Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

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

July 9, 2007

Regarding last week's brief discussion:

Real-time Ray-Tracing

I literally just read about this last night in the August 2006 Scientific American (OK, OK, I'm a little behind, but I'm catching up!). They were also demonstrating near-real-time ray-tracing animation, but they argued that the appearance would be BETTER, not worse, the reasoning being that they are able to model things like reflectance and absorbance more-accurately.

The argument was along the lines of, it is very difficult to paint an accurate tone of human skin, since so much of the color doesn't come from the surface, but rather from light reflecting off the sub-surface layers. The different layers of the skin reflect light differently, though (some more-diffuse, some less.)

-- Brian Pickering

The best text-to-speech programs I know of were developed at Apple: they used very accurate models of the human larynx and mouth. I suspect that using programs that model human vision will have the same results. Physics always works, but physiology is often more relevant in these matters.

Some comments on the iPhone:

Subject: iPhone arrived


It's here, it beautiful, and is the way of things to come.


That's one view, apparently widely shared.

Subject: iPhone thoughts -

Afternoon Jerry,

Just some thoughts on the iPhone. I think Apple blew it. None of the carriers are very good, but AT&T is the worst of the bunch. AT&T has the worst service, and the worst network; they will take their network offline for hours for 'maintenance' without prior notice! Even not counting the activation problems (the iBrick phenomenon) here's two examples:

Data network crashes: link.

Customer service is closed on Sunday (even the Sunday after the iPhone launch!): link.

Hackers are close to forcing the phone to unlock (which I believe the FCC allows), and will figure out how to make it work with other GSM carriers. That still doesn't help Verizon customers though - they use CDMA (which is why the network works the best in fringe, mountainous and rural areas).

Right now it's a poor phone and, at 8GB, a crippled iPod. I'll plan to buy a new widescreen iPod when they come out this fall, and keep my very good, very simple, RAZR - which is just a phone.

When I see an 80GB version, with separate batteries for the phone and the iPod (so I don't drain my phone battery on the plane), integration with corporate e-mail (Notes and Exchange), that comes unlocked direct from Apple and supports both GSM and CDMA (so I am no longer bound to a carrier - free at last!) then I'll buy it in a heartbeat. That would be a truly revolutionary product - and worthy of Apple.



Remember Rule #6 ~ Art of Possibility, Benjamin Zander

And that's another view...


That Knowledge Base article that you said needed everyone to be a registry expert was for Administrators in large companies using Group Policy to set Office configuration parameters.

That said even XP requires changes to the registry to fix some problems as this KB article that should fix your second problem points out. link.

You should be using NOD32 and only NOD32 as your antivirus solution just make sure that you turn the IMON feature off.

Dean Peters

I will have considerable to say about this in the column.

As to antivirus software, I generally don't use any at all, although I do periodically check the machines from Safe Mode. I don't particularly recommend flying without anti-virus, but I do not visit odd web sites, Outlook gives me all previews in Plaintext and I never convert those to html unless I know precisely what I am doing - generally only CNET and CMP. I don't open attachments unless they are expected and I am quite certain I know where they came from. And I keep all my systems properly patched.

On Pocket Computers and eBooks:

Subject: eBooks july 2nd mail


In a reply to a mail regarding using the Palm platform as an eReader you commented:

"My guess is that the era of the paperback book is just about over; there will still be paperbacks, but not many, and most mass marketed books will be sold electronically."

I agree wholeheartedly with you on this and await a truly GREAT eReader (Sony is getting very close I think!). However, the point of this email is to remind everyone not to forget Audio Books, the other electronic medium. The proliferation of the iPod, and other DMPs has made the Audio Book a simple and attractive alternative to reading paperbacks. I personally fly a lot, and settling down to a good Audio Book is a great way to fill the time on a flight of any length. I have recently re-read (so to speak), Heinlein's Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Niven's Ringworld and Niven's partner's Starswarm on flights to and from Japan and China. I must also note that, holding and drinking a glass of wine requires no interruption to the Audio Book as it does when reading a paperback!!


Richard Hakala

"Age and treachery overcome youth and skill"

Who is this Niven's partner?

Subject: Stories on Pocket Computers

I enjoyed your recent June 12 Chaos Manor - as always. Hopefully your cold / sinus infection is abating; those things are terrible.

Regarding books and entertainment on Pocket PCs or PDAs, I've been a fan of the PDA since the early Palm IIIx models. It's unsolicited, but as a long time fan of the PDA format, I thought I would give you my thoughts to do with as you will.

What got me hooked on PDAs and sold me on the Palm was keeping my appointments and rolodex on a small device that I could stuff in a pocket (suit or pants) and would synch with Outlook. While the Palm would periodically reboot and wipe its memory, it was good enough most of the time to become a constant companion. Restoring from the desktop was fast and easy. When I found books were available on the Palm I tried that - and despite a weak screen that had poor contrast, I fell in love with having several novels on the device so that I could shave a few pounds off of my travel budget. So, I became addicted to books on the Palm back in the late 90's.

Next, the Microsoft devices caught my eye because they could handle email, web browsing (in some limited fashion), music, and perform some important utilities with software add-ons. Most importantly, they took memory chips. Now I could carry hundreds of books and recordings on a device with a bigger screen. My first Microsoft device was a Toshiba, which promptly was orphaned, then a Dell Axim, also orphaned, now a Cingular 8525. Hopefully Cingular won't orphan these devices. The networking is really very good - good enough for on-demand email, browsing, etc. The Dell had the largest / best screen I have found on a PDA, but it's out of production, alas.

Jim Baen pioneered putting books on line, which I have contributed a few dollars to, purchasing all of the David Drake, John Ringo, Kzin wars, series on line. I love having scores of books to read from at any time I have a few minutes free (intentionally or otherwise). This is the way of the future, if the two industries involved (3 if you count the telecom guys) can both avoid past mistakes and not make future ones. Some criticisms:

Screen size: I started using PDA's in my early 40's, now my eyes are 50+ years old - do any of the engineers understand how hard it is to read some of the screens out there? I'll gladly buy a device 40% larger than the 8525 to get a nice big screen. PDA books for the masses - we're dealing with human beings who have human eyes. The population is aging. Perhaps the engineers don't understand that.

Digital Rights - the recording industry seems to be re-inventing the Divine Wind as they conduct a full scale suicide assault on their customers. Hopefully the print publishing industry won't make that mistake. "Loaner files" got me addicted to John Ringo, and I promptly purchased every one of his Posleen series after reading the first few chapters of the first book. I am convinced the decrease in sales of many media types (music, movie, etc.) is due to poor quality, not piracy. I've bought a lot of books at Baen online and intend to continue doing so. I know you publish through Baen as well, but wanted to pass on my thoughts as a consumer.

Video - see criticism one. Watch TV or a full length movie on a 2 inch screen? In case the device developer's haven't noticed, the public is gulping down large screen - large as will fit on a wall or a room - devices, so what is the point of watching video on a 2 inch or even 3 inch screen? It's a miserable experience. I tried it just to see the effect, and can't imagine trying again intentionally. Perhaps the military should try giving 2 inch screens to the prisoner's in Gitmo and make them try to watch Fox News on them. I imagine they would crack, quickly. It's an abuse of human rights.

Keyboards -my 8525 has an embedded slide out keyboard. It works, but it's cramped - again, it doesn't fit human fingers. It almost fits my 6 year old, but I can't enlist him to type whenever necessary. I've been in cars with Blackberry addicts when they try to respond to email driving down the highway at 70+ miles an hour, using a microscopic keyboard not designed for humans. It's terrifying to watch. Evolution may solve that problem, but again engineers need to realize humans need human input / output devices. If removing the keyboard would save 40 dollars from my 8525, I'd go for the savings. It's truly a useless keyboard.

Some compliments:

Networking on Cingular Edge / 3G - it works well. DSL Reports credits the device with 350Kbps+, a very practical speed for what it can do. 802.11G is nice, and it tethers to a notebook as a router (not a modem) curiously enough. In some recent meetings the 8525 performed credibly well over Bluetooth to allow me to perform some real work where an 802.11 network didn't exist.

Battery life is getting better and better. The late lamented Palm IIIx could go 2 weeks on high quality AAA batteries, but these Microsoft devices suck down a lot of power. The Toshiba and Dell units were out of power within a few hours on standard batteries when 802.11 was used, a day or two without. However, testing the 8525 reveals that Bluetooth can be left on for days, and it has well over 4 hours of 802.11 wireless networking. Power consumption seems to be getting under control.

Auxiliary memory cards are a pro and a con- this Cingular device just uses the ridiculous MicroSD format - almost too small to hold. It's reasonably fast, but what's the point in another card format? The Dell handled CompactFlash and SD. I have to believe that an SD card could be squeezed into this device, which would be more economical per gigabyte. But it does take a card that allows for significant storage of data. It's predecessor didn't. Programs can be installed to the MicroSD, further freeing up non-expandable device memory.

As a phone, it works well. It isn't as compact as a flip-style phone, but it really is convenient to have so many functions, which are now reasonably reliable, in one device. As full-up notebook replacement it needs a real screen and a real keyboard to compete. For video, it's just awful. Maybe a 'teen or '20s person could tolerate the small screen but I can't. The progress over the last few years in terms of memory, processing, and networking has brought the device you described in the Mote series very close. Short of some sort of holographic, outside-the-device screen and keyboard, it's going to be tough for the PDA to fully replace a notebook soon. I think human factors will trump technology at least for the short term. But the devices are getting smarter, faster, better every year.

Bill Kennon

Thanks for that summary.

My guess is that the next generation of devices will be rechargeable from a battery pack: the PDA cum Reader cum Phone cum Pocket Computer with a useful keyboard will be a bit large for a shirt pocket. That means some kind of shoulder bag and I expect that fashion designers will come up with several. The shoulder bag will be large enough to carry an external battery for recharging the device. I note that the iPhone is often carried with an external battery extender.

My NEC MobilePro 780 is still very useful. I can still write stories and columns on that device, and it is quite old with elderly software. The Lenovo Tablet PC works well although I really prefer the HP/Compaq tablet form factor.

I would willingly carry a device the size of the MobilePro 780 if it were PDA, camera, phone, and web browser. It certainly has a useful keyboard, and the touch screen works (it's not a tablet, though). I have seen tablet mini-PC's with camera and Bluetooth that are very nearly good enough. It won't be long, I think.

Some Windows complaints:

Hi Jerry,

Your latest column just made me ever happier I got off the Windows train. I think it has been a few months since I last updated you on my Mac experiments. My whole household is changed over now. I changed jobs and had to buy my own laptop so I bought a couple of MacBooks (2 gig RAM) for my wife and I. The only troubles we have had are due to my wife being the typical windows user. Having fought to a draw with Windows and Word (and not being a computer type) she had a melt down over the small learning curve to learn how to use OSX. Even most of that went away when I broke down and bought her a copy of MS Office.

On the LAN side I added an Apple Airport Extreme router to get 802.11n and a place to hang a USB HDD for backup purposes. Setup of the LAN was brain dead easy. I just rebooted everything, set some passwords and that was that.

What else? DevonThink Pro Office continues to be wonderful. I bought the recommended Fuji ScanSnap and I am slowing getting control over my many boxes of technical papers etc. The OCR just works and DevonThink itself does exactly what it claims to do in terms of information management. At the current rate I am loading DevonThink up I may even recover my office from all the paper in a few months!

Anything I would change? Not really. I would still like a Mac Pro when I can justify the expense, but even these lower end MacBooks are incredible machines.

All the best,

Richard Kullberg

If I ever change over to Mac, I would certainly get Microsoft Office for the Mac. When Inferno II is finally turned in and paid for I'll begin with one of the new Core 2 Duo Macs and see where that takes me.

Having said that, all my production systems run Windows (XP or Vista but I don't recommend Vista for any but the adventurous just yet) and despite some gnashing of teeth - see the column - it does work, and sometimes it can be elegant.

Subject: Windows Vista Invisible Cursor


I was setting up a new Toshiba laptop for a client yesterday and ran across an interesting and really unforgivable problem.

I usually like to change the mouse pointer size for easier visibility and set it to Windows Standard (extra large) (windows scheme). Nice easy to find pointer. But wait, that's not all. After installing Office 2007 Home and Student Edition and firing up MS Word the pointer disappeared as it turned to the Ibar. Not exactly an ideal situation. After much gnashing of teeth and looking at mouse setting and settings in Word, I discovered that in any application or place where the pointer would turn into the Ibar it became invisible. Changing the pointer to Windows Black (extra large) (windows scheme) solved the problem.

Just another example of the wonders of Microsoft "Quality Assurance."

It is well past time for everyone to stop cutting Microsoft slack and demanding reasonable quality in what we purchase.

Bob Holmes

I agree entirely. Microsoft does seem to be slipping, and has been since Gates stopped trying to run everything. I doubt there is anyone still "in charge" in the sense of getting personally upset when things don't work properly. Gates used to work harder than the next three people in his company, and he tried to be aware of just about everything. I don't think anyone does that now.

Bob Thompson adds

[The mailbag] looks fine to me, although I do think you're much too easy on Microsoft.

Slipping? We have the train wreck that is Vista, which even pro-Microsoft columnists are telling their readers to avoid until SP1, which may well be a year off. Then the other day Microsoft finally admitted what everyone already knew; that the Xbox 360 has had catastrophically high failure rates. So now Microsoft has taken a $1.15 billion write-down for their last quarter to cover those costs. Geez.

Robert Bruce Thompson

I have some discussion of these matters in the column.

Big ships turn slowly. Microsoft used to turn much faster, because it was more analogous to a fleet of medium sized ships than to one big ship. Gates was admiral, and his individual captains were pretty sharp.

Lately Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy seems to be working at Microsoft, as it does in nearly all large organizations.

Among the July Books of the Month you'll find Schumpeter, the discoverer of the principle of creative destruction. Perhaps next time Gates takes one of his famous retreats he might want to carry Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy...