of doing a complete drive backup (that takes 1.5 hours), I divided my drive into two logical drives and back them up sequentially. Now that the actual closing of the backup files takes place in less time (1/2 hour - 45 min each), no more "delayed writes".

I don't know that I've totally nailed it, but it worked for me. Perhaps my experience added to others will paint the full picture.

Thanks, Fred Dunayer Sarasota, Florida

The key word here is "speculation". Yours is a good one but we ought not have to speculate about the cause of a terrible flaw in the Windows operating system, and we ought not need workarounds. Alas, that's where we are. More on this in the column.

Here is another workaround for avoiding the Delayed Write Error:

Dr. Pournelle;

Thanks for the story of your latest disaster and your fix. I thought that I'd pass on my own backup technique. I have my D: drive set in a removable tray so that I can swap hard drives in and out as I need. The trays cannot be used for the C: (i.e., boot) drive, but work fine for the second hard drive. About once a week I put my backup hard drive into the machine, boot the system, and then run Casper XP and do a full backup. The incremental backups take about 15 minutes each and create a bootable hard drive that I can swap for my current C: drive if I have a full blown disaster. I've tested the swap process and it works. This doesn't fix the issue of the restore points, but in the event of a full crash, I would think that it is rendered moot. By the way, Caster XP is a nifty program that I highly recommend.

Jim Thomas, Ph.D. Bangor, ME

Which may be a neat solution for those who want to implement the hardware and keep a drive in a tray. We used to do that sort of thing in SCSI days. It does seem a bit drastic for Aunt Minnie. The real solution here is for Microsoft to understand and fix the Delayed Write Error bug, but apparently that won't happen; at least I have no evidence that they are even working on it.


Sometimes our internal discussions generate material I think highly appropriate for the mailbag. For example:

Subject: [Advisors] Hah. HHS goes insane, film at 11

[SFGate link]

The headline reads:

Sex Will Make You Go Blind Single? Under 30? You are in grave danger. Your government says so. Please, stop laughing

.brian

Which was promptly answered with this:

Please. It's Mark Morford. not exactly a source of calm, reasoned, well, reasoned anything.

He has reliably, grossly blown things wildly out of proportion thanks to his kneejerk hatred of anything he associates with those not of a leftwing bent. Especially when recent surveys have shown a surprising number of people under 30 thinks AIDS is no longer a concern. They somehow believe that it is controllable, even curable. This was one of the motivations for a series of ads that tried to convey the miseries of people who were living with 'controlled' AIDS.

The abstinence promoters may have unrealistic expectations but the fact remains that STDs and unwanted pregnancies are terribly low among people who exercise some discretion in how readily they jump into bed with strangers.

--
Eric

and with this:

It's true. He's grossly misrepresenting the HHS guidelines. I was suspicious that he didn't provide a link, and figured it was probably because the facts wouldn't support his position. That turns out to be the case.

I found the earlier ABC news story that probably triggered Morford's column:

[ABC News link]

and that story contains a link to the policy document itself:

[HHS link]

There's nothing here saying that people under 30 shouldn't have sex. It just says people between the ages of 12 and 29 may benefit from abstinence education. The implication is that some people up to the age of 29 may benefit from abstinence itself, but the document doesn't say that, and anyway, it's true. I've seen a lot of people who really shouldn't breed at all.

But again, the document discusses abstinence education, not abstinence. If the document mentioned no age range, who would say "the Bush administration recommends abstinence for everyone"? There's even a specific reference to "sex before marriage". I'm pretty sure the author of this policy is okay with married couples having sex. He may personally prefer they're heterosexual Christian citizens, but the document doesn't say that.

This program probably doesn't generate a social benefit worth the $50 million cost, and it's certainly not something the government ought to be doing anyway, but Morford is not being accurate about it.

. png

I include all this as an illustration of why I can pretend to know everything and often get away with it. It's true we mostly talk about technology, but fortunately it goes well beyond that.


On System Migration software, with a detour.

The other day I regretted not finding any Parker gel rollerball pen refills in green. Staples makes a very nice Sonic line of roller ball gel pens that come in four colors, but I have a pen with an attractive green shell that wants Parker gel refills, and I like it quite a lot.

I got a number of answers, most of them on that subject. I also got this which answers the question, sort of, and I leave the answers in case they're of use, but this is really about systems migration software.

Umm, did you check Yahoo? I found a bunch of folks stocking Parker gel green refills: [link] and [link] and [link] and [link]... Just to name a few. Note - I don't know how good _any_ of these are.

On another note, was wondering if you had any thoughts on system migration software. I've been having moderately good success with AlohaBob PC Relocator, though it's decidedly imperfect (had to reinstall several packages after the migration). Was wondering what you use, if at all, and/or what you've found to work well. NB - latest move was from a older, tired dual P3 Win2K box to a bright-shiny-new dual core Athlon XP Pro box. I'd give it a B+/A-.

Charlie

I ought to have a good system migration tool, and I don't. I recall that years ago I used Alohabob's PC Relocator and reviewed it in BYTE a long time ago, but it has become lost in one or another system revisions, and I have no idea how well, or even if, it works with modern hardware and software.

I really need a good relocator program. I suspect I will get mail on this subject.


I am working toward getting an Intel Mac, and the only real question is which one: I am tempted by both the Mac Book Pro, and the 24" iMac (that screen is beautiful). And Leo LaPorte tells me how much he likes his dual Xeon Quad Core Mac Pro, which does everything: records and edits the TWIT audio podcasts, TV podcasts, you name it, and never slows appreciably. I probably won't go that far because of the expense, but it's one great tool, and I have to admit that I lust for one, and after all, writers always benefit from the best tools...

Anyway, we continue to collect reports on using a Mac as the only system. This note comes from Dan Spisak:

Subject: [Advisors] Spam Spam and More Spam Part MCXMCII

Guys,

I recently found an addon for Macs that helps to greatly curb my spam intake. Its a nifty $30 piece of software called SpamSieve. I was dealing with a huge rash of some bizarre types of spam that the Junk filter in Apple's Mail.app was simply not catching with training. I had previously been trying out JunkMatcher, an open- source free bayesian spam filter plugin for Mail.app but found that its performance was less than ideal due to its heavy use of python and some recent python issues between JunkMatcher and one of the Apple security updates. This combined with JunkMatchers lack of any updates in the past year (the software writer is working on his PhD so I will cut him some slack) finally forced me to seek out a new spam filtering solution. With SpamSieve I gave it a corpus of 1000 email messages to train with, 65% which were spam as their user manual suggests you should do. Doing this took about 30 minutes or less as I usually have a large amount of spam in Mail.app's Junk folder, most of the time was spent selecting good non-spammy emails to train the filter with. After all was said and done I've been running the filter since the evening of the 28th and have found the accuracy of the filter quite impressive so far:

Filtered Mail 78 Good Messages 274 Spam Messages (78%) 112 Spam Messages Per Day

SpamSieve Accuracy 0 False Positives 6 False Negatives 98.3% Correct

Corpus 367 Good Messages 685 Spam Messages (65%) 56,621 Total Words

Rules 1,143 Blocklist Rules 550 Whitelist Rules

Showing Statistics Since 11/28/06 10:50 PM

As you can see I had a few false negatives early on, but after training those emails correctly the filter has yet to miscategorize a single email. The software acts as a plugin to Mail.app and looks to run much faster and consume less CPU time then JunkMatcher did. I'm not aware of what software language SpamSieve is written in, but I get the feeling its not an interpreted language like Python. In any case I thought I'd let you all know about a useful spam filter for the Mac that is cheap and easily worth its cost.

-Dan S.

This sparked what I thought was an interesting discussion between Dan and Peter Glaskowsky:

When I migrated to this new MacBook Pro, I was very dissatisfied with the performance of Microsoft's Entourage, so I decided to give Mail.app a try. It turns out that Mail is actually slower in effect since many background tasks lock out the user interface, but I'm going to stick with it until I'm ready to move to Leopard, since Mail.app in Leopard is much improved.

But Mail's biggest problem is spam filtering. It's awful. I get over 10,000 spams a day on average, and Entourage usually let through about 100, with only a few false positives a year. After a week of training Mail, it was still letting through about 3,000 spams a day, which was totally unacceptable.

I looked at the anti-spam solutions out there, and the decision came down to SpamSieve and Intego's Personal Antispam X4. I went with the latter choice. There were a couple of other spam filters I'd have liked to try but didn't offer a fully functional evaluation version, and I wasn't willing to pay for something I might not want to use.

In the last five days, PAX4 processed 55,981 messages and identified 54,214 as spam. Among those were about 20 false positives that I had to identify manually, all of them from regular senders that weren't in my address book. (Entourage does such a good job of content-based filtering that it doesn't really need a whitelist.)

The false negative rate is a little better with Personal Antispam X4 than it was with Entourage, very satisfactory. It's more painful to identify spams because the "Learn Spam" function is one of those tasks that preempts Mail's user interface, but it's okay.

I'm inclined to give SpamSieve a try next, since your statistics look significantly better than what I've seen so far, but I think I'll do that over the Christmas holidays when I have more spare time. There's definitely some setup effort involved in these things.

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Entourage is, well, a MS mail application. I don't use it. I use Mail.app to check 6 different email accounts, which is a fair number. I have a fairly complicated set of rules to sort mail from various newsletters and other groups into their respective folders. I have a pretty darn good spam filter in place now. If I totalled up all of my emails I think I would have somewhere in the region of about 50,000-70,000 emails contained within Mail.app

Is it the best mail application to use? Not sure, it certainly has some room for improvement. But its been working for me since I got this laptop almost 4 years ago and I've never lost mail to a crash or anything of the like. Plus its email is stored in a standard format. I dont know if Entourage carries over the idiotic Outlook PST style madness over or not.

Macbook Pro's still look good to me.

-Dan S.


-- > Entourage is, well, a MS mail application. I don't use it.

Entourage is a product of Microsoft's Mac group down here in Mountain View, not part of the Redmond organization. The Mac group seems to be full of happy Mac heads, not exiled Windows people. I've been very happy with Entourage. I think it's well designed and well implemented. It's much more capable and reliable than Outlook or Outlook Express on Windows.

Nevertheless, Entourage has some significant problems, one of which you mentioned-- it uses one big file to contain all the emails it knows about (or to be precise, one per user; Entourage can be configured for multiple users within one Mac OS X user account, but only one Entourage user can be active at a time, so it isn't very useful if you have multiple email accounts).

I've lost email in Entourage, but only when I've been irresponsible; if I ignore the spam folder long enough, it grows too big to be opened. If I continue to ignore it, eventually the mail file gets so large that bad things start to happen. The danger point seems to be around six gigabytes, and if I pay attention, I can easily stay below this limit.

My Mac has a separate user account for my business, and Entourage on that side of the machine has never had any problem at all in two and a half years, probably because I get almost no spam on my work account. In fact, I don't even use spam filtering. The mail file is around a gigabyte, and that's fine.

Microsoft did overcome another problem of a monolithic mail file. The Mac OS X Spotlight search function can now find individual messages within the mail file, and the messages it finds open individually in new windows without changing what you're looking at in the main mail window.

Mail isn't quite as sophisticated in some ways as Entourage, but it does some things better, so I figured I'd give it a chance. I have no idea if it'll remain reliable if I let the message database grow to the levels Entourage used to see, somewhere around 1.5 million emails, but maybe I can keep that from happening. :-)

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All of which is valuable information as I prepare to make the Big Change to an Intel Mac; to give that a fair trial I will do as much as I can on the Mac for enough time to get familiar with the system and the way it works. Some of you may remember that I did a good bit of the programming for the Mac version of Roberta's reading program; we had five Macs in the house in those days, and I have never been anti-Mac. I did think that Apple's strategy of immediate profit at the expense of building market share was ill advised, and their policy of gouging the loyalists was worse, but that was under different management. I have seen very little not to like about Macs in recent years.

Regarding Spam, I'll have a section in this month's column on InBoxer and spam control in general. I'll miss InBoxer if I move to a different mail system.


On the New Mac, a letter from England:

Quick report on MacBook Pro:

I transferred my files and user account from my old PowerBook G4 15/1.67 with no problems. What I lost was the ability to run Virtual PC and Mac OS 9 applications. Using Bootcamp 1.1.2 to create a Windows XP Pro system on a separate partition addressed the first problem. I'm currently chasing Intel-compatible versions of some scientific programs that used to require a Mac OS 9 environment.

The Windows system is almost ready for prime time--they now provide drivers for almost everything. To run an Apple Modem in Windows, you have to disable Bluetooth and Airport, but I don't need either when I'm using dial-up. The MacBook Pro doesn't appear to provide enough USB current to power an Apple keyboard on the Windows side--it's fine on the Mac side--so that is a bit of a hassle.

The speed is better than my old PowerBook, so the transition is a very positive experience.

Harry Erwin, PhD

More on Mac and Parallels

Subject: Windows/Mac/Vista Virtualization

Hi Jerry,

Just read the mailbag about Vista flavors not being supported under virtualization. My question is: why bother virtualizing Vista? There's very little Vista-specific software out there, nor will there be for some time. Windows XP will be supported for at least a couple more years, and runs all my current applications. That gives me enough time to migrate completely to native Mac applications as part of my normal upgrade cycle (to avoid a big bang conversion cost). Most of the non-Mac supported applications (like Microsoft Money) have alternatives like Quicken (barring the brain-dead user interface). For the rest (like some games), I'll simply abandon.

I view Parallels / Boot Camp not as a long-term solution, but as a way to mitigate the cost and pain of migration. I suspect Apple has exactly the same view. My current laptop will reach end-of-useful-life sometime next year, at which point I'll be buying my first Apple since the ][+.

Cheers,

Doug

I agree: the only reason to use Vista in the near future (unless you buy a computer with Vista already on it) is because you like it, not because you have to have it. I know of nothing important that requires Vista at this time.

Subject: Mac, Parallels, and Linux

Hi Jerry,

The column this morning was very interesting given all the Mac, Parallels, and Linux info. With the growing interest in these combos I thought I might update you on my own experiences.

A confluence of events has left me with my little Mac Mini test system I have written to you about before as my only system for the time being. As a result I have OS X of course, and several Parallels virtual machines running on it. The VMs include some Linux flavors to include Ubuntu and Windows XP. This whole melange runs fine on one gig of RAM so long as I am aggressive about shutting down unused processes regularly.

I did crash the Mac for the first and only time so far about a month ago. I got swamped at the office and ended up writing a couple of talks at home on the Mac. Running Keynote, iTunes, a couple of browsers, Skype, and Adium caused it to give up the ghost. It just quit and rebooted itself. Save early and often habits meant no work was lost and I powered on, albeit running fewer programs. All I can say in my defense is that I was in a writing frenzy and lost track of what I had running. <g>

Given my experiences since last spring in Apple land, it is getting ever harder to justify the headaches that go with Windows. The Mac just works and I have found something to remain true from years ago when I used them regularly, which is that they don't get in the way of the creative process the way Windows systems do for me. This is a phenomena that is hard to put my finger on, but it is very noticeable.

All that said, I must say that Ubuntu linux is darn close, if not there already, in reaching a Mac level of ease of use. Just like with the Mac, a bit of learning curve to reprogram old Windows habits is called for, but it is worth it. No activation required either. If I wasn't an iTunes junky (not to ignore a growing respect for Keynote) I could easily live in Ubuntu.

Let me close with some comments on Keynote. I have a real hate relationship for PowerPoint that was crystallized by Tufte's monograph. Keynote suffers many of the same ills, being of the genre and all. However, if you are student of Tufte and spend some time to get the hang of Keynote, I am finding that it is much more conducive to clear slides that help one's talk than PowerPoint or its OpenOffice clone ever will be. Worth looking at if you haven't already.

All the best,

Richard Kullberg

--
Frustra fit per plura, quod fieri petest per paucioria. Entia non sunt multiplicanda preater necessitatem. - Ockham

Thanks for the report, and also for the original formulation of Occam's Razor...


And a question:

Subject: XP and Mac

Jerry,

Perhaps you or one of your readers has already answered this question. I have a current and up to date copy of WinXP on a Gateway machine that is sooner or later going to need replacement. Suppose I want to give the Mac a trial run, but want to retain access to all my old Windows programs by running WinXP on the Mac. I know there are ways to dual boot, and I believe there are ways to run WinXP as virtual session under MacOS. But will I legally be able to install the OS with my current disks, and then activate the installation, or will I have to buy a new copy of XP? If the latter, does MS typically continue to sell the old version of an OS after the replacement (i.e., Vista) has been released?

CP, Connecticut

The licensing agreement on XP allows you to run a copy on one machine and one only. In the past nothing was stopping you from running one copy on your desktop and another on your laptop. It may not have been legal, but not everyone at Microsoft knew that. Alas, that has changed; everyone there now agrees, one XP one machine. How rigorous the enforcement is I don't know; I know that at least some people fairly recently have managed to activate the same copy on two machines. It's likely that with the "Microsoft Genuine Advantage" "security updates" they'll catch more people using the same XP on more than one machine, and it's for sure not legal.

All that assumes you have an actual copy of XP; if you got your XP installed on a system and it did not come with the installation disks, you won't be able to install XP on any other machine at all.

I do not know what the situation would be if you want to have both a BootCamp copy of XP and a Parallels copy of XP; that's in theory two installations although on one machine, and whether "Genuine Advantage" can tell that this is actually two installations I do not know. I'd appreciate mail from anyone who has done this.

I am no expert on Microsoft licensing agreements. Microsoft has been kind enough to furnish me with multiple copies of XP since I regularly build and tear down test systems. Every now and then I am unable to activate a copy after a scrub and reinstallation, but so far that has never been refused by the nice young ladies in Bangalore who answer when you call in toll-free to request new registration codes.


On Office 2007

I know you have tested Office 2007. I installed the final release. I have noticed that in Outlook there is a link for Windows Search. You can't get rid of the message to download windows search. So I go ahead and download the program. The search program is a memory hog, after it finishes indexing, the regular program take 14.5 megs of ram, but the indexer regardless if its indexing or not takes 38.5 megs. I like to run a clean efficient system, and this program is bad when you compare it to Google's version.

: Tim Jebara

Actually, I find that Google's index files are quite a bit larger than Windows Desktop Search index files. I have both on two different machines, and it's the same with both. The program files themselves are fairly small compared to the index files. Of course all my machines have at least 500 megabytes of memory. More on this another time.


Subject: Re: Olympus WS-100 digital recorder

Jerry, Saw in your draft Chaos Manor notes some good words about the Olympus WS-100 digital voice recorder. I've had one of these for two years and it is very useful. When I'm writing something, I need some dedicated, interrupt-free time to concentrate on it. That is sometimes in short supply -- so I carry the Olympus on trips and also on my commute from home to work. I've dictated most of the notes on our last few patent applications into it and passed them to others to write up. It is light but rugged, travels well, and has a user interface I can work one- handed without looking at it. After seeing how handy it has been, our technical writer has ordered one as well.

-- Jeff Greason XCOR Aerospace

Regular readers may recall that my son Richard is a VP at XCOR. I have since bought the WS-100 and there will be a report in the column. I love it.