Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

Mailbag for April 9, 2007
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

April 9, 2007

First comments on the Apple 8-Core system:

Subject: Speed Racer & 8 cores

"It reminds me of the Speed racer storyline with the car engine so powerful no one can drive it, because, I'm not making this up, the sheer power has hallucinogenic effects."

Eric Pobirs - Computing at Chaos Manor, April 5, 2007

Yeah, that would be the GRX, designed by Bent Cranium. The hallucinogenic effects were countered by a gas called "V gas", then when its effect wore out or the affected party drank water would leave a great fear of speed.

Software always lags hardware. At this time we might not have any mainstream use for 8 cores, but I am sure people will fill the gap. This opens the door for Microsoft to come up with an even more feature laden resource hungry operating system. I can see the system requirements for Windows 2012: Minimum 4 core microprocessor.

Salvador

All my children grew up watching Speed Racer, perhaps not quite so religiously as some. I confess it was not something I watched although it was often on while I tried to read a book, so I absorbed some of it. It was one of the programs we approved of...

I make no doubt whatever that the mainstream will find a use for 8-core systems. As I said in the column, I do not think it will be long before anyone who really wants to will be able to make movies of a quality that we consider professional today; that includes both computer generated graphics and green screen live action with imported background, scenery, and interaction between live and computer graphic characters. Think Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow done in a garage.

The subject is of interest to many including to academia:

I too am interested in the Apple 8-core. My interest here in MIB (at the University of Manchester) is for running Condor -- the University of Wisconsin-Madison's cycle harvesting software.

We already have a Condor pool here: a mixture of Windows XP, Linux boxes and Mac OS X. Currently, we have a couple of Mac Pro 4-core machines in the pool. There is a restriction in either Apple's BIOS or the chipset used such that when running Windows XP you can't see more than 2GB RAM. (This restriction is not there with OS X or indeed on other suppliers' hardware with XP - the limit for a 32bit system should be 4GB.) I hope Apple fixes it; these beasts are great but not cheap to have such a restriction.

Regards -Ian

Ian Cottam Information Systems Manager
Manchester Interdisciplinary Biocentre
The University of Manchester

I fear my experience with the high end of the Mac world is not great enough to be of much help. On the other hand, a lot of people including Mac design team members read this, so perhaps we'll find out. Thanks.

There was also discussion among the advisors about the 8-Core Mac Pros. Eric Pobirs comments on Dan Spisak's proposed partitioning of the 8-core system into virtual machines (see 2007 April Part One column):

Feasible but this describes a server. The Mac is kinda expensive for that compared to a set of blades. We need an application set for a single user's desktop needs. The only things I know of that would really make good use of this machine are apps priced in the thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars. Improving productivity for a Maya artist earning well in the six figures is worth the investment. We need something that isn't as easily done with separate machines on a KVM.

-- Eric

Dan replied

Blade servers cost more then this box for a similar configuration I will bet you. Case in point here, I went to Dell and atempted to configure a 4-blade system using dual core 3GHz Xeon processors.

Total cost is about 8-9 grand plus tax it looks like. Plus, the Mac will have less cable clutter then the Blade server!

POV-Ray is free and will utilize all the CPU power if you tell it too. Ditto video compression codecs (think H.264 encoding for video podcast folks). Speech recognition? Intelligent agents? Real-time traffic analysis?

-Dan S.

Eric closed the thread:

To be fair, the blade server array is better designed for the uptime requirements of those tasks, while most of the people looking at a maxxed out version of the 8-core Mac at looking at a much higher price point. That typically includes at least one 30" display. Not something you'd likely attach to an 8-core Xserve.

We know it's no problem keeping a lot of server cores busy. And there are apps for serious creative work that keep all the bells dinging and the whistles chirping but that is not the mainstream. The mainstream usage of multi-core beyond a simple pair is where things gets interesting and scary.

Mainstream users are screwed if they have to start thinking about cores and threads. They just want the new computer to do more things better than the one it replaced. But that isn't so easy from the developer's perspective. A bunch of 1GHz x86 systems isn't the same value as a single 4GHz x86 system for doing stuff that gets the users attention. New tools and education for developers will help but only so much.

One simple way around this is to have cores that are dedicated function units rather than general purpose. The trick for Intel or AMD is qualifying the inclusion of that function as something that is useful to a wide portion of the market rather than highly specialized. Look how long it took to have the FPU onboard with the 486 and then very soon after be left out for the bargain market. It wasn't until the Pentium that an FPU was a guaranteed presence in the CPU.

So what comes next? Do we put 8 cores in a single socket or 4 cores and some other items like a physics accelerator. Does this mean a big divergence between desktop and server processors? Going further, will we see >4-core processors developed expressly with gaming and content creation as their focus while the cheaper quads serve the generic desktop market? Will it be worth a CPU maker's investment to pursue this?

Keeping processors fitted for generalized use, rather than suited for specific functions, has helped the manufacturers remain economically efficient. One (or two, or three) families of processors differentiated by just speed and cache made in great quantities is much cheaper than many families of fewer specialized chips. If software cannot provide the gains consumers expect, the chips may need to become more varied. This will raise prices but better serve individual interests.

Eric


This is one of many letters inquiring about Hybrid Drives.

Jerry,

Have you used any of the hybrid hard drives? Are they worth their high price?

Mark Huth

Mark is an old friend (and EverQuest II companion), but I was in a tearing hurry, so I answered, "Depends on need, no?" I also put the letter in the Advisors discussion conference, but before there was any response there Mark ansered:

I'm not sure.

I've read that the hybrid drives are fantastic and amazing...speed things wonderfully and also read that they have no noticeable effect.

Pournelle said we'd have silicon hard drives years ago and lo and behold...

There is a Samsung 30gig silicon disk available at reasonable cost now: NewEgg link

And now a 60 gigger: link

Geez, faster than hard drives, cooler, lighter.....stick one in a notebook.....oh wait:

Looks like Apple is going to do this.

So am I bold enough to buy one of these 32gig drives and stick it in a PC as the primary drive.....?

Mark Huth

Eric Pobirs, who has long been interested in speeding up drive access, took this one:

Well, as mentioned, the hybrid drive isn't going to change much on a system that doesn't know how to use it. In fact, since the design allows for the flash cache to be bypassed, a system without ReadyDrive or an equivalent might do so by default.

Also, much of the benefit is to the power consumption of a portable but shouldn't be confused with a pure SSD (solid state drive) device. There will be trade-offs. I wouldn't expect to see SSDs outside of the high-end ultraportable market or other special apps any time soon. The cost is pretty scary compared to a 2.5" unit platter with hybrid controller that delivers much of the same benefit and vastly better capacity.

$500 for a 32GB drive? The need had better be great, especially if a hybrid gives 120GB for around $100 with its addition of NV cache.

It should be noted that these early drives aren't going to store the entire OS and apps sets. The flash is only 256MB, which will speed access to the most heavily access bits of the OS and offer some write caching that is safe from power interruptions. Drive makers are wary of doing multi-GB caches in their hybrids until the prices are low enough to make the price bump almost unnoticeable. By that time Vista should be wide spread enough and other OSes capable of exploiting hybrid drives as well, making for a market that sees the hybrids as the default choice.

So, although the OS technology is rolling out today, it's going to be several years before the full effects are seen in the market. Portable makers will probably offer those internal ReadyBoost slots to make up some of the difference and have more control over their products. The amount of ReadyBoost capacity will become just another item on the configuration menu at sites like Dell.

-- Eric

My conclusion is that this technology will become important, but I would wait until operating systems are ready for it. I don't think there's any reason to hurry.

I do note that we may finally get to where I predicted we'd be in 1984 when I said that silicon is cheaper than iron, and solid state mass storage will replace spinning metal. At the moment Vista can make use of solid state memory cache — I have a 2 GB thumb drive connected to this system and it does speed things up. I'll get a cache drive one of these days, but I am in no hurry.


I have chosen two letters commenting on GoDaddy:

Subject: Godaddy problems

Dr. P:

I had a brief stint with Godaddy, and ultimately ran away screaming an apology to my old ISP for ever leaving. That would be www.sonic.net - the worlds best ISP!

The problem? SPAM. Or, rather, Godaddy's super-aggressive anti-spam technology. As a user of Godaddy's e-mail, you have NO practical control over what they filter. And, unfortunately, they filter by IP address.

I had several bad experiences. One friend in Rochester, who uses RoadRunner for his connection to the internet, restarted his router and his DHCP request got him an IP address that had once SPAMmed. Godaddy bounced his e-mail to me with a "go away, spammer" response. When I contacted them about this, I was told to e-mail, as that portion of Godaddy only works via e-mail. After 24 hours they agreed to whitelist my friend's IP. They never did, and after a couple of days told me I needed to go to a third-party site that amalgamates RBL lists and provides the amalgamated list to Godaddy, and have my friend's IP taken off of each list. I gave it a go, but some of those sites require that you PAY to have the IP address removed.

At about the same time, it became clear that my company's e-mail couldn't be hosted on Godaddy either. We have an office in China, and people in China that want to e-mail our employees in China. Not a chance. Time after time they were bounced as SPAMmers, as a side-effect of having the misfortune to live in China and use Chinese ISPs for their mail.

At that point I abandoned the effort and re-hosted myself and my company away from Godaddy.

The only good service they offer is cheap registrations, and perhaps decent web-hosting. Their e-mail hosting is for the birds.

Sonic.net, on the other hand, gives you as much control as you wish when it comes to anti-spam efforts. They do a GREAT job. It's a particularly bad SPAM week when one or two slip through their filters.

Rob

I have never used GoDaddy web hosting or email services. I do note that many places subscribe to Black Hole listing services, and those are almost never satisfactory. Mazin, my web/email/etc hosts, uses Spam Assassin on incoming mail and gets rid of about half the spam that would otherwise would get to me; the rest is just too ingenious for any automated system I know of. My problem is that I have to allow a number of press releases, and I get mail from a great many readers in a great many places. InBoxer, a Bayesian system, does about as good a job as any.

I have no way to evaluate the GoDaddy spam filter system, but I would guess that for Aunt Minnie who isn't likely to be getting mail from strange places, it may be good enough, but for those who need to hear from faraway places with strange sounding names, another service is preferable.

You will note that my comments on GoDaddy were as the place to register domains; I continue that recommendation.

By way of contrast:

Jerry,

I will echo your recommendation of GoDaddy, in fact I may have switched from Register.com based on reading your comments a few years ago. I have registered domains, hosted websites and use their mail servers. I have always had excellent service, quick response to questions and superior tech support any time I have needed it. I too would recommend GoDaddy, and have, to anyone needing web services.

Dan Brantley University Park, TX

Which remains my conclusion as well. Thanks.


Last week's mail inquired about streaming devices.

Jerry,

I was reading your mailbag about the search by Rich Heimlich for a video and audio streaming device. This might fill the bill, except for Xbox streaming but since it is open source I am sure it eventually be included. Go here to get info on the neuros osd streaming device.

Michael Scoggins

Thanks. I look forward to further reports.


And an inquiry from a physician friend about text readers for the blind:

Subject: Kurzweil Reader

Jerry,

As you may remember, my father is 86 years of age. He is hale and healthy and remains articulate and, as is often said, in full control of his faculties. However, he's been gradually losing his vision as a result of macular degeneration. He has, for more than 70 years read several daily newspapers, including the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Unfortunately last weekend he had a retinal occlusion and lost all vision in his good eye. Thus, the time is upon us where he can no longer read the newspaper.

Several questions for your readers:

1) Is anyone familiar with the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader? Does it work? Is it worth the $4,000? I've read some praise for it, but many say the technology is primitive and of poor quality. Are there any other suggestions for him? He is quite computer literate and had been using his iMac for several years.

2) Does anyone know of a source for the full daily and weekly text of the New York Times in an audio format?

3) Any other suggestions for me?

Thanks, and I am sorry to impose upon you for such a personal matter.

M

I know that Mrs. Virginia Heinlein had a book reader that worked well for her, but I don't recall the model she used. I asked readers at my regular web site and got replies which I forwarded, but the subject may be of general interest, demonstrated with these two replies...

Dear Dr. Pournelle:

Regarding the Kuzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader, my wife works at the local public library as a research assistant and is responsible for assisting library patrons with using the library's Kurzweil Reader. She generally holds the device in high regard, and notes that it is the only way several patrons with varying degrees of visual impairment can use many of the library's resources. She pointed out two problems, one minor, one not so minor, but it may be that neither problem would apply to your father.

The minor problem is that several parameters (such as scanning/reading speed) can be set to the user's taste, and that in the library environment with many users, a new user can spend a good deal of time getting everything dialed in just right. She notes this as a minor inconvenience for most of the library's blind patrons. Since I presume your father would be the only regular user, this should only affect him once, or at worst a few times.

A more significant problem for my wife was that the device often drops off the local network. Their unit has a wireless connection, and her opinion is that a hardline connection would work better. She claims that this is not a "feature" of the Kurzweil hardware or software, but due to the vagaries of tech support in our library system. Again, once the unit is set up and established with a solid link to whatever network you connect it to, this shouldn't be so much of a problem for you or your father. To put it in perspective, my wife works at the largest branch library in Harris County, Texas, with dozens of patron workstations connected via hardline and at least another dozen or so laptops connected via the library's wireless network. I'm sure the details of your father's connection would be quite different, and presumably much simpler.

Jeffrey A. Larson Webster, Texas

And this:

My mother uses Zoomtext for computer applications. She is a big advocate of this software and uses it for web browsing and typing/editing documents. The software runs in the high 3 figures for the version with the reading feature. It will read menu items and when typing documents can be set to either read each letter as it is typed, each word, or wait until a sentence is finished and read the sentence.

For reading printed matter she uses a flatbed scanner and Kurzweil reading software. This software is about $1,000. So we are looking at under US$2,000 + equipment for a complete assisted system. The US$4,000 mentioned earlier sounds very high unless it includes all of the hardware. And if money is tight he might consider just purchasing Zoomtext and scanning any documents he wants read into an OCR program, saving it to MS Word then let Zoomtext read the word document. All Kurzweil really gives you that I can see is automating the Scan->OCR->Read function. In Texas the state commission for the blind will donate software and equipment for free...if you use it for your job. For personal use you are on your own. One last tip is to check used computer stores for monitors. Working 22-24" CRTs can be had for very little money (ca. US$50) as long as you have room for these beasts. Hopefully this helps!

Gene Horr

Computers have done a lot to alleviate handicap problems, and I expect to see a lot more. Prices will fall, too. I expect we have not heard the last on this subject.