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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

Mailbag for February 19, 2007
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

February 19, 2007

Another week with a lot of mail, so we'll get right to it.


An Inquiry:

Subject: Source for 4-drive network attached storage units WITHOUT included drives?

Dr. Pournelle,

Do you know of, or think any of your expert readers might know of, a source for a reasonably good quality 4-drive network attached storage unit? I've been looking at a few and the "cheap" consumer models all come with 4 250-gig drives already installed, for a price of between $700 and $1200. There are more business oriented ones that are better, but then we're talking a minimum price of $1300 for 1 to 1.6 TB.

Since I can get a 250 gig drive for about $80, or 4 500gig WD drives for $160 each, that means the bare enclosure and software costs $500 - $800? That seems a bit high and for that much money I could pretty much build my own from inexpensive consumer hardware, or part one together for free using last-generation spare parts from the parts closet.

So, what I'm looking for is a NAS chassis with decent software so I can install my own hard drives, hang 1 or 2 TB of storage on my lan, and beat the ridiculously high retail prices these things are commanding right now. I just don't see why a chassis and software should cost that much when I could build up an entire computer with a RAID array for much less. I already have the parts for a DIY server with hardware raid but I'm willing to trade some dollars for my time, in order to get a turn-key system that takes up less shelf space.

Sean

I am not familiar with commercial versions of these. For myself I often retire an older machine by inserting more drives to turn it into a "box of drives" for storage. On the other hand, I don't have very stringent requirements.

Peter Glaskowsky adds

Jerry,

Regarding Sean's question about a 4-bay NAS box, a friend of mine -- the same fellow who took the pictures of you at FC -- recently bought and recommends the Infrant Technologies ReadyNAS NV+, which sells for $650 without drives. It includes five licenses for EMC's Retrospect backup software for Macs and PCs.

http://tugrik.livejournal.com/554066.html

I have no further information about this product, but it does sound like a pretty good deal.

. png


More on storage choices...

Subject: Partitions

Admired Jerry,

For several months now I have been reading your Chaos Manor reports, and wonder how it is that you never mention partitions.

An oldster of 75, I now use my computer mainly for pleasure though at the beginning of my hard drive I keep a FAT32 partition with DOS programs for book-keeping that I wrote in the early 90's and still use. My first computer was a 1983 Epson laptop with Z80 8-bit processor at 1.8 Mhz, 64 KB of RAM, one 32 KB ROM with CPM OS, another with WordStar text processor, and a microcasette for storage.

In the long evolution to my present liquid-cooled Pentium-4 3400 Mhz with 2 GB of RAM desktop I stayed with DOS programs (mainly PCWrite and Lotus 1-2-3) until the year 2000 when, retired, I bought my first desktop to enjoy pictures, sound and video. Then the notorious fragility of Windows 98SE made me take recourse to creating images of my software, and to facilitate that I moved all data including My Documents and e-mail folders to another partition to avoid losing data when restoring an earlier image. I create those images using Drive Image 5.0 with high compression and verification; given the size of the Software partition creating its image takes about six minutes, the compressed images measure about 1,600 MB and restoring them takes just two minutes; I do not use Norton's programs because they take posession of a system to such a point that re-formatting is the only way to erase all traces of them and I like to be the boss of my own computer. Before running Drive Image I cleanse all debris and also Windows' register with Advanced Uninstaller, then de-fragment with VoptXP. And I keep an image of XP activated and nothing else in case I need to reinstall. I intend to stay with XP for as long as I can because my processor is single-core.

My main hard drive contains now four partitions: 100 MB FAT32 with DOS programs, 10,000 MB NTFS for Software (XP Pro SP2 plus all the programs I use), 55,000 MB NTFS for Data, and 250,000 MB NTFS for Cinema. A secondary hard drive of 40 GB has three more partitions: another 100 MB FAT32 with DOS, another 10,000 MB NTFS with Windows 2000, and 30 GB NTFS with a lot of different images of Software. USB external drives contain back-up copies of my Data and Cinema partitions.

This is all, dear Jerry, please keep up your good work. And, please, excuse the shortcomings of my English.

-Armando Molina-

I remember when I used to use a lot of different disk partitions. Those were the days when we didn't really trust hard drives, and they would often end up with fouled up File Allocation Tables, lost chains, and other such problems that modern users have probably never heard of.

I have found that I don't need multiple partitions. It's true that if you use NTFS and your system blows up you can't boot up with DOS and peel off needed files. There are utilities that will do that, though (this one, fore example) in case you have to do that. Mostly, though, multiple disk drives are cheap enough, and there are plenty of utilities that make restoration points. I use Symantec Save and Restore for that; unlike Norton anti-virus and Symantec's other system protection utilities that have grown unwieldy and impossible to remove, Ghost and Save and Restore work reliably and without problems. My recommendation is simply to put in a second drive, or have a good USB or FireWire external drive and do both backup files and restoration points.

Thanks for the kind words.


Last week I described replacing the hard drive in my T42p ThinkPad, after I decided to ignore the Hidden Partition Area on the original drive.

Subject: Re: Thinkpad disk upgrade

Yes, exactly. The aim of the HPA seems to be to remove the cost of supplying CD media. This is your licensed copy of the XP OS and other applications (e.g. the DVD player application).

However if you use the "one button" Rescue & Recovery feature, this may be an issue. This tool saves the 'recovery' images in the hidden area. You can download this from the Lenovo site and reinstall if needed.

The rest of the software are just applications that can be downloaded from Lenovo's support site. For example "Access Connections" is an interesting utility to assist with wireless configuration, and Active Protection System helps protect the hard drive if you shock/drop the machine.

Good luck.

James

The bottom line being that it is worth downloading and installing the software from the Lenovo site, As Captain Morse observes, a One-Button Backup and Restore capability is generally worthwhile. I do note that the fingerprint login system works very well without my doing that. When I get caught up on other matters I'll give this a try, but for the moment my T42p works splendidly with its new hard drive.


Subject: Problem with Dreamweaver

Jerry,

I'm trying to add a lot more content to my website. I use Dreamweaver for reasons I can't change. I want my text and other objects to "wrap" as the browser windows resizes and it is not doing that. Do any of your associates have any book recommendations? My site is almost all text. (www.vreelin.com).

Thanks,

Phil

I don't use Dreamweaver although when we get the new Mac I may try doing my web page with it; for now I'm using FrontPage. Rick Hellewell suggests

I'd suggest he problems with CSS styles (assuming he uses them). My recommendation would be the O'Reilly book "CSS - The Missing Manual" by David Sayer McFarland. It was one of your recommended books a couple of months ago. I bought the book and found it to be excellent.

I noticed on Amazon's site that they have a bundle of that book along with a "Dreamweaver - The Missing Manual". I purchased that book also, and found it to be a great introductory manual to the use of Dreamweaver. My recommendation to the reader would be to purchase both books.

Regards, Rick Hellewell

I have long been a fan of the Missing Manual series.

Peter Glaskowsky says:

Subject: Re: problems with dreamweaver

If you go to the main page of the fellow's site:

http://www.vreelin.com/

and resize the window-- grab the lower-right corner and move it to the left-- you see that the text column narrows automatically to fit the window. But at some point it stops getting narrower and a horizontal scroll bar appears at the bottom of the window.

That's happening because his horizontal rule is a GIF image, defined this way:

<img src="_themes/bars/barrulec.gif" width="600" height="10">

This tag compels the browser to render this element of the page at no less than 600 pixels wide, even if the browser window is narrower. The text is flowing to the width of the rendered page, not to the size of the window per se, so at a window width of less than 600 pixels, it stops reflowing.

Now--

This is just an example of the _kind_ of problem he's describing. I don't know if this is the _same_ problem he's describing, but it might be. As Rick said, he might have a problem with some CSS definition or something else. Anything that forces the page or some of the text on a page to a certain width, or to a certain minimum width, prevents browsers from resizing the text freely.

I don't suggest you try to offer solutions for all your readers' problems, though. There are plenty of resources out on the web. He just needs to do more Googling and more experimenting. If he removes each element of the page one at a time until the text starts wrapping freely again, well, he'll have found the culprit, or at least one culprit.

. png


Subject: Multitasking and Multiple CPU Cores

I've long thought that one of the advantages of multiple CPUs is that they should prevent a single thread from monopolizing a computer. Modern operating systems try to accomplish this on single CPU hardware, but there's only so much that can be done with software. You've complained several times about how Outlook ties up your computer and that Windows doesn't multitask smoothly. I was wondering if you see an improvement with your multicore machines? Or is Outlook multithreaded enough to tie up both CPUs?

This seems like the practical application of one of your laws: "One user, at least one CPU."

Charles Barber

Alas, Outlook has multi-threading, or Microsoft XP does; Piggy Old Outlook can still slow things down on a dual processor machine. The good news is that it's not as bad.

Incidentally, I don't know about the new Intel-based Macs, but my PowerBook can slow other applications when bringing in mail and processing rules. Rule processing is a fairly CPU-intensive task.

I do wish I had some means of assigning Outlook all of one CPU and no more, while the other CPU is reserved for everything else. Even better would be a table of assignments. I expect this will come one day.


Subject: New Airport Extreme initial review

Hi Jerry,

I've just finished my first week using Apple's new Airport Extreme (Pre-N) access point/firewall. Out of the box, typical for Apple, it just works. Turn it on, install the Airport management software, and follow the wizard. The performance is noticeably better than the old mushroom, in particular I don't see a slowdown for Internet data (I've a 6-10mbit cable line) like I used to.

There's a couple of really nice features: If you attach a USB drive to the port on the access point, you have an instant NAS device. Likewise, you can plug in a USB printer, and use it on the network (although some advanced features, like Epson's management software, won't see it). Best of all, you can plug in a USB hub and have many devices out there. I now have a shared NAS holding the family iTunes library, so we only have one copy of all the files (there's some manual maintenance with iTunes, but it's not bad).

I'd originally stacked another hub on the Extreme, which started acting flaky and was very hot to the touch. Once cool, with nothing on top, it works fine again. I think I might work up a heat sink for it, but otherwise haven't had any problems.

One thing to note: with any N network, a single B or G device forces the entire network to drop to B/G speeds. There may be specific models that don't, but they're not meeting the spec, and I haven't run across one yet. The only time I notice this is moving gigabyte files, but frankly I just plug in a 100-BaseT or Gigabit Ethernet cable and do that hardwired anyway. In particular to the Apple networking hardware, this happens if you use an Airport Express as a wireless music link, as those are still just B. I suspect that we'll see new Express boxes concurrent with the release of AppleTV (which really needs N to stream hi-def video) to solve the problem.

The unit is a bit pricier than the competition, but the NAS capability makes that worthwhile. An early Orchid.

Cheers,

Doug
doug[@]douglhotka[.]com

Thanks for the report.

I have a Belkin Pre-N network here, and it works extremely well; it has a good 50% larger coverage area than its predecessor. All of the systems that connect to it use their built in wireless, and none have N or Pre-N adaptors. I don't worry about speed; the advantage of Pre-N for me was that I could connect to the wireless from the back yard.

The full N spec systems won't be out until at least 2009, but I suppose that over time they'll replace both 802.11 g and Pre-N.


Subject: cleaning up after virtual machines

Hi Jerry,

In regards to cleaning up after infected or corrupted virtual machines I find it quite easy (so far anyway.) The key is to take a copy of your nice shiny new virtual machine after building it. If the working copy breaks just delete it and copy over a new one. Of course this presupposes that you save any data generated in the VM elsewhere, which I find a good practice anyway.

I can come up with all sorts of hypothetical super worms etc. that would negate this scheme, but so far, from a purely practical engineering perspective, it has worked for me running XP under Parallels. I run the XP instance with WIndows Update turned on, the firewall turned on, and Avast free antivirus. If I break the VM (through my experimenting and what not so far, not via an infection) I just let the new instance update itself and away I go.

ATB,

Richard Kullberg

I am eager to write about such things first hand. Not too long now.


Last week I reviewed (and recommended) TurboTax.

Speaking of TurboTax, you might want to mention the use of their web-based version. I too have been a TurboTax Deluxe user for many years. It's always worked for me as well. Then last year I noticed that were offering a 100% web-based version of the program. I gave it a shot and it worked flawlessly. It could do literally everything the typical version could do but didn't require me to install anything. As Intuit is known for their questionable copy protection, this just added to the allure. What's more is that when I was done, there was nothing to uninstall either.

This year all of my data was there from last year and everything is exportable if desired. What was a bit odd this year is that the web version seems to have gone slightly backwards than last year. I ran into one bug that wouldn't let me finish (a call to support fixed that). The interface also isn't as good as last years. There's a lot more scrolling needed this year than last year. Otherwise it was still an excellent investment.

This is, in fact, the first web app I've seen that gives me some positive feeling about the concept. Most other web-based apps I've used made me want to either use the standard version or wish they offered a disk-based version. Having to install and uninstall a program that I hope to only use for a day or two just isn't all that great a concept. This addresses that annoyance and adds some other benefits as well.

Rich Heimlich

Thanks. I guess I remain a bit squeamish about leaving my tax records out there in cyber-space. I prefer keeping them on a pair of DVD disks, with one outside the house. Of course what I prefer I don't always DO...

Captain Morse adds:

re: Turbo Tax. If you're not squeamish about the privacy ramifications of web-based tax preparation, but use Linux as I do, the web version of Turbo Tax might be a useful solution to the lack of native consumer tax software for Linux. This year I'll be running Turbo Tax for Windows with a WMware Win2K virtual machine on a Kubuntu Linux host, but I'm thinking this will be the last year for that kind of monkey motion.

And that leads me to Richard Kulberg's note on cleaning up and repairing virtual machines. What he says is true enough, but when the VM gets infected or otherwise compromised by malware you still are faced with the task of cleaning up the user data or throwing away anything that changed since the backup image was created. Doesn't make a difference if the machine is real or virtual, it's still a pain. People running Windows inside a VM still need to have prophylaxis and exercise the usual cautions because the VM is just as vulnerable as an installation to hardware.

Ron Morse


Subject: Programmers

I too have to take exception to the line that set your correspondent off in the Feb 12th's Mailbag. "...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."

In order to successfully deliver quality software to my clients, I simply must learn their business. No, I will never know it like they do, but I have to learn to think like they do and master the functional ins and outs of their business. When I implemented a travel and expense system for a major corporation I spent large amounts of time learning every single step of the expenses submission process, including the insane complexity of the modern corporate approval process. When implementing a custom patent/trademark tracking system for a law firm, I actually learned significant chunks of patent and trademark law. I don't learn everything, that would be a waste of my time, but I've gotten very good at figuring out exactly those portions of the business I need to learn in order to be able to sit down and code something that meets the requirements - even those requirements the client didn't realize were requirements.

Perhaps you think people such as myself are the exception. I certainly do know programmers who are entirely uninterested in the business end of things. They are merely interested in the algorithmic challenge of implementing a spoon-fed detailed technical spec. I imagine these sorts of programmers have their place. However, they wouldn't last very long on any of the projects I've ever worked on. Having been in this profession the last 15 years, I couldn't venture a guess as to the relative proportion of 'programming-only' programmers vs those who are adept at learning their client's business - but I can tell you that the business savvy programmers are not at all rare. Do you have any objective evidence to the contrary?

It's very easy to point your finger at poorly written software and blame the programmers. "This steaming pile of crap was written by folks that don't know a damned thing about accounting". Perhaps the functional requirements were written by folks that don't know a whit about accounting. Often times software projects are structured in such a way that the programmers have very little autonomy, perhaps because the folks running these projects have attitudes similar to your own - that programmers only know programming, and should be trusted with little else. In this case the level of business-savvy of the programmer will matter very little. In fact, the business-savvy programmer is likely to become very frustrated and leave (believe me, I've been there, and done that).

-josh

You have your experiences and I have mine. My real point is that the computer revolution won't be complete until most applications programmers are as obsolete as Scribes and Public Letterwriters. We still have technical writers and other specialists who need special training; but one doesn't have to have spent half one's life learning how to be a writer to go make a living as a reporter or even as a novelist. There will always be a need for systems programmers. Whether that is true for applications programmers is another matter.


Subject: Keyboard discussion

Jerry, Did you ever try out the "modified" IBM buckling spring keyboard I sent you a few years ago?

David Bruner

I did indeed. This was an older IBM keyboard layout, and needed an adapter to connect to PS/2, so over time it got left out when I was updating systems; but there never was a keyboard with a better feel.

Thanks!


Subject: Farewell Windows Defender, We Hardly Knew Ye...

Jerry,

This week I removed Windows defender from 2 work computers and 2 home computers, all running XP-SP2. I entered the Defender realm early, when it was originally Microsoft AntiSpyware. I was looking for a compatible and reliable alternative to either AdAware or Spybot.

My hopes were relatively long-lived, but in the end, fruitless.

You see, in all the time I had Antispyware or Defender on my systems, it never, NEVER, found anything! Both AdAware and Spybot found a few things. That's the rub, I don't think I get hit all that much, but when I do, I expect my primary 'defender' to defend me. Windows Defender didn't.

In addition, Windows Defender and IE7 are not a good combination on 'old' machines. My primary email/surfing machine is an old Dell, 867MHz (yeah, that's right, MHz!), and 512 MB of RAM. I have 200GB hard drives on the machine.

When I upgraded to IE7 the machine became overloaded. IE7 loads just fine, and the first few pages download (56k dialup) just fine. Then IE7 begins to choke, becoming 'not responding' and then catching up, for a good 15 minutes. I suspect that Windows is managing the page files and disk swapping at this time. Indeed, I usually have no other programs, no Excel, no Word, just IE7 loaded at this time. I suspect that either IE7 is too big, Windows Defender is too much of a resource hog, or that the two together for sure are too much for my old system.

Upon removal of Windows Defender performance increased. It's not a huge increase, but it's not marginal either. However, IE7 still exhibits some of the same behavior, but not as pronounced.

All this leads me to conclude that

1. Windows Defender came up empty over roughly the last year. Why am I running something that never catches anything, especially when I have other means of catching things?

2. IE7 is huge, and probably shouldn't be installed on anything less than 1-GHz and 1GB. Of course that pretty much covers all of Windows world.

But I had this machine, I use it only for email and surfing. Upgrading swamped it. In the future I may revisit Windows Defender, and IE7 is destined for installation on my main machine, a 2.5GHz, 1 GB XP machine in the near future. I like IE7, but it takes more horsepower than my old horse has.

I am interested if you or your readers share my opinions/observations/conclusions.

Rod Wittler

I use Windows OneCare on all my systems now. It includes Defender. I haven't had much spyware since the days of DoubleClick and Gator when like many I installed what I thought were "free utilities" and found to my horror what I really had.

If you live in a desert where it floods once every 100 years, do you need flood insurance?

I use Firefox mostly. IE 7 has tricky ways of getting Microsoft to beg me to install it, so I have finally allowed it on most of my machines, but since I seldom use it I can't say I have noticed whether it slows things down. But then my worst machine is still a Pentium 4.


Subject: World of Warcraft

Jerry:

You wrote: The question is, will it change your life? Should you be in a big hurry to get in on the rush to Vista? In my judgment, the answers are, yes, a little; and no, you needn't hurry.

If "change your life" is truly your judgment I have to respectfully suggest it's gotten quite clouded. I love the fact that you say that "most" of the bugs have been fixed after five years and billions of dollars spent in the development of what is essentially a poor copy of the Mac OS X of three or four years ago. More astute observers are calling Vista a "disappointment" and "lacking in any significant reason to upgrade." One reviewer suggested, in time-honored fashion, that users wait until Service Pack 1 to buy in, meaning that what you have today is still essentially a beta product with lots of kinks to be worked out. Another said there's "... Nothing new here a 3-year-old wouldn't describe as 'shiny'".

But be that as it may what I'm really writing about is World of Warcraft. I got the game for Christmas and have become a bit addicted. My first character was a Warrior, but I killed him off after only a few levels. He was replaced by a Paladin named — wait for it — Tallan who I've worked up to level 15. But I got very tired of having little effect at range, and spending so much time coming back from the nearest graveyard. My next guy — Tallin — is a Level 18 Warlock, and he's quite an improvement. Not much good in close, but past Level 10 you have a Demon for that; the Imp is fun but the Voidwalker can really take a licking and keep on ticking, slamming the target in close while the Warlock casts damage over time from afar. But even that was too limiting, so I really researched the abilities of each class and race and my current character, Talison (yes there's a theme here: my initials are TAL) is a Night Elf Hunter, and I think that's about as good as it gets. Able to wear leather armor, deal damage in close with daggers (at higher levels both Swords and Mail become available) he's a very powerful dude from afar with spell-assisted bow work and later on with guns. I got him to level 10 in about half the time as it took with the Paladin, and am in the process of Taming my first Pet which will function much as the Warlock's Demon, except it will level up in health and power as I do.

But wait, there's more! While trips to the graveyard are MUCH reduced a Hunter's spirit runs twice as fast back to the body as other classes, making downtime even shorter. Also an early buff is the ability to see nearby creatures on the mini-map so you are taken by surprise far far less often. Once I train up my Pet he can tank for me while I deal lots of damage from afar with the bow. Even as a Warlock I was losing tons of creatures to Hunters who could acquire and tag them much faster at greater distance.

Why this message? As your time to play is surely limited I thought you'd like to know that as a soloist you can level up this way MUCH faster than as a Paladin, plus have the fun of Training your Pet, etc. The Night Elf's home world is much prettier than the Human one, as well. And there's the whole "Lord of the Rings" feeling of being an Elf...

Take care, buy a Mac and join us in here in the 21st century (it'll run WOW under OS X with all the eye candy turned up full, BTW), all the best

--
Tim

Oh, I long ago created a Night Elf Hunter; for solo leveling there is probably no better class, although Paladins are very hard to kill — more so as you rise in rank. The problem with the Paladin is that it takes a long time to win a fight; you don't die, but it takes forever to kill off a really tough opponent. However, partnered with a hunter or a rogue a paladin can keep the monster's attention while the others kill it. I enjoy being a paladin.

But with the latest expansion I find there is an even better race to play Hunter, if you don't mind having horns and goats' feet and looking like a satyr... He can also be an Alliance Shaman although I haven't tried that yet.