Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

Mailbag for February 12, 2007
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

February 12, 2007

We have a huge mailbag this week, and I may not get to all of it.

Veteran PR man Marty Winston on last week's column:

Your "just works" theme is good enough that when it mounts, excerpts (and a link) should go to every press person you know.

I might add this anecdotal note.

When desktop (or desk-side) one-user-per computers first arrived, and especially the PC, some of the user interfaces were so onerous that they created (in the corrupted universe in which they exist) enormous user loyalty. For example, nobody wanted to ever again endure the painful learning curve that it took to learn the WordStar dot commands, so people continued to stick with WordStar long after easier, better solutions were available.

Remember keystroke macros? Most of them evolved into core functionality.

Ultimately, the best thing that any of us can do when we encounter something that doesn't just work is to just not buy, not recommend, and not be passive about that. Eventually, the marketplace cleanses itself.

Martin Winston

I learned WordStar, but I never took to it; of course I had Tony Pietsch's WRITE, which was about the best text editor ever done for CP/M systems. (CP/M was the operating system of choice for S-100 Bus systems. S-100 Bus systems were the predecessors of the IBM PC; my computer, Old Zeke, on display in the Smithsonian is an S-100 Bus machine.) Word Perfect was another program that took so long to learn that no one wanted to give it up.

Subject: I can't believe you said that...

Dr. Pournelle, No, I'm not a subscriber. Yes, I will become one in the near future — although I'm not sure I want to support your defection to the Mac...just kidding.

I am a software developer, software architect, consultant, trainer, process manager — the list goes on. And I can't believe you actually said (wrote) some of the things in your 2/6/07 CMR post. I'll try to keep this short, I'll try...

1) "... and few computer programmers know how to do very much except programming. They haven't been medical diagnosticians, or accountants, or aircraft engineers, or architects."

Well, the first part is patently absurd, and frankly insulting.

For the second part: Oh really!! I am an EE by degree. But, I develop software for military computer systems, namely those that help pilots in the Navy plan their missions, and systems that fly their planes. In order to write software to plan how a particular bomb will fall on a target, I had to learn how the pilot does that. I became a "weaponeering and release planner"; then I and my team automated that task. I'm not a professional at this kind of thing, but I can claim entry level at it. I'd say that, unlike most (or all other???) professions, software developers MUST learn how to do the job they're automating — at least someone in the process has to, be it system architect, system engineer, or low-level programmer. Otherwise we'd have to have 100% perfect requirements...yeah, right! No, we just about have to 'become' the customer, in my opinion.

Oh, and most of my fellow programmers know how to do all kinds of things — we are, after all, good at learning; riding a dirt bike, riding a horse, telling good feed from bad, cutting and installing tile, setting up an irrigation system, writing novels (successfully, I might add). What, you didn't know that there are some highly successful novelists who know how to program??? Look in a mirror!!!! (gotcha) In fact, you're your own best counter-example.

Look, any professional is a specialist in his/her field. It cannot be otherwise, since about 1900 or so. Within my field, I focus on desktop/palm systems, others in real-time embedded. In your field, some are SF, others romance (consider yourself challenged). And I don't know any accountants who can do calculus, aircraft engineers who can fly, or architects who can reliably swing a hammer (although I accept there must be some, somewhere, just random chance). Yet all the above (including myself) use, on a daily basis, software that a software professional has written. I wouldn't have it otherwise, any more than I'd ride in a plane an accountant had designed. (Maybe I have, re: A320...oh dear!).

2) "Real computer literacy will come when ordinary people can write computer programs, just as ordinary people can write novels."

Well, I'd say we have met your "wish" — ordinary people CAN write software just like ordinary people CAN write novels. Get a computer, Python or other open source language, and go to it. Or open a DOS window and write a batch file. Learn the syntax, not rocket science, and start writing. If you can follow the instructions on a bottle of shampoo, you've got what it takes. Of course, you'll never have the time since you'll be lathering/rinsing/repeating forever.

Oddly enough, a LOT of software developers didn't start out as sofware professionals. They have, in fact, come from other fields, some which have little or no connection to software. But for one reason or another, these otherwise 'ordinary' people BECAME software professionals.

Ordinary people can write words, sentences, and paragraphs. Some can write a report. Very few, almost none, can write a novel that would be anything but trivial (read: bad). I'd say that computer programming is at least as mature as novel writing. We both have to learn our craft (duh!!!), learn our subject, and produce, produce, produce. There are tools to help us through all phases, and some of those are (gasp) software-based. Any professional has to commit to the craft, and software is no different.

But the point is that, really, we do write software like novelists write novels. And, very likely, ordinary people will one day develop really useful software...just after ordinary people write really interesting novels.

All that said, we developers do need to learn how to extract from our customers what they REALLY want. We get the functional aspects correct (mostly, sometimes, eventually), but the quality attributes often get left behind; exactly how fast, how easy to use, how secure, etc. CMU's Software Engineering Institute (SEI) has done a ton of work in this area, quite successfully, I'd say. The SEI is still getting the word (and tools) out, but it's coming along. We're also learning how to present trade-offs between conflicting attributes — easy to use vice secure, maintainable vice fast, good vice cheap — in a way that the stakeholders can make a reasoned decision, and understand the whole cost-benefit deal so they're not surprised at the end.

Okay, rant over, keep up the otherwise great writing, which I've been reading since Byte days. Here's to future support of your misguided venture into the dark side.

Dave Curry, Inyokern, CA

Sorry to upset you, but my point was that computer programming is a specialty that takes up a good bit of one's educational life. I didn't say that no programmer was also an MD or an aeronautical engineer; I said few were.

I was an early fan of most varieties of Basic — my accounting program was written in C-Basic, a compiled Basic intended for commercial programs and very good in its day — and I was and remain an early fan of Python. Readers who don't know Python are encouraged to download a free copy and try it; but I have no illusions of Python being the key to full computer literacy for everyone. There's still a learning curve.

The real computer revolution will come when teaching a computer to do something will take no more special education than writing a novel. We're nowhere near there yet.

Subject: Programming for non-programmers

Jerry,

I am still catching up on your column. You mentioned, "Now we need a means by which anyone can teach a computer to do useful things." I don't know about anyone, but Microsoft has a new (let me choose my words carefully here) software development application that can be used by designers, and other creative people. It is called Expression Blend (http://www.microsoft.com/products/expression/en/Expression-Blend/default.mspx) . One of the statements Microsoft says is, "Work inside a rich, real-time design environment optimized for creative professionals to shorten the distance between idea and execution."

I think they are trying to make a product that will allow non-programmers to design the UI of an application. The "project files" created in Blend I believe are going to work with Visual Studio. I assume they are looking to get designers to work on the interface and then easily pass the project off to a programmer (of which I am, you know... just a programmer that doesn't know accounting, engineering, etc) to add needed functionality. This looks like a huge step toward your second literacy revolution.

You might want to check it out. Your experience in programming (from someone that I am inferring has never been formally trained as a programmer) could provide interesting insight to this product. I would love to read what you had to say about the product in one of your columns.

Scott Lewis

This looks very much like what I had in mind; I will have a look as soon as I catch up on some other work. Thanks!


Last week I said:

Fortunately, as I mentioned above, IBM/Lenovo seem to have anticipated the problem. IBM/Lenovo has built in a new function in their Access Connections (fn-F5) that wasn't present in the XP Lenovo laptops. The Access Connections software shows all available wireless networks in a very neat little chart that sorts them by signal strength, and makes it quite simple to connect to any of them.

Connection Manager dialog
[View larger]
Connection Manager progress
[View larger]
Find Wireless Networks
[View larger]

That turns out not to be the case.

Dr. Pournelle:

In the wireless section, you said: "Fortunately, as I mentioned above, IBM/Lenovo seem to have anticipated the problem. IBM/Lenovo has built in a new function in their Access Connections (fn-F5) that wasn't present in the XP Lenovo laptops. The Access Connections software shows all available wireless networks in a very neat little chart that sorts them by signal strength, and makes it quite simple to connect to any of them. Once you know to use Access Connections rather than continue futile attempts with Vista, it Just Works. "

That got me thinking, so on my Thinkpad T42 (with Windows XP Pro), I looked at the Thinkvantage Access Connections screens. I normally just connect to one wireless network, and have configured the T42 to connect via the Windows wireless connections screen.

The Access Connections screens have changed since I last looked at them. (The T42 has a "Thinkvantage Software Installer" that gets all the latest updates from IBM/Lenovo that are specific to the T42.) And one of the screens (the third one attached here) does show the 'neat little chart' of all the wireless connections around my house. This on my T42 with XP Professional.

Once again, I find that the T42 is an excellent choice in a laptop. And wanted to make sure that your readers know that the T42 with XP, with the latest updates from IBM/Lenovo, does have the wireless strength chart and an easy way to connect to wireless networks.

Regards, Rick Hellewell

And there is this, too...

Dear Jerry,

Actually Access Connections has been present on all our systems for a number of years, going back to at least the T40 ...you can use the hot-key Fn-F5 or you can find the program in the folder ThinkVantage on newer systems or Access IBM on older systems

Thanks,

Jeff
Jeffrey G. Witt
Lenovo Public Relations Manager

I've never had any problems allowing Windows XP to control network access with my laptops, so I had to go looking for this on my T42p ThinkPad. The function is there all right. Fair warning: if it works all right allowing Windows XP to control wireless network access, you're better off not fixing it. When I shifted from Windows to Access IBM with my existing system, I had some problems, probably due to my unfamiliarity; but it didn't Just Work, and getting back to allowing Windows to control the access took about ten minutes. I am sure I could have made Access IBM work if I'd kept at it long enough, but since it all worked with Windows XP I figured I'd be better off going back to what I was used to.

I have yet to get Vista to connect to a wireless network; but on my ThinkPad TabletPC with Vista, Access IBM worked just fine and without my having to think about it.


Our Mac discussion generated a lot of helpful mail. I'm still looking forward to getting my new Mac so I can answer questions myself...

Subject: Comments on Feb.5 Mailbag - Mac Software

Dr. P --

Just a couple of quick notes in response to Doug's comments in the mail bag.

I did determine that there's really only two options for an office suite: MS Mac Office 2004, and iWork.

Depending on one's demands for an office suite, there is also the possibility of using two products from Mariner Software, Mariner Write and Mariner Calc. The products are available bundled as MarinerPak for $80 (download) or $90 (physical media.) I am not suggesting these products to someone such as yourself who has invested the time and effort in learning how to use MS Office--and makes use of a good portion of the feature set if offers--but for many people these products do more than enough. They even provide a reasonable level of compatibility with pre-Vista era MS Office documents.

http://www.marinersoftware.com/sitepage.php?page=88

I am not familiar with OneNote, but I collect all sorts of "tidbits" not directly related to current writing projects--URL bookmarks, web page archives, PDF manuals for cameras, software serial numbers and notes of all types (even .jpgs and .gifs)--in Yojimbo from Bare Bones Software. Yojimbo is billed as an information organizer and uses the "built-in" OS X SQLite engine as a backbone. It's not often that I find a piece of software that changes my life, but Yojimbo did--or at least came damn close.

http://www.barebones.com/products/yojimbo/

For (writing) project specific notes and outlining I suggest taking a look at Scrivener, a tool that may serve some writers well. I took the time (less than 30 minutes) to work through the tutorial and have been collecting bits and pieces of research in several projects ever since. Worth a look:

http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.html

Best regards and best of luck with your new Mac when it arrives.

jab

Jeffrey A. Berg

Thanks. I'm not familiar with those programs, and as you say, I already use Office and OneNote, and I am quite fond of them. Of course those are expensive programs.

Subject: Some answers on the new Macs

Jerry, here are some tips for David Preiser regarding issues with his new Intel Macs.

David Preiser - The Windows environment is decent, but behaves a little sluggishly at times. It seems that the setup only allocates 256MB of RAM to run Windows, and I haven't figured out how to adjust this yet. Setting up Parallels was pretty straightforward, although getting the printer to run on the Windows side was slightly Byzantine.

(RH Comments - The sluggishness comes from trying to run Win XP Pro in 256M of RAM - just set it for more RAM, at least 512M or more, in the Parallels VM Property Page View...select Memory and set it for whatever you want and Bob's your uncle! I set mine at 1GB but I have 2GB of system RAM on my MacBook and iMac)

David Preiser - I'm also having some real difficulty with video codecs when I try to play various media files in WMPlayer 11 (which itself could be the main culprit, I admit). Playing DVDs from the Windows side is also a major hassle to get going. I shouldn't have to download anything when I'm paying for two systems plus the shell app. In addition, while the whole Quicktime "3D Cube" slide transition between the two environments is very cute, there shouldn't be any need for the screen resolution to have to reset completely every time I switch from Mac to Windows. Not surprisingly, there are also major screen freezes every once in a while during these transitions, including at least three occasions where all I get is screen noise for a half-second. Not a good sign.

(RH Comments - You can control all of this with settings (transitions, screen resolution changing etc), however, I have never had these issues and I suspect you won't when you set Parallels to give Windows more RAM - Except, of course for WMP11 asking you to download codecs - you'll need to take that up with Mr Gates et al!)

David Preiser - The Mac side runs great, of course, but I have some last comments about the hardware. I understand the logistical reasons why they put the keyboard so far back, but it still feels awkward. And naturally it's a real drag trying to work in Windows without a "right click". I'm getting an external mouse before I hit the road with them. I'm also thinking about one of those roll-up keyboards.

(RH Comments - I won't comment on the keyboard placement as that is clearly personal preference. However, I will comment on the RIGHT CLICK on the new Macs. Every new Intel Mac, whether Notebook or Desktop supports right click out of the box. OS X is fully right click aware and Windows, under Parallels is also. If you have a Desktop Intel Mac, you got a Mighty Mouse with it which fully supports right click and is fully configureable in the Mac System Preferences. If you have a MacBook or MacBook pro when you touch two fingers to the trackpad and click the trackpad button its a right click built in. No tricks, just good old context sensitive right click, again in OS X or Windows under Parallels.)

Hope this helps....cheers....rh

Richard Hakala

I'm so deep in my fiction works that I don't have much time, which is why I haven't bought my new Mac; but it won't be that long.

Subject: Sleeping Mac

I sleep my laptop by pressing cmd-alt-eject before I close the lid. Then I watch to make sure the power light begins cycling, indicating the machine has written memory out to the hard drive and has gone to sleep. Later, when I open the lid, if I don't see the unlock dialog, I resleep the machine (as above), wait until the power light begins cycling, and press the space bar to wake it up again. I always get the dialog then.

I have 2 GB of ram and I have Parallels set up so Windows XP gets 1 GB.

I don't even bother to play DVDs on Windows.

I run Safari and Firefox. I have several other web browsers installed, but I only use them if my main two don't work.

I hibernate the machine before I swap batteries.

Having an iMac and a MacBook Pro, I prefer the latter. The iMac is used primarily for DVD viewing and our photo libraries. I have Bootcamp and Windows XP installed on it so my wife has a backup if her laptop has problems.

Harry Erwin, PhD http://osiris.sunderland.ac.uk/~cs0her

Harry Erwin's Letter from England is a regular feature over in The View from Chaos Manor

Subject: Good on line sources for Mac Problems (and fixes)

Just read the Feb 5 "Mailbag" with some amusement. I do NetWare/Xp at work (35 stations) and Mac only at home. My first Mac was an Atari ST running perfect emulation. Had many, many variations since, love the expectation that they will "just work". Compared to Windows, most of the time yes, but.....

As passionate as Mac users are about defending their machines, they are equally passionate about expressing their disappointment when it doesn't "just work." Many of the true believers tend to hold zero tolerance for flaws, but have ways to keep it in the family. Sort of a funny dual standard; publicly foam at the mouth if "the enemy" attacks the Mac, while ripping Apple in the background. Funny dynamic; as in "amusing."

As a long time Mac user I have two sites on my bookmark bar that I check frequently that will reveal this soft underbelly to the uninitiated.

First in line for getting impressions of new products, or finding flaws in software or service packs is Mac in Touch.

http://www.macintouch.com/

Here you can find out about fan noise, heat, rebate problems with software, and a general level of whinging that would put you off of ever buying a Mac if you went to it as your first source of information.

The place to go for clarification of problems, with fixes (not just complaints) is, appropriately, Mac Fixit.

http://www.macfixit.com/

Pop for the subscription service, at least the first year, and you will prevent a lot of reinventing the flat tire.

One of the hardest things about setting someone new up with a Mac is convincing them that it will never be as maintenance free as a fridge or a stove. Unix is set up to do routine garbage collection in the wee hours of the morning (when the banks and universities were running light loads and could best spare the cycles) and most people will not leave them running 24/7 which puts paid to the clean up.

I try very, very hard to convince people to get and use two things and run them routinely: Disk Warrior, and Onyx. DW is to Macs what good Registry repair utility is to Windows. It's expensive, but it will do more to keep any Mac running than any other piece of software. Critical. Onyx is free and is a bit of Swiss army knife of utilities; but mainly it allows you to run the cache and log clean ups that nix needs to do on a scheduled basis. Also has lots of other tiddly bits in one place that most of the folks I set up will never use, but you will find potential with.

Do not fuss with defragging utilities. "Nix does better with this in the background, and seldom needs help. Only if you are moving massive video files will you really need to do this. In fact, most mac defraggers have not been good with the "Do no harm" rule.

Also recommend installing Applejack. Allows you to boot into the terminal when your start up disk is hosed in some manner, and give CPR. No Mac portable running OSX should be without it, even if the user will never see it. I put it on any new machine I set up for friends, and have only had to use it a few times, but it can be the breath of life when some plist or other Mac/BSD arcane convinces your boot drive to act demented.

Oh, and the difference between 1 gig of ram v. 2 gigs is incredible. So many of the p-and-moans on Mac In Touch stem from shorting the Ram. When comparing OSX to XP, XP wins in terms of behaving well with less. Suspect Vista will restore parity there.

Enjoy, but don't believe all the hype. It's a computer with a heck of a fan club, but still a computer.

Ken

PS: no financial connections with any of these recommends

Thanks! As Peter Glaskowsky says, "On a Mac, everything is either easy, or impossible." I often get credit for this astute observation.


Turning to Windows XP:

Subject: Memory leaks fix

Jerry,

I read with interest the letters in this week's Chaos Manor Reviews mailbag on the subject of memory leaks or "vagrant" caches placed there by programs. I would believe in the vagrant cache theory more so than leaks.

I've found and used a simple solution for these misbehaving programs for a long while now. Memturbo (link) is a simple, small (about a 4Mb footprint) program that monitors your memory usage and provides tools to manage it. A icon appears in your tool tray which contains a number showing the available memory in megabytes. Bringing that program up allows you to recover ram by defragging it or to run a full-blown ram scrub which recovers lots more and evicts those vagrant caches. An automatic recovery (not ram scrub) can be set to trigger at any level you like.

I run only 512MB of memory on my XP-SP2 based laptop and, using Memturbo, usually have in the area of 300MB or more of that available for applications. I note by watching that memory monitor that IE7 and Outlook are both incredible memory hogs which do tend to leave chunks of themselves behind when closed. Running ramscrub gets rid of that. I've also noted that the applications that run on startup and disappear after running once can gobble up about 100Mb of memory and NOT give it back. Again, doing a ramscrub throws all those hangers-on out the Window (so to speak). If I run Memturbo in watch-only mode, the available memory quickly sinks to 100Mb or less.

I would not consider running any computer system without Memturbo. No, I don't have anything to do with Memturbo other than as a user. Just a (happily) retired Intel engineer who likes his equipment to perform without a great deal of attention. Since putting that program to work I cannot remember when I had the last system lockup or gross slowdown. I would nominate Memturbo for a Chaos Manor Orchid if it were the time to do that.

I bought (in hardback) and read Inferno when it first came out. I cannot wait to see what you and Niven have come up with this time around! I'll be over at Powell's Books the minute I hear it's published.

Best Mike Detjen

I used to swear by Memturbo, and I'm not sure why I stopped using it. It was on my recommended list for years. I think I dropped it when XP came in. Thanks.


The Vista questions begin:

Subject: Vista Visual Improvement

One of the features that was announced for Vista was a change of format for screen icons to vectors from bitmaps. As a result, one should be able to go to higher-resolution monitors without making the screen icons so damn small. Can you tell if that has been implemented in Vista or in Office 2007? Now that most people have LCD monitors, scaling down the resolution is no longer a viable alternative.

Thanks. I hope all is well.

Howard E. Abrams (creator of MousePerfect)

I put this to my advisors for comments. Alex said:

Yes, this is exactly what I talked about in "Why Suzy hates her new monitor" (link). Since I have neither Vista nor Office 2007 installed I can't tell the poor fellow if this works. This'd be simple for Eric Dan or Jerry to test out.

--Alex

Eric adds

This is going to be one of those transitional things. Vista cannot correctly scale icons if they're supplied as bitmaps rather than vector objects. So far, the only third party software I've installed that has a proper Vista icon is Adobe Reader.

There is better news on the display fonts, since those aren't dependent on third parties adopting the new stuff. The desktop text is fully scalable, although the defaults for the resolution used tends to be correct for those with normal vision if the systems knows the monitor specs.

Eric

My own experience has been that if flat screen monitors are set to their maximum resolution, and ClearType is turned on, text looks good in Office and other such programs. You can set desktop icon sizes, and they look better in Vista than in XP. As Eric notes, not everyone is taking advantage of Vista's capabilities, but I make no doubt that will happen fairly quickly. Visually, Vista is a treat, and I like it better than XP; but remember that I am running it on the fastest machine in the house with an upper middle class Video Card.