Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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The Mailbag

Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

June 25, 2007

Once again I am battling some kind of viral invasion; call it a relapse. I am determined to fight my way through it. Meanwhile the mail continues. When we were in Washington I saw the old Post Office, now a museum, but I didn't go in. I thought I remembered that was the place where Herodotus' description of the Persian mounted post ("... stays these faithful couriers from the swift completion", etc.) was carved, but it's not. That was put on the New York Post Office about 1900.

Dr Pournelle,

I read with interest your comment on the "human factors" lab, in the column published on June 19th.

I remember the effects this lab produced, and how useful the help system used to be. I wonder if possibly the reason the impact today is less noticeable is that the lab cannot find "virgin" people. By that I mean people who are not already used to using computers to some extent, and have already developed ways of working?

In your companion letters page about the Vista burning, Bob Thompson comments on CDs. Obviously he's never installed Vista, as it's only available on DVD! I was a member of the beta program, and there was a big message to all testers that 90% of the faults being registered from us testers were due to corrupt installation. The recommendation was to burn all DVDs at 1x speed, or the slowest possible. Given that I only use +R media, the slowest is technically 2.4x.

I have two DVD recorders at home, one actually does 2.4x (a TDK in a P4 Dell machine) and the other burner is a no brand in a Core 2 Duo machine, and the slowest speed it shows is 4x given Verbatim media. I've not had any problems once I ensure Nero is set to use the slowest speed available.

Enjoy the summer !

James Chamier

I recall I had a problem burning a proper ISO for Vista at one time, but I haven't since. I get all my Microsoft software from MSDN, the Microsoft Developers network, and while they eventually send DVDs, if you want fairly new stuff you have to download and burn your own. I haven't had much trouble.

Subject: MS Help files

Dr. Pournelle,

As for MS Help files. They have become what we used to call Univac Documentation in the mainframe/punched card days. It was written so that you could never find the answer unless you already knew it, but the tech rep could pull down one of his binders and point straight at it. Job security, I guess.

I once needed to do something very obvious in MS Money, but could not find where to do it. I asked on one of the MS support groups, and somebody told me how. Just for fun, I asked for some words for the Help search which would lead me there, but nobody every came forward with them. Even knowing the answer, I could not find them.

As usual, I found your discussion in C@CM helpful, as I am in the market for cutting the cord and going wireless for the keyboard and mouse. Thanks for saving me much time.



Before a mad scientist goes mad, there's probably a time when he's only partially mad. And this is the time when he's going to throw his best parties.

I think I first wrote about that secret school that teaches how to write documents that are clear only if the answers are previously known in about the second of my BYTE columns in 1979 or 1980. I wanted to find it and burn it down. I have never been able to locate it, and I think it metastasized...

On FastStone:

Hi Jerry,

Chris Burns asked for comments on FastStone image manipulation software. I have been using it for a good while now, and can say I like it a lot. In fact, FastStone Image Viewer has been set as the software that handles almost any image format when I double click on it. That viewer is very good. Like your favorite ThinkPad, this is something that Just Works (I run it on a T42, as it happens, as well as on other hardware). It's fairly compact, it's stable and it can do all the things you want to do with images except the more sophisticated editing one uses true image editors for, like PhotoShop, Paintshop Pro etc. It does thumbnail views, slide shows that really work and can be exported to run as stand-alone without the original software on another computer, it allows you to resize individual images, adapt contrast, gamma, sharpening, remove red eyes, change colour settings, export to several different image formats etc.; I often use it to make quick screen grabs, simply by pressing PrintScreen in Windows, then switching to Faststone with an image open, press Ctrl-V and presto, there is a screen grab neatly imported.

Press Ctrl and draw a rectangle with the mouse and copy any portion of the image out with standard copy and paste shortcuts to get a new image again. Real quick.

The program will also do things like make contact sheets, compare images in a split screen, crop, add text, change an image to greyscale, sepia or negative, rotate or flip it, etc., etc.; you can also use 'edit with external program' which opens your advanced image editor of choice (you can pick from a list, even), opens a copy of the image into it to make changes.

It also reads most raw image formats from major camera brands and can even be used as a last-ditch workaround to convert those to straight JPEGs after some manipulation, if you have no dedicated raw manipulator software or proprietary software from the camera in question on your PC. It worked with the raws from my Canon compact.

In fact it can do so much that I still have not used all possibilities. It's a lot more comfortable to work with than most viewers I know, including the likes of Irfan and the thumbnail viewers built into the major image editors.

The separate (but also just as free) FastStone Image Resizer is meant to do just what the name says: resize and rename whole batches of images. Select a whole directory full of large photos to resize, define the new (sub)directory the resized images have to be put into, define the automatic name changes if you want, as well as the target sizes and some advanced settings (sharpening and brightness adaptations for instance), tell it to start and then you go off to work in the garden or something, have coffee, go shopping or whatever.

When you return you'll find a new directory full of neatly resized images, without any damage to the originals. Very practical, that.

The Faststone programs are totally free; you can make a donation to the authors which will provide you with a registration code to get past the single splash screen and mouse click when starting the program. It's worth it. Highly recommended.

Faststone can be found at http://www.faststone.org/.

Keep up the good work, and your health.

Kind regards,

Le Ballon Bleu
Frank Schweppe

Which is enough recommendation that I am going to go get this and try it. I'm in fiction mode just at the moment, and that eats more time and energy than I have just now, but that will change. Thanks for the recommendation!

A press release and a discussion:

Subject: Exploit Prevention Labs posts dangerous search terms

Hi Jerry,

Just a quick heads up that Roger Thompson at Exploit Prevention Labs has started posting sample dangerous search terms on this blog that are yielding malicious web sites delivering exploits.

Here's a short summary of search phrases and the exploits some of the top results recently attempted to deliver:

"Arches National Park" - MPack exploit
"air disasters in Florida" - MPack
"blue book" - mdac exploit

The data is collected by LinkScanner Pro users who stumble upon these sites during their daily search engine queries. LinkScanner blocks them from visiting the sites. LinkScanner Pro then sends the data back to XPL for further investigation.

Roger's findings provide further evidence that common search phrases are yielding malicious search engine results on a daily basis.

As always, if you would like to speak with Roger to learn more, I'd be happy to connect you with him.


I asked the advisors if they thought this might be interesting. Peter Glaskowsky notes:

It looks like this organization is pointing out that routine Web searches can lead to malicious sites. I hope most people understand this already, but there may be some people who think they're safe as long as they stay away from hacker/pirate/porn sites. That isn't true, and I don't think it's ever been true.

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Security expert Rick Hellewell adds:

There have been a few reports of increased incidences of malware-infected web sites. There is a new web-based exploit called MPACK that you install on a server. When a visitor comes, it tries all sorts of download attempts through various vulns (like the ANI vuln). It has a database of possible exploits, and tries the ones that are most likely to work on based on your OS and patch level. It keeps track of infections in it's own database backend.

So it is possible that a "non-grey" web site could be infected. Those sites that are on server farms, which are sometimes not as well patched as an 'owner-operator' site.

As for protection, current anti-virus will detect the download/install attempt of the malware. And keeping all other patches current is additional protection.


All of which adds up to what we have said many times: practice safe computing, and keep your system up to date. Be careful out there.

Subject: Which wireless router do you recommend?


My Linksys wireless router is dieing after about 2 years. I've noticed that Linksys products tend to croak in a year or two. I'm getting a little tired of this. What wireless router do you recommend?



When McGraw Hill owned BYTE we had 30 editors in Peterborough, and we could be much more authoritative about calling something "best". Alas, there's just me (and some volunteer advisors) now, and I can't claim to have looked at everything or even a representative sample of what's out there. I do know what I use, and what I have found it Good Enough.

That said, we have used the D-Link Gaming Router here at Chaos Manor for a long time. I use a lot of D-Link equipment and I have been more than satisfied with all of it. I can certainly recommend their gaming router - when one of the advisors snaffled off the first one they sent (and still uses it) I got another...

Another exchange of views began when Dan Spisak said:

Okay, in case everyone is living under a rock (I suspect you might be, or busy, it happens to the best of us) Microsoft just announced something actually COOL and damned interesting.

Microsoft Surface and Microsoft Surface Virtual Pressroom

It is a multi-touch screen interface device.

"Microsoft Surface, the first commercially available surface computer from Microsoft Corporation, turns an ordinary tabletop into a vibrant, interactive surface. It provides effortless interaction with digital content through natural gestures, touch and physical objects. Surface is a 30-inch display in a table-like form factor that's easy for individuals or small groups to interact with in a way that feels familiar, just like in the real world. In essence, it's a surface that comes to life for exploring, learning, sharing, creating, buying and much more. Soon to be available in restaurants, hotels, retail and public entertainment venues, this experience will transform the way people shop, dine, entertain and live."

It runs Windows Vista.

The demo movies look damned slick. I want one. No, two. I suspect it's a candidate for the Cold Dead Hands award if it delivers on its promise.

So will you.

The big question I have is, how much will this wundertech cost mere mortals?

-Dan S.

Eric Pobirs added:

Part of the UI tech for this was in a session at WinHEC.

You just know somebody in that project has lusted after Ed Stark's desk ever since 1982.

- - - Eric

Rich Heimlich was a bit more skeptical:

Interesting but I still haven't heard anything really great about it. For example, they talk about how you won't need to find your remote because the table is the remote! Oh? Really? And that's good how? Every time I want to change the channel I have to get out of my chair, walk over to the table, move all the stuff on it and then interact with it?

Is it also wireless or am I going to need a PC under my coffee table too?

We also don't like to look down at things. When we read we angle the books up. We watch TV and movies ahead of us. We get through life looking at everything at as close to 90 degrees as possible. We've had input on the desk for years. It controls a view screen that's upright in front of us. We've had touch-screens for ages. We didn't move to them for desktop control of that device because it wasn't needed. We don't want to have to look down to control things. That's why many people opt against fully dynamic screen devices that have no real buttons or tactile feedback. You don't want to look down to change channels.

For now this sounds interesting but I still am not seeing the great reason why this will be essential.

Rich Heimlich

Dan persisted:

Oh come on guys, this is actually a pretty cool piece of tech. I've been watching this stuff languish in R&D for years. If Microsoft can introduce people to this kind of tech and execute it well then they will have a winner. The MS Research folks are no slouches.

-Dan S.

So did Rich:

Like I said, it sounds interesting. I just am not seeing where the application of this is all that intriguing. I see more benefit from Sony's flexible display than this. An interactive table? Pass. Now you want to have interactive anything via a Star Trek computer that I talk to? Great! "Computer, what's showing at the theater tonight?" or "Show me what the weather will be tomorrow" and have it appear on the wall I'm closest to.

Rich Heimlich

But Dan stuck to his guns:

The application comes from the fact that people will now have a possibly useful alternative to interacting with computers that doesn't require a mouse for navigation. It's not speech recognition, but that boat has a long way to sail before its baked for normal use by real people. It allows the possibility of using the computer in a way that could feel more natural and allow more complex interactions without a respective scaling of difficult with those interactions. I mean, seriously, we've been stuck in the mouse/keyboard interaction motif now since....1964. Don't you think its time something changed?

Dan S

But Rich holds out for something different.

Yep, but not just for the sake of change. When speech recognition finally gets here, it'll be time to wipe the others out. The last time I saw them attempt to do this was with a device that read your hand movements in the air. No one bothered to ruin the party of the developers by reminding them that we get to rest our hands while using a mouse on a table.

That said, I'd be all for a mousepad that just used my hand as the mouse and I've seen that around somewhere in development. Why bother with the mouse at all? Just read my hand going across the pad. Treat my hand like a complex stylus.

Rich Heimlich

All of which I found very interesting. On reflection I am on both sides of this: that is, I have no desire to use a table top as a keyboard. I like interaction and key clicks, and while some of that may be provided in software, it's not the same.

On the other hand, I'd be interested in a projected mouse, provided that it worked a little better than mushpads. I do a fair amount of work on the road using both a TabletPC and the IBM/Lenovo T42p, and when it comes to making up the mail page for Chaos Manor (Current Mail) I find I prefer attaching an external mouse to either the mushpad or using a very good pen stylus on the TablePC. I guess I'd have to try the projected mouse before I could say which was better.

But Dan is right. We've used these interface tools a long time, and they can certainly be improved; and the latest Microsoft development is way cool technology even if it's not yet an application we all want.

Marty Winston says:

I've seen incoming mail steal cycles and slow down word processor responses (even sometimes eating keyboard characters) but I haven't seen it steal the focus.

I'm in the middle of rewriting my Web sites and making a lot of use of a printer driver called Universal Document Converter; in this case, I'm creating JPG images of Word documents and cropping them down to insert e-mail addresses as graphics instead of type onto the Web pages.

Want to get annoyed? On your Vista systems, try opening Help in each of your applications. Here's what I get from NetObjects Fusion 10:

- - - - - Why can't I get Help from this program?

The Help for this program was created in Windows Help format, which was used in previous versions of Windows and it is not supported in Windows Vista.

For more information, see Windows Help program (WinHlp32.exe) is no longer included with Windows on the Microsoft support website. - - - - -

Marty Winston

I find that Outlook still steals focus sometimes: that is, I will be working in another program (usually Word) and suddenly find myself watching Outlook rolling in the mail. It hasn't happened so often in the past couple of weeks as it once did, and since I haven't made any changes to my system other than automatic updates I am inclined to think that Microsoft squashed a bug without telling us, but I could be mistaken.

At one time it was possible to do some edits on your own Microsoft Help but no longer.

We opened today with a note about the old Microsoft Human Factors group. We can close by wishing they'd let them do a lot more about Help files. A lot more. Computers are very powerful now, and disk storage space is plentiful. There is no reason to be lean and mean on Help files, nor is there any reason not to have redundant entries in the Help file dictionary. It's not as if we are still working of 64K 8" floppy drives as our "mass storage"...