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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

Mailbag for December 18, 2006
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

December 18, 2006

The new schedule seems to be working: mail bag on Monday and the column on Tuesdays.

We have a lot of mail this week. We can begin with two more comments on the infamous Delayed Write Bug.

Subject: Delayed Write Bug

I was introduced to the Delayed Write Bug in a very interesting scenario:

I have a ragtag collection of old servers running my home network. I decided I could save power and repair time if I virtualized everything. So I sacrificed my kids first year of college and I bought a real server, set up MS Virtual Server, and started rebuilding my machines as VMs. But when I was copying my music collection to VM I started getting delayed write errors. I did my research and found reference to USB drive issues, but nothing that applied to me.

Even stranger was the fact that my music and my Virtual Machines were on the same physical drive. In-other-words, my Virtual Server drive D held my music collection as well as my virtual computer's virtual drives (it's a big hard drive). I tried turning Windows caching off on the drive. No luck. The Virtual Server drive D was compressed, so I tried uncompressing it. A delayed write error every time I tried to uncompress a large virtual drive (50GB+)!

Now I could reproduce the error. I was able to copy the large virtual drives to all 5 of my other hard drives, some being the identical model as my "faulty" drive, and I was able to compress and uncompress on all of them. But my drive D still failed with delayed write errors. I thought perhaps the hard drive's cache may be faulty. But then I recreated the partition and reformatted drive D and, it worked! No more delayed write errors. My VMs are all running now. I haven't seen a single delayed write error.

It turns out drive D, including the previously stable VMs on it, came from another computer running MS Virtual Server (my initial experiment with virtualization). An AMD X2 based computer. My new Virtual Server has an Intel CPU (a core 2 duo). Both ran the same Windows Server version, same Virtual Server version, had the same amount of RAM, and even had the same data drive.

A clue perhaps? Or perhaps it's the fact I use Antec power supplies...

Mark Winder

Regarding Antec Power Supplies and ASUS/AMD systems: there have been problems in the past. Antec assures me that all of their currently shipping power supplies (the A3 series) work properly with both Intel and AMD systems.

Ron Morse asked

re: delayed error....has anyone seen a delayed write error on a computer with an Intel chipset and CPU?

All the instances I've experienced were with VIA or nVidia chipset-based motherboards. All the ones I've read about were on ALI, VIA, Sil or nVidia chipsets.

Ron Morse

Which is interesting. I am not sure I have seen this on Intel-based systems, but I am not sure I have not. We just don't know. The Delayed Write Error is fairly rare, if devastating.

And Bob Thompson has an observation:

Subject: Delayed Write

I'm telling you, Microsoft is just like the Elbonian Parachute Company.

Remember their motto: It Usually Works

Robert Bruce Thompson

Last week we discussed the odd kind of spam that seemed to have no message. Chaos Manor Advisor and security expert Rick Hellewell says

Subject: Image and nonsense spam

Dr. Pournelle:

In regards to your mention in next week's Chaos Manor Reviews post about that new spam;

(your text: "Every now and then the spammers come up with a new development. The latest is realistic subjects and sender names, with random selections from literature as the body of the mail. The payload is an attachment. ")

The spammers are trying to do two things:

1) By including the random selections from literature, they are trying to defeat Bayesian spam filters. Those types of filters assume that the more non-spammy type words, the message must not be spam. Since the spammer is trying to get their spam delivered, that's one way that they try to defeat that type of spam filter. They often put that text as non-HTML text in the message. Most people have their mail reader set up to display messages in HTML rather than text mode, which helps get the spammer's real message displayed.

2) The real message is the image inside of the message. The image is often stock 'pump and dump', or for various pharmaceuticals. Since most people have their mail program set to display HTML, all they will see is the graphic image, not the nonsense text.

Since the graphic image is the real message, and it's served from the spammer's web server, they can count how many times the image was displayed. That gives them a 'hit' that they can charge their 'customer' (they guy that's paying them to send out the spam).

Just displaying the spam graphic can make some money for the spammer. For those that click on the graphic, the spammer makes more. And if the result of that click is an order, the spammer makes even more. It may only be pennies or dimes for that one graphic display or click, but when you can easily send out millions of spam messages, the numbers can add up.

Many mail filters will recognize, over time, the graphic image in the message as spam. So there are programs that will slightly change the graphic image just enough so that the mail filter doesn't recognize it as a known spam message, but not too much to obscure the actual message in the graphic. This is all done automatically as part of the spammer's mailing program.

Image spam is harder to block, which is why you are seeing more of it. The image is usually benign, although images can contain a virus.

And detection of spam by mail filters is reactive, just like viruses. So you can get "zero-day spam" that is not initially sensed by mail filter programs. The exact same message sent a couple of days later might get blocked, but by that time, the spammer has created new 'zero-day spam".

Safe computing practice: set up your mail program to default to display messages in text, and not to display graphics. Also set for viewing in 'draft' mode to defeat the trackback graphic codes. And just delete spam, never open or click on anything in the spam message.

Regards, Rick Hellewell

Thanks. I have Outlook set to preview all messages in Plaintext. I don't convert to HTML unless I know the source quite well, so I never see any embedded graphics. And of course I never open the attached images or messages.

Also relevant to last week's discussions:

Subject: Dec 12th CMR


In the latest Chaos Manor Reviews you made the following comment:

"There is a program called Parallels. Get that and you will be able to run your Windows Office as an application inside your Mac until you decide to get Office for Mac."

Good advice, but just a quick note. It would actually be better to use the current Office under Windows in Parallels, if that is what he has, since the current Mac Office 2004 is not a universal app and thus runs under Rosetta. Now, while that still gives pretty decent performance, I would advise not buying Mac Office 2004 and waiting for the Universal Binary version release from MS.


Richard Hakala

Thanks. I hadn't realized that MacOffice wasn't yet native to the Intel-based Mac systems. In the particular case, I know that my colleague has (Windows) Office 2003 and it works well for him.

Peter Glaskowsky adds:

There's no apparent performance issue for the older Mac Office. It feels faster on my new MacBook Pro than it did on my old top-of-the- line PowerBook. Now, the first time you run any PowerPC software on an Intel-based Mac, you'll experience a translation delay, but it isn't that bad. The situation might be different for people using slower Intel-based Macs, though.

Mac Office and Windows Office both need special handling to run on these new Macs, but you don't have to think about Rosetta emulation-- so Mac Office, even with PowerPC binaries, is much easier to deal with.

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Subject: OneNote replacements for the Mac

Hi Jerry,

I saw in your column today that you said OneNote will change your life. I bought a copy a couple of years ago based on your experiences and love it. When I bought the Mac Mini I went looking for an equivalent program. There are several different note taking programs that were nice, but the one that stuck with me is pretty amazing. In fact, I wish I could get it for my Windows machine at work. No tablet features, but no Mac tablets yet either. The program is Devon Think and I bought the bundle with Devon Agent included. Agent is a google on steroids with nice web data mining features. Devon Think itself is pitched as an information manager and you can dump your entire hard drive into it. When I do searches on my over 20 years of saved electronic trivia I am continually amazed at what it dredges up. Not to ignore how easy it is to capture new stuff off the web etc ala OneNote. For more info see:


One thing I have hardly scratched the surface of on the Mac is scripting and the way the software can all talk to each other using the underlying OS. Devon utilizes all of this in spades.

Bottom line is that I love this software. Serious learning curve that I am still crawling up, but it is well worth it.

All worth looking at for when you buy your Mac Book.


Richard Kullberg

I intend to look into this but I haven't yet because I haven't got the new MacBook Pro yet, for reasons explained in the column this week. Chaos Manor Associate Dan Spisak adds:

Yojimbo is another application similar to DEVONThink from what I can tell.


-Dan S.

But neither one of us has tried it. Reports, or a contact for where we can get it, are welcome.

Regarding Tab Mix Plus:

Subject: Tab Mix Plus Tab Width

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

Recently I sent you a letter offering advice on how to get the multi-row tabs in Firefox using Tab Mix Plus. I did neglect to tell you how to get back the single button to close open tabs (Tools>Tab Mix Plus Options>Display>Choose "Close Tab Button"), which I think you figured out on your own. In the most recent Chaos Manor Reviews you posted

"I never did find the setting that tells Firefox how many items to put in each row. One day I will."

I think I've found a solution: Go to Tools>Tab Mix Plus Options>Display Note that there are two tabs, one is "Tab Bar" and the other "Tabs" you want the latter. The last group of options is "Tab Width" and probably shows the default 100 to 250 pixels. Adjusting the minimum and maximun widths will allow you to customize how many or few tabs you would like. You can also base the tab width to fit the tab name, or to make the tab name a personal bookmark name. Firefox can be very rewarding, or aggravating, and with many of the "open source" programs RTFM would be a great answer, if there was an FM to read! I find I can't switch back to IE7, though I did give it a good run through when it was released. My biggest beef with IE7 is that it sometimes takes a minute to load the first page! Once it has, it loads subsequent pages quickly, but I can open IE7, then Firefox, load up a bunch of tabs to read through in the time it takes IE7 to load the home page. Not good enough!! And so I plod on, finding out new tips and tricks by trial and error. As you say, a great life, if you don't weaken. Stay strong!

Bill Grigg

His experience is close to mine. I use Firefox with Tab Mix Plus as my main browser, but when I want to see something in a hurry I usually open IE 7. For most use, though, Firefox and its extensions is preferable.

Long time systems expert Bob Holmes says

Subject: Easing the Pain of a System Scrubdown and reinstall?


After reading this week's letters and your comment following mine, it occurred to me that there might be a way to ease the reinstall pain just a bit.

Before installing any program do the following:

Copy the CD to a folder on a drive other than the drive that contains the OS and do the Install from that folder.

Also place a text file in that folder that also contains any serial numbers, keys, et al that are required to validate the installation.

Have a master text file that lists all of the installed programs, drivers et all and append to it every time you install a new program or change an existing program or driver.

Now all you have to do is copy your data from the drive containing the OS to the other drive. (Why does Microsoft prevent a user from changing the default location of MY Documents, Documents and Settings, et al to a drive of their choice?)

This might be an opportunity for some software developer to create a program to do this.

Bob Holmes

Ron Morse adds:

Although I am no longer faced with the tedium of periodically reinstalling the operating system just to keep the computer sane [because he has changed over to Ubuntu Linux - jep], Bob Holmes' suggestion of maintaining a master file containing activation codes, vendor order numbers for web-purchased software, date placed in service, etc. for installed applications and utilities is a good one.

My variation is to put all that good information into the contact database of my PIM/Mailer program. Apps have their own folder so they are out of the way and easy to exclude when I sync people contacts with the cell phone.

My contact database is the most valuable data on my computer and always gets first priority for backup. Additionally, it tends to follow me from O/S to O/S and machine to machine so the information is always at hand.

-- Ron Morse

Or you can try this:

Subject: Acronis universal restore


When I brought up my new dual Woodcrest system, I used Acronis to move everything over from my old Xeon system. This was a big move. The old system had 1TB of hard drives in a Raid 0 configuration. The new system uses the Intel 5000X chipset and I did not use Raid, instead using a 300GB drive for C and a 500GB drive for D. There are several changes in the chipsets from machine to machine, enough to make an older install of XP that was on the C drive crash when I tried booting it, every time.

With the August era version of Acronis, the restore would fail. As soon as Acronis finished asking me the usual questions, it would reboot, over and over. I downloaded the latest version of Acronis from their website, made a new CD and tried again, this time it worked. Acronis made enough adjustments in the restore of the system so that it booted. I still had to install the new INF files for the 5000X chipset and new drivers for many of the motherboard devices, but it worked and I am writing this on the new machine. Which, by the way, is the fastest damn PC I have every owned!


Acronis is sending me their latest and greatest, and we'll have reports when I know something. Thanks.

This question comes up fairly often:

Subject: Chaos Manor: Jerry, what do you do with obsolete or dead equipment?

Hi Jerry,

I recently cleaned up some old computers that were only collecting dust. I just couldn't throw them away like that since they still worked fine, and anyway, finding a computer recycling company isn't easy.

All my computers got a good new home so to say, since I ran into some guys collecting stuff for a computer museum and someone else collecting not too old computers for schools in the 3rd world.

It made me wonder though: given all the equipment you have, how do you dispose of old stuff?



A random quote: "Beware of Programmers who carry screwdrivers."
   - Leonard Brandwein

In the early days when computers were fairly rare, I was pretty careful to give my surplus systems to schools, or to the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, or sometimes to worthy individuals including loaning them to visiting programmers from totalitarian countries.

And of course Old Zeke, my original system, went to the Smithsonian where he is still on display in the Hall of Communications and Computing in the Museum of American History. He's standing on a pedestal made of old BYTE magazines potted in Bondo.

Today, systems become obsolete very quickly, and the price of used equipment, entirely refurbished, with technical support, is quite low. Equipment I have built often gets cannibalized for parts for a new system, and the carcass isn't worth much; and those I give it to would expect me to help them set it up, and neither I nor the associates have time to do that.

If I have a particularly pristine system in good shape that the manufacturer wants me to give away I will still give it to a local school, but mostly the stuff accumulates here until one of my associates takes it away. I leave it to them as to what to do with it. LASFS still gets some.