Dr. Jerry Pournelle

Email Me

Why not subscribe now?

Chaos Manor Subscribe Now

Useful Link(s)...


Hosting by

Powered by Apache

Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

Mailbag for December 11, 2006
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

December 11, 2006

The new schedule seems to be working: the mailbag on Mondays and the column on Tuesdays.

This weekend I am down at the beach house. Some mail has been stacking up for weeks. The first note was scheduled for the Monday after my son Richard's wedding. Alas, it got lost in the transition, probably not copied properly from one machine to another.

Hi, Jerry - I've had an interesting experience over the last week that I felt might interest you.

Back on September 13, I was contacted by City of Edmonton Police and advised that neighbors had seen 3 teenagers leaving my home. As I live alone, this quite disturbed me. I did a quick check and determined that nothing was missing; I then increased my security, and made sure my locks and such were functional.

And, I did something else. I installed a couple of webcams - Logitech model 4000s - set up to provide surveillance. One was mounted on the exterior of my home, in the eaves and at such an angle that it covered the back door and surrounding territory; the other was mounted in my study, covering my computer and other equipment.

The software I used was made by Digi-Watcher and is available over the net with a free trial. I found it very flexible, with an astounding array of options. It can be set up in motion sensing mode - with a wide range of sensitivity settings - and when an alarm is triggered it can do a number of things, including live streaming the video over the web, capturing the video to a hard drive, playing an audio file (alarm, barking dog, you name it) dialing a phone number, launching another user specified program... the options seem endless. It also has an option to start capturing video just before motion is detected; this cute trick is accomplished by streaming the video through ram, and constantly refreshing it. When motion is detected, the ram is dumped to the hard drive and serves as the lead in. This ensures you don't miss a thing.

So I got in the habit of setting it up every single day to record any motion in or around my home. On returning home each day, I would find about 20 false alarms recorded to video; my cats entering and exiting through the cat door, the sun emerging from behind a cloud and suddenly changing the lighting... that sort of thing.

But on Tuesday, October 17, I came home at 5 PM to a very disturbing scene. My back door had been kicked in, the doorframe shattered; and a lot of expensive electronics had been stolen. Gone was my Sony home stereo, my 19" Viewsonic LCD monitor, my Canon ip4000 color printer, my external USB hard drive, my Logitech keyboard... the losses totaled in the thousands. Just as disturbing was the vandalism the thieves committed; my office was trashed.

But the Digiwatcher software captured every instant of it, including closeups of the criminals' faces as they walked within a couple of feet of the webcam covering the study. I plugged in an alternate monitor, and called the police; they responded within an hour, by which time I had all the video segments pieced together using windows movie maker. I showed the video to the investigating officers, and they were blown away by the quality; even a cheap webcam beats a standard surveillance camera all hollow. One officer commented with an amazed smile, "Well, we shouldn't have any problem with this one!"

The next day, I went further. I took the video to all the major television stations in Edmonton - we have four - and three chose to do stories on it, and interview me. "Local citizen strikes back at crime"; "Burglars videotape themselves committing B&E"... that sort of thing. The stories aired Thursday, September 19 on all local news broadcasts.

As it happened, that evening the father of one of the two burglars had settled down to relax in front of the TV - and was treated to the unhappy experience of watching his 15 year old son commit a B&E, live and in color on prime time news. We can only speculate as to what happened next; but the net result is that I received a call from City of Edmonton Police on Monday, advising me that all the stolen items had been delivered to police custody and that the 'alleged' criminals would be turning themselves in that afternoon, accompanied by their parents. And today, Tuesday October 24, I went to the local police station and retrieved all the stuff the kids took. Interestingly, it was returned to me exactly a week after it was stolen, right to the hour.

There are a few lessons to be learned from this experience.

First, deadbolts don't deter a determined thief. A metal doorframe, or metal reinforcing inserts, can prevent the doorframe from being kicked in. I now have that in place.

Second, don't expect your insurance company to protect you; they will not. Imagine my surprise upon learning that my $250 deductible had quietly been raised to $500, and my 'notification' of this change was buried on page 17 of my policy, in 6 point type, printed in light gray ink on white paper. (I should also mention that my vision is significantly impaired.) I also had a 'guaranteed replacement' clause in my policy; that had been quietly deleted, again without notification, and replaced with a 'depreciated value' clause. I'm currently shopping for a more ethical insurance provider.

Third, WEBCAMS WORK. Whether you're experiencing minor pilferage or a full blown burglary, webcams deliver the goods. The resolution is excellent, easily permitting facial recognition; and they're so cheap, no home can afford to be without one. Or several.

Fourth, if you're saving your video to a hard drive, conceal the hard drive. I was lucky because my computer is an older, home made model in a huge server case; it's big, heavy and ugly, and the thieves didn't want to make the effort to lug it out of my home. Had they done so, I would have lost my record of the theft. I say again, I was lucky. Ideally, you want to stream the video to a remote location, and save it there; failing that, put a second computer - or an external USB drive - in a locked drawer or secured location within your home.

Bottom line? The criminals got caught; they won't be committing any more B&E's any time soon, so the neighborhood is a bit safer. As a result of the publicity, more people will be using webcams for video surveillance, and that makes criminals lives just a bit more difficult. And I got everything they stole back, in amazingly good shape; there are a few scratches, but nothing major.

All in all, it was an interesting experience.

Regards, Charlie Worton

To which I can only say, it's a wicked world out there, but technology can help the good guys. Usually. Do note that bad guys can learn to use technology too.

Subject: Pournelle's Law


A quick question. Has the day yet come when you will no longer purchase any system for Chaos Manor with less than two CPU's / Cores?


The short answer is yes. Absent some really special need (and I have nothing in mind at the moment) I see no reason to get a new desktop system with fewer than two CPU cores. Laptops are about to enter that class, too. In fact, I think I would no longer buy a laptop without dual processors.

I had considerable discussion on this with the associates, but it all boils down to that.

The problems with some Antec Power Supplies and some AMD systems continue. Please pay close attention to my comments after this letter.

Subject: Antec cases and power supplies


I admit, you're sort of scaring me. I have a system (a dual Opteron on an ASUS K8N-DL motherboard) which was equipped with an Antec TruePower 2.0 550-watt power supply. The power supply just went out within a month of taking possession of the machine. Impressed with the general reviews of Antec power supplies, and pressed by the need to get the machine back working (as I was in the middle of a project), I purchased an Antec SmartPower 2.0 500-watt power supply locally and quickly swapped it out. Now, I admit I had no problems with this swap, and I did get the TruePower replaced under warranty (though I didn't put it back in, as the SmartPower seems to be handling the load. All of this sits in an Antec Titan server case. If there really is a problem with the ASUS nVidia motherboards and the Antec power supply, I may be sitting on a powder keg. I hope you'll be able to ascertain whether this is a real incompatibility or a remarkable run of bad luck.

Regarding the Antec case, however, I have distinctly mixed feelings. The server case is large and has some nice features, but some real downsides, as well. The 5.25 cage has, inexplicably, a ledge at the rear of the cage, meaning that some perfectly good hardware just won't fit because it won't go past that edge. I had hoped to salvage some of the peripherals from my old system, but some just won't fit, despite the ample space in the enclosure. That strikes me as an odd design decision. Secondly, the ASUS motherboard comes with 1 PCIE slot and 2 standard PCI slots. An upgraded video card fills the PCIE slot, while I added an addition card for additional 1394 device support into one of the slots, but needed to add a SCSI U160 controller card in order to be able to access the SCSI drive from my old machine to reclaim some data (and also the drive is pretty fast, if not very big by modern standards). It turns out that there is another ledge on the case precisely where one needs to have access to the face plates for the PCI card slots, making actually adding or removing a card a real nightmare because one can't get a perpendicular shot at the screws. So, my satisfaction with the Antec case is definitely mixed, and I cannot for the life of me understand the rationale for the design limitations.

I've never actually used a PC Power and Cooling case, and they no longer manufacture them, so it looks like I won't, but I -am- now strongly considering getting one of their power supplies for this system. Between having to buy new peripherals and deciding to spend a fortune for the 64-bit version of 2K3 server (a decision I still feel very ambivalent about), I've poured a lot of money into this thing. The thought that the power supply might cause further problems gives me serious pause. I look forward to your final conclusions.

Joe VanZandt, Ph.D.

Antec is sending me a variety of power supplies to replace the ones I had problems with. As soon as they arrive I will take non-Antec power supplies out of some working AMD systems, replace them with the new Antec, and beat the holy heck out of them. Bob Thompson has been using and recommending Antec power supplies for years, and continues to do so. I expect good results, but until I get them I can't confirm that Antec's problems with ASUS/AMD are over.

In my case there were two problems. One was with the NEO480 systems; since those are no longer made or sold, that experience is probably irrelevant. I will warn you not to buy one used or on sale somewhere. The second was false reports of memory errors when an ASUS AMD system was booted with a newer, but still several months old, Antec power supply of more than sufficient wattage. I am unsure what happened there; I do know that replacing the Antec with a medium-priced Rosewill cured the problems and the system is running quite happily. That's disturbing.

I will replace the Rosewill with an Antec-recommended system, and I will report on the results. I will also replace a PC Power and Cooling power supply in another system with an Antec; the purpose there is simply a test, since I have never had any problems with PC COOL power supplies.

Power is very tricky now. Power requirements change rapidly with new motherboards, and it is possible that for a while earlier this year Antec did not keep up with requirements, particularly since AMD, nVidia, and Intel all kept making changes. Antec's people are concerned, assure me that all their systems are guaranteed, and that they now think their power supplies are premium power and will work in any systems within their wattage ratings. They are certain that their A3 revisions meet all power requirements for all systems including ASUS/AMD, and they assure me they will replace power supplies that do not work with models that do.

I have no reason to doubt this, but all I can do is to continue to report what I find.

Regarding cases, PC Power and Cooling no longer makes cases. I have not tried the huge Antec Server Case. I find their smaller cases to be the best I have ever worked with. I am fond of the Sonata, the P-100, and the LanBoy cases. In particular, the Performance One in my judgment lives up to its reputation.

Then there is the general subject of power quality.

Subject: Concerning your Chaos Manor column on power problems

Dr. Pournelle:

I can report something very similar. Last spring, we purchased 2 new Gateway E-series machines, identical, 40 GB hard drive, Pentium 4, 1Gb RAM. One of the machines has NEVER given problems.

The other apparently was built by Murphy and Murphy. Of course, that was the main machine for payroll.

It crashed after 3 weeks.

At this point, I'm convinced that the power supply design for that model is just too weak.

Also this fall, our video projector has developed Murphy's disease; apparently, the Critical Need Detector circuitry is fully functional. The projector is on an UPS. A minor dip in the mains electricity stops the lamp (but not the fan) from running.

I asked the video guy. He's of the opinion the problems are both power-quality related, and he notes that the problem will worsen, as more things are added to the grid and no power plants are built. About 70% of the weird type of problems he encounters are related to power quality.

Maybe they'll let me build the next computers--I plan to use a big PC Power & Cooling power supply. And a Falcon online UPS.


Good choices. I strongly recommend Falcon UPS for critical systems.

Subject: Malice?

From the current ChaosManorReviews:

> Now I would never accuse Microsoft of sending out glitchmaking routines with their automatic updates.

Wasn't it you who asked "Hypothetically, what if the FDA were tasked with maximizing the death rate to save Social Security? What would they be doing differently than they are doing today?"


Stephen Fleming | Chief Commercialization Officer | Georgia Tech

Well, yes, I did say that...

My former editor at BYTE says:

Jerry, I doubt you are exposed much to Weird Al Yankovic, a man who (in the mold of Alan Sherman) does parodies of popular songs, as well as original "funny" songs. His latest CD, "Straight out of Lynnwood," features one that makes me laugh every time called "Virus Alert."

Sample lyric:
Turn off your computer and make sure it powers down/Drop it in a forty-three-foot hole in the ground/Bury it completely; rocks and boulders should be fine/Then burn all the clothes you may have worn any time you were alive!

You can find it here at this link


Last week we discussed Windows slowdowns. A long time friend and systems expert comments:

Subject: Windows Slow Down over time


I suspect that most of the slow down that Windows develops over time is caused by the accretion of crud in the Registry as well as the loading of unnecessary drivers, dlls and exes.

The Registry is an unmitigated mess. Applications and installation programs are allowed to write to it without leaving tracks. When you uninstall a program some, but in most cases, not all of its tracks in the registry are not erased. The Registry files are open whenever Windows is running and, apparently, changes to them are not saved until a shutdown. This makes the system extremely fragile. At least Windows XP has a system save and restore that mostly works if you use it and know how to recover from a system that won't boot because of a corrupted Registry file. (F8 at start of boot and select system restore.) Of course, if Windows were well designed it would be able to offer that option automatically if the registry were corrupted.

DLL hell is another possibility for System slow down. How can a user know if all DLLs in use are really the proper versions and compatible with one another.

There are a number of other serious deficiencies with Windows given the state of the art in operating systems. Windows memory management appears to have been invented by Microsoft without bothering to look at the knowledge that has been gained outside of Microsoft over the 45 plus years since the first system to introduce virtual memory, the Burroughs B5000.

Multi-tasking is another serious deficiency. I understand that Vista has some significant improvements in OS thread scheduling for multi-processor environments. My understanding is that prior to Vista, Windows would schedule OS threads without taking into consideration which processor was used for the parent thread. The result being that data already residing in the L2 cache of a processor would have to be reloaded if the child thread was executed on a different processor. I don't know and am only speculating that much of the performance enhancement enjoyed by the Intel Core 2 DUO processor is the result of the single L2 cache shared by both processors. I wonder what benchmarks comparing the Core 2 Duo versus Athlon X2 or Core Duo processors using Linux would show?

Most of Windows problems appear to be caused by Microsoft's rather insular approach to development. I would sum it up as, if we didn't invent it, buy it, or get it through some kind of sharing agreement (Apple GUI) it can't be any good.

After 45 years in the Computer Business I find the labels that are applied to Industry leaders to be rather ironic. Microsoft is a leader in technology and IBM is a leader in marketing, when the reality is actually the reverse. If IBM were a leader in Marketing then Ross Perot would have stayed with IBM as a salesman and ended up making more than the CEO. If Microsoft were a leader in technology then Windows shortcuts wouldn't break if the underlying file were moved (OS/2 had this) and Windows wouldn't develop drastic slowdown over time to name only two things.

Time will tell how well Vista addresses these basic plumbing problems. I won't be holding my breath.

Bob Holmes

Agreed. I am still searching for a safe registry cleanup tool. Meanwhile, we will have to make do: try Vista and hope it fixes this (as you say, don't hold your breath), or periodically scrub down and reinstall Windows XP. Having done that latter recently I can say (1) it speeds the machine up something wonderful, and (2) it's a major pain to do. The Windows XP installation isn't difficult (except that you may have to call Bangalore to activate your reinstalled copy), but reinstalling all needed applications can take a long time.