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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

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

August 6, 2007

We have a message from security expert Rick Hellewell:

Dr. Pournelle:

The recent and tragic bridge collapse in Minneapolis (MN/USA) reminds us again of the fragility of the cell phone system.

During a calamity, many people turn to their cell phones to contact loved ones. But that overloads the cell phone system, and calls don't get through, often for many hours.

So the alternative to remember is to send text messages. Text messages get sent differently, and don't take up much bandwidth, so they will get through much easier when the cell phone system is overloaded.

The lesson here is to learn how to send text messages on your cell phone. And learn how to receive them from others.

I suggest that your next family meeting around the dinner table be used to learn to text message. Ask your kids to help out, if necessary. Set up your contact list so you can send text messages to your family. Practice until you can easily do it.

It's worth the time to learn how to send text messages.

(from my blog entry today: link)

Regards, Rick Hellewell

I know - sort of - how to send text messages from my ancient Nokia phone, but I don't know how to compose them. Perhaps I ought to practice. It turns out that with a standard phone keyboard, composing a text message is not at all straightforward, and is nothing like just putting in the name of a phone contact.

I expect that if it's hard for me, it will be harder for those not familiar with these things.

This week's first major mailbag topic began when security expert Chaos Manor Advisor Rick Hellewell had a question for the Advisors conference. As usual it led to a discussion of the subject. I found it quite instructive.


I have a need to scan many slides onto CD's. Was looking for a recommendation of a scanner with 35mm slide capability. An auto-feed input would be best, along with automatic 'picture-healing' software so that I don't have to fix every single picture.

The cost should be reasonable (under US$300?).

Any recommendations?



The first reply was from me:

When you find it let me know. I will rent it from you or pay part of the cost. I have my old lectures, including the classic Survival with Style, on slides and I need to get them onto CD's or some other way I can put them in PowerPoint and give them as lectures again.

George Margolin (formerly tech editor of Popular Photography) offered to take my slides and convert them, but I dragged my feet and now I am hesitant to remind him of his offer. And it must needs be done.

Jerry Pournelle

Alex said:

David can comment more thoroughly, but the last time we looked at slide scanners, the Nikons were (unsurprisingly) very good.

If you have damaged slides, you should look for a scanner with ICEfx, or whatever they're calling the Applied Science Fiction (love that name!) IR-based damage-mitigating features. [Applied Science Fiction is now Kodak's Austin Development Center; their software-only plugins can be viewed at http://www.appliedsciencefiction.com/.]

David will also tell you that doing a good job of slide scanning can eat up weeks of your life, but then he's doing fine-art scanning (being a digital artist 'n' all) so his requirements may be more exacting.

Hope that helps,


Chaos Manor Reviews Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey commented on the price requirement:

I think you'll find that a bit on the low side.

A couple of years ago, for a customer that digitizes perhaps 4000 slides a year, in two hectic batches, we bought for them the Nikon CoolScan 4000 with optional slide feeder (up to 50 slides at a whack). That's been replaced by the 5000 ED. With autofeeder, it runs around $1600. If you don't want autofeed, there are flatbed scanners with high resolution and 5-slide trays (so, 5 at a time) that are MUCH cheaper, but I don't know how much work you'll have to do on the images. You might want to consider using Ritz or Penn camera to do the work (but no pix of the grandkids in the bath, or you'll have uncomfortable hours spent explaining that to the cops).

Good scanning, autofeed, and automated processing that doesn't hork things up costs real money. Whereas at least one service (that promises to keep your slides in the country) charges about $0.49 per slide (slidescanning.com).

Do you have friends at ANR? (slide scanning services for UC folks)



Robert Bruce Thompson has a different suggestion, which brought about a side discussion:

One of my readers who needed to scan a bunch of slides came up with a method that he claims is fast, cheap, and gives decent results. He just set up his slide projector in a darkened room, leveled it carefully to avoid keystoning, set up his DSLR with a long lens on a tripod, and shot digital images of the slides projected onto a plain untextured white background. The aspect ratio of the slides and camera are both 3:2, and his 6 MP DSLR (2000x3000 resolution) provides the equivalent of 2,000 dpi scans.

I haven't tried it, and I'd guess you'd have to pay some attention to white balance, adjusting it as the bulb aged over hundreds or thousands of slides, but if I did need to digitize a whole bunch of slides I'd sure give this method a try. I don't understand histograms and gamma and all that stuff, but he does and he seemed satisfied with the results.

He didn't want to spend $1,500+ on a slide scanner, and he didn't want to entrust his precious slides to a remote service bureau.

Robert Bruce Thompson

I have thought about that myself. Good tripod, cable release, even a screen (as opposed to a wall) all add up to less than the slide scanner.

A long time ago they told me a way to convert slides to printable pictures was to put a slide holder gadget on the front of the camera, insert the slide, and shoot the sky. I imagine that would work for digital camera although I do not think I have ever seen a slideholder gadget for any of my digital camera. And of course that does it one at a time, but then the projection and shoot method is one at a time too.

Jerry Pournelle
Chaos Manor

I wouldn't even need the cable release. I have little electronic remotes for both my slide projector and my DSLRs. I could just sit there and right-click/left-click, right-click/left-click until I'd copied every slide in the tray. And it'd take less time than even an autoloading scanner. Maybe one slide every second or two.

I have one of those slide copying attachments somewhere. It's basically just a slideholder attached to an extension tube that screws into the front of my Pentax 50mm macro lens. There's a frosted glass plate in front of the slideholder. As you say, you can just point it at the sky or for a more reproducible lighting source you can point a system external flash at a white card. The SLR does TTL metering, so the exposure is pretty much automatic.

I haven't tried it with my Pentax DSLRs. It's set up assuming 1:1 reproduction in a film camera, which might be a problem with the smaller DSLR sensor. (My 50mm macro becomes an effective 75mm macro with the DSLR.)

If I were trying the shoot-it-off-the-wall method, I wouldn't use a screen, or at least not a lenticular model. I'd use a wall painted flat white or some other featureless matt surface.

Incidentally, you should look into digital SLRs, particularly if you already have 35mm SLRs. I just bought another body for Barbara, a Pentax K100D. It's their entry-level DSLR, but it's a very solid and feature-filled camera for all of that. I paid $339 delivered after a $50 Pentax rebate for the body. That's pretty amazing to me, paying what a reasonable point-and-shoot camera would cost for a decent DSLR body.

Robert Bruce Thompson

On reflection, I realize that I do not have a digital camera that has a remote - in fact, none of my digital camera even have a means of attaching a mechanical cable release. I do wonder why most digital cameras lack the mechanical cable release connection. It can't cost more than a dollar to put on - which probably answers my question.

Of course, all my digital cameras have a "remote" in that they can be connected to a PC and controlled by software from there, so Bob Thompson's method will probably work, assuming I can find the software that came with the cameras. Alex has found that my Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30 (highly recommended) also has an electrical remote connector (optional, for about 25 bucks). I probably knew this and forgot it.

My "Survival With Style" lecture is contained in a Kodak slide carousel (where it has resided for twenty years and more), and there is a blank wall at Chaos Manor which we used to use for ViewGraph projections back when that was the usual means for presenting a briefing. This may be the solution to my problem. It will certainly be easy enough to try once I get back home.

Our discussion continues with Rick Hellewell replying to Brian's note about costs:

I guess I was being cheap (as usual). Some Googling found that Nikon makes some nice scanners, but the cost range is $500 (for a manual/one-at-a-time) to $1100 (for one that can do 40 at a time), with the ICEfx stuff mentioned by Alex. They are the "Coolscan" series, and have what appear to be advanced features and scanning to give you more true color than a flatbed scanner. Since I do have lots of slide (both parents), I was looking for something a bit automatic. Perhaps a plea for suggestions in next week's CMR letters would be appropriate. Still researching.


Alex points out one issue with the screen-and-camera approach:

Slide scanners, at least the high-end ones, let you scan at more than 8 bits/color; the Coolscan 9000ED internally runs to 16 bits/color and 4000 pixels/inch, though the website doesn't make it clear if you can truly extract that many bits to, e.g., Photoshop. Hardware-based ASF icefx does a better job of extracting usable images from damaged slides than the software-only filters will, by illuminating images with IR LEDs. Of course, none of this matters if you're just saving snapshots. The high-end scanners will also convert negative strips, 16mm film, prepared microscope glass slides, medium-format images, etc.; all overkill for the "I just want my slides turned into pictures" question.

As usual, David Em had a view from the artist's perspective:

I had good luck overall with Nikon's Coolscan 5000. I think it runs about $800 [Currently about $950 new] and the auto loader costs nearly as much. The loader can be hard to find. Many people report clogging problems with it, but I haven't tried it.

Minolta used to have the corner on the lower-priced-but-still-good-quality line, but I don't think it exists any longer. [The Konica Minolta Dimage 5400 is about $650.] Flatbeds generally have lower quality for film scanning. Microtek might have a better one that derives from the old AGFAs that were pretty good, not sure on the price, though [The Microtek ScanMaker i800, a flatbed including DIGITAL ICE, is $320].

Incidentally, the most recent version of ICE that came with the Nikon 5000 works significantly better than previous versions on dust, scratches, and so forth. Color adjustments for faded films were marginal. [Using these features a]dds a lot to overall time per scan, many minutes in some cases.

-- D

All of which convinces me I need to send a copy of this to George Margolin in hopes that he'll renew his offer. That will get Survival with Style done. Alas, I have thousands of other slides, some from my Guatemala expedition with Russell Seitz for the Boston Metropolitan Museum, others from trips to Arizona and the Sonora Desert taken with my editor Bob Gleason, and such like; far too many to ask any friend to convert for me.

And there's always the usual inertia in the Chaos Manor system.

Our second major topic begins with a letter from a reader:

Subject: CD collection

We have hundreds of CD's. I would like to store them on a hard drive and connect them to my entertainment system. So I go to Fry's and look at the DVD players. Some of the DVD players have hard drives, and I can connect them to my stereo. So I ask the sales guy, which DVD system would he recommend, and he says that "none of them will do that".

So I go find an external usb hard drive on sale for $60. And I then go in search of a MP3 player that can talk to the external drive, and the same result.

What gives? Why do I have to have my living room filled with boxes and boxes of CD's?


I put the matter to the advisors. There was some discussion, but the best answer comes from Rich Heimlich:

There are several ways to attack this issue:

I own several thousand CD's so I had the same issue. At first I went out and got a CD "jukebox" that held several hundred CD's and then I created compilations of the songs I wanted. I then upgraded that to a box that played DVD's and did the same thing. That still wasn't enough in the end but it was simple and they can even be chained together.

I then tried streaming from my PC. All my music is on my PC in lossless format and I can get it to my receiver in any number of ways. My Xbox 360 supports connecting to it. My DirecTV DVR supports connecting to it.

I've also tried out solutions like a Squeezebox (link). The issue with all of these is that they require the PC to be on and an understanding of networking.

There are several NAS-based solutions out there from many vendors that will let you drop all your music onto a hard drive and then put that drive in a box that will connect directly to the receiver. Linksys has one. Roku (link) has one, and many others.

Frankly what I ended up doing in the end was the most simple of solutions. I ended up putting all my music onto a large iPod and putting an A/V iPod dock on the receiver. Now I can control the iPod from my home theater remote from any room in the house and play my music any time I like. Plus I can take it with me if I so desire just by unplugging the iPod from the dock. The only negative to this setup is that quality can be an issue. I have the music in 320k MP3 format for now which sounds fine to me. You can also do Apple Lossless (and other players have support for other lossless formats) but then battery life is heavily impacted when using it as a portable.

This is much harder than it really should be frankly. What I'd love to see is for receivers to universally start to support this issue. Add support for ethernet drives. Add support for a USB drive or flash RAM.

Ultimately I'd be most happy if the DVR people would get their heads out of their backside and realize that their boxes are media CENTERS and let us store all our media on them. If they can easily store video, it's a snap to store much smaller audio and picture files. Then it just comes down to picking the DVR that best suits your needs.


I have the Crosley Songwriter that will play vinyl analog records and record them onto a CD, and I've been using it to convert some of my old records - folksongs, border ballads, army music - but I don't have any enormous collection of CD's, and I don't play the ones I have, so I'm not likely to be much help with this problem. Thanks, Rich.

On a near Blue Screen of Death Experience:

Subject: BSoD info saved in Event Viewer

Hi Jerry -

Regarding your experience with spontaneous rebooting you wrote "Since in fact I had not seen a blue screen of death - the system had simply rebooted itself - this wasn't a lot of help".

If your system reboots after a BSOD, you can see if it *was* a BSOD by checking Event Viewer. I like to right-click "My Computer" -> Manage to get to it. BSOD info (if it exists) will be in the System log. The MS "click for more info" link rarely does any good, but googling the error can be fruitful.

If you want to know if you've had an unattended reboot, put a text doc in your Startup folder (or a short WordPad doc..."I've rebooted!"). If you see it in the morning, you can check the logs.

Big John
San Diego, CA

Of course I knew that, but it's one of the thousand things I know and don't think about much. Since the cause of the problem was obvious I didn't have to do any serious troubleshooting. I'm pretty sure I'd have consulted the Event Viewer logs once I set out to find a problem; fortunately I didn't have to.

Continuing last week's conversation about mobile phone plans:

Subject: Regarding Your Cell Phone Quest

After much research, I went with Tracfone (link) two years ago. It's prepaid. They are the only prepaid company that doesn't bleed you with monthly charges. The best scheme is the one year prepaid card for 100 bucks and somewhere in the vicinity of 400-500 minutes, altho they have double minutes cards for a bit more. Smaller denomination cards are more expensive minutes-wise and expire after only 90 days. There's a new $5/month add-on plan that's good if you have minutes left and the time period is expiring; it kicks in automatically if required (if you signed up for it), so you don't lose your phone number. They give some rather nice phones away with frequent specials on the website. Mine is a Motorola V170, which came with the card for free, a nice basic phone.....no camera. You can port your present number. As with most cell phone companies, you have to pray you never have to use "customer service", as the company is a big Mexican outfit and all agents are from countries like Honduras, the Phillipines, little island countries, and South America....and all use the same mindless script to little effect. Overall, highly recommended if you don't burn copious minutes......works out to $8/month for the included minutes that come with the one year card....and no taxes & fees tacked on.

George Fallenbeck

And from our contrarian:

I'll be the one who recommends you consider leaving AT&T entirely.


They actually have good customer service. If you put any stock in J. D. Power ratings, they've been number 1 in that area for 5 years.

They're also a pretty good deal. Here's what I've done with them:

1. Bought a cheap unlocked GSM phone off of eBay and got a prepaid plan. If you put in $100, the minutes don't expire for a year. That's $8.3 per month.

2. My needs changed. Making scads of very lengthy phone calls between Atlanta and Redlands, CA lately. Multiple hours every day. So I got a myFaves plan. $40 per month, unlimited minutes to any 5 numbers. Doesn't matter whether they are T-mobile numbers or not. Doesn't matter if they are cell phones or not. Any 5 numbers. Godsend.

Here's what else you can do with them:

They will sell you a cell phone with wi-fi capability and a router that prioritizes voice traffic for use in your home. Essentially, you get a cell phone tower in your house. Your cell phone will place calls over any wi-fi access point for free. This includes the ones that T-Mobile has filled domestic airports with. It will seamlessly hand off between wi-fi and regular cell network as needed. And since they can't track when this happens, if your call starts on wi-fi, it remains free even if it gets handed off to the cell network.

The only downside is a somewhat more limited US coverage than the other networks. But I haven't had any problems. I've never been in a place without completely adequate coverage. Being a subsidiary of Deutsche Telecom, they have significantly better coverage in Europe than the other US carriers. That makes no difference to me but it may to you.

I hated Cingular. I hated AT&T. I have nothing but good feelings about T-Mobile. I've called customer service a couple of times and haven't waited more than 5 minutes for a call that lasted about as long.

Their plans, prepaid and regular, are cheaper and more full featured than anyone else. Their customer service is top notch. What's not to like?

Dr. Paul J. Camp
Spelman College

Thanks. Inertia being what it is, so far I have done nothing, but I am still gathering information on cell phones and plans. Given that Chaos Manor is in a bad reception area, and Cingular works well there, I will have to be sure that any new carrier has good service where I live. I know some don't.

At some point I will replace my ancient Nokia with a more modern phone, and get Roberta's phone and mine on a shared plan with a single bill. Just now I am too deep in Hell to devote the attention this deserves.