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.

August 20, 2007

Continuing the discussion of portable desks for use with laptops (see last week, Laptop Futura):

Dr. Pournelle: The most comfortable laptop desk I ever had was a simple piece of hard plastic with a "pillow" full of Styrofoam beads on the underside. That allowed it to conform to my legs, and the hard plastic gave a solid surface for the laptop.

I don't recall where I found it, and the Styrofoam beads compressed a bit over time (giving it a bit less 'cushion'). But overall it was quite comfortable to use.

The Inscruables site has instructions on how to build your own with some of that pink extruded polystyrene on this site. A bit more rigidity could be added by applying a thin wood veneer to the top. Or one could make one with Styrofoam and a bit of wood veneer. A quick search of the Innertubes doesn't find that type of laptop desk, but it was one of my favorites.

Rick Hellewell

I had one of those. The problem with it for me was that it was useful in a car, but carrying that board around with me was awkward. The Laptop Future portable desk reviews last week fits nicely into the laptop's carrying case.

Peter Glaskowsky adds,

Even a plain flat surface is probably not so good for high-performance laptops, more so if it's insulated underneath. Raised areas and other gimmicks will help, but I still think an external fan is a good idea whenever you can arrange it.

For the last few minutes I've been considering making a pillow-bottom laptop desk where the top surface consists of a sheet of carbon fiber over a deep piece of Coroplast (aka "corrugated plastic") with a low-profile frameless squirrel-cage blower mounted into the Coroplast, pulling air in under the laptop and exhausting it away from the user...

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Peter made a carbon fiber case for his PowerBook, and has been known to use carbon fiber materials to make warbots, so perhaps he is serious. For me, any laptop that requires an external fan has ceased to be a laptop, and is more properly thought of as a portable desktop that needs a support system. I'm not aqnxious to go back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Real Men despised mere portable computers and carried luggables.

When I do the letters and the column, I send drafts to my advisors. Sometimes they find things I have to correct immediately, but more often there are comments that may go into that week's column, or if I get them late in the process, they're held over for the next week.

Last week, Ron Morse noted:

In the middle of the column there is almost a throw-away line ..."Get a Mac" seems to be the answer to a lot of questions now."

There may be more truth to this than you may realize. The new iMacs are probably the best realized implementation of what a "home" PC ought to be ever offered as a consumer product. A 24 inch iMac, an Apple TV box and a printer would replace every other computing and A/V appliance in my office (of which there are legion). It would require only one wall outlet, let me reclaim vast quantities of space and require that I sacrifice _nothing_ in terms of quality or capability. No big, ugly boxes. Three or four wires, at most to string. It would be a big deal.

I'm not saying I am actually going to buy one, and if I did I'd probably run Linux on it rather than OS X -- because I care about things like vendor lock-in and proprietary formats -- but, I am thinking about it. The prospect of getting rid of what my wife calls "the Wall of Crap" and replacing it with a couple of attractive, stylish boxes that "just work" is very appealing (sic).

Ron Morse

Of course this got a lot of response. I found the resulting discussion interesting. First, Dan Spisak:

Not to rain on the Linux parade here, but buying a Mac and then running Linux on it is sort of akin to me buying a BMW and then taking the engine out and replacing it with a Ford small block V6 engine. Why?

I know, you keep saying you don't want "vendor lock-in". What vendor lock-in truly exists on OS X? I can buy any number of commercial software packages I might need to perform work. I can also use MacPorts or Fink to compile virtually any Linux application I ever care to run. What is Steve Jobs stopping you from doing with a Mac? The only thing I can see is not let you run OS X on generic white-box PC hardware, which believe me is probably a Good Idea considering how troublesome drivers are for Windows and Linux users.

Beyond the ability to buy hardware that has OS X drivers? Proprietary formats are the purview of software, not hardware per se. Just because I own a Mac doesn't mean I am locked into iTunes AAC protected files (after all, thats multi-platform supported). Just as because you own a PC doesn't necessarily mean you are locked into WMV 10/11 protected video files.

Running Linux on a Mac *is* possible, but is not *necessary* to gain the benefits of Linux. Linux lags horribly on wifi drivers and its whole wifi driver situation is a absolute mess and nightmare for anyone who is unfortunate enough to have either a new wireless chipset or has a lesser known chipset. Apple, being a hybrid open source OS has the ability to sign NDA's for access to driver specifications from the companies that the Linux people have to spend time trying to reverse engineer, or worse, run Windows drivers under Linux!

We've probably had this chat before and I just forgot what the outcome of it was, but it is an honest question. Why replace OS X with Linux when you don't need to in order to run Linux applications, which is I assume what you are looking to use Linux for? Linux apps from within OS X is the best of both worlds from where I am standing. Doing anything else just seems to be asking for blowing lots of time trying to get Linux to recognize all of the hardware in a Mac properly just to run an OS that isn't needed if your main goal is to run Linux applications.

-Dan S.

Followed by Robert Bruce Thompson:

I don't understand. If you load Linux on it, then apparently the reason you think so highly of the iMac has to do entirely with hardware. Is having the system unit and display in one piece really that important to you?

I wouldn't want one, for the same reason that I don't want a hydra box. If one thing fails, you lose everything. Also, the expandability just isn't there. It looks like the maximum hard drive space is only 1.3 TB. It's been years since I've had a main system with so little hard disk space. My current main system has 2.5 TB of internal hard drive space, and only 1 TB of that is available. The replacement main system I'm accumulating parts for now will probably start with 5 TB.


Dan Spisak breaks in here to start a side discussion on storage and backup that was itself interesting:

You do realize the system is designed for normal people? People who don't want a messy setup, easy configuration, looks nice (i.e. not like a traditional beige box computer).

Maximum drive space is "only 1TB". Uhm, Robert? You do realize what a tiny fraction of computer users you represent when you say "it's been years since I've had a main system with so little hard disk space". The only people I personally know with close to a full TB besides myself (and I only hit that recently) are video editors. Jerry probably has that much scattered about Chaos Manor in his various systems, if not more, but he certainly is not an average user either.

Most people I know fall somewhere in the 200-500gb range. And I have to ask, what in the blue blazes do you need 2.5TB of disk for and how the hell are you backing it all up? Most of my excess disk space is being used by either recorded TV shows or cryptographic precomputed hash data and the occasional data forensics case. Oh, and some games. But for the most part I don't find disk space at a huge premium for me.

Also, at least if I am following your logic here correctly, you wouldn't want an iMac because it can hold only ~1.3TB, yet if it fails "you lose everything". But by your own admission, your main box has 2.5TB of disk in it. So somehow your PC magically protects your 2.5TB of data if it fails? I would love to hear what you were thinking when you wrote that. Are you trying to imply that a hard disk in an iMac is not something that can be easily pulled out of the unit? Or is this something else?

-Dan S.

Robert replied:

Sure, but I wasn't referring to "ordinary users". I was speaking specifically to Ron, for whom I suspect 1 TB might prove limiting.

However, a lot of that 2.5 TB is consumed by multiple copies of my archive directories, which are currently at around 50 GB or 60 GB and growing fast. Basically, I use a three-tier method. My working directories are currently around 3 GB. When they approach the 4.4 GB that fits on a DVD, I sweep as much as possible from the working directories to "holding directories", which get written to a DVD. When the holding directories reach about 4.4 GB, I sweep them all into the archive directories and burn a new set of archive DVDs. At that point, my working directories typically have only a few hundred MB and my holding directories are empty.

Every day, my working directories get copied from sda (the first SATA hard drive in my main system) to dated directories on sdb and sdc (two more internal hard drives, as well as sdd and/or sde (two USB external drives). So, this morning, for example, I wrote about 3 GB of data from the working directories on sda to backup directories named "20070812 - Sunday" on sdb, sdc, and sdd. Depending on how long it's been since I swept stuff into holding and/or archive, that means I eat anything from a couple GB to perhaps 15 GB of disk space each and every day, seven days a week.

Every Sunday, I burn a DVD+R disc with the current working directories. That goes in a 48-disc wallet, which goes with me when I leave the house for anything longer than walking the dogs. That wallet contains my most recent full archive set of discs, my most recent backup disc of my holding directories, and roughly six months worth of weekly backup discs. When I burn a new set of archive discs, the old set along with an incremental disc that updates the old set to current goes to the house of one of three friends. I alternate sets among them.

The chapters I'm actively working on get backed up frequently throughout the day to my server, which is co-located in an enterprise-class server facility.

Video also eats a lot of disc space. Just one MiniDV tape takes about 13 GB of storage, possibly much more if there are edit copies.

What I am mostly concerned with is a failure of one thing taking down the whole works. If Ron buys an iMac and, say, the screen or the DVD writer fails, he's SOL until the iMac is repaired. If my screen fails, it takes about 30 seconds to connect a replacement, or perhaps five minutes if it's the DVD writer. Heck, I have a cold spare system unit sitting behind me. If the motherboard in my main system fails, it'd take me maybe ten minutes to move the drives to the new system and be up and running again. And, before you say it, I'd bet my systems are less likely to fail than an iMac.

-- Robert Bruce Thompson

Dan answers:

I will easily take you up on that bet' Robert. I had a 12" Powerbook G4 that I used heavily for 4 years that went through an astonishing amount of abuse and never had any problems with its hardware beyond one I caused myself (modifying DVD burner Flash ROM code). I never lost data on it. I don't have a desktop class Mac machine to use as a comparison, but I will handily put any Mac laptop up against your system.

-Dan S.

I can second that one. I watched Dan perform wonders on that small Mac over the years, and Ariadne, my 15" Mac PowerBook, went to some exotic places and suffered considerable abuse without problems. Of course I have had considerable experience with abused laptops, including the Compaq Armada that more or less survived my Death Valley crash, and the IMP ThinkPad t42p I have carried all over the world. Actually, on reflection, I think my laptops have been more reliable than my desktops. But then I don't do as much experimentation with laptops as I do with desktops.

Meanwhile, Dan discovered:

Eh, I stand slightly corrected on user access to the hard drive on the new iMac. I just took a look at the disassembly photos found here.

Basically, if the iMac's PSU dies or some other glitch happens that prevents the iMac from running in at least Target Disk Mode, a user will either have to disassemble it himself, or more likely take it to a Genius Bar at one of the Apple shops to have them pull the hard drive out. It's not hermetically sealed, just a real pain to get to if you're not mechanically inclined. I'd call it on par with disassembling a laptop for hard drive replacement complexity-wise.

-Dan S.

Concluding the discussion, Captain Morse sums it up:

Yes, it's the hardware. OS X doesn't do anything to or for me. With the exception of some A/V applications (like iTunes or Adobe's lightroom) OS X apps really don't do anything I can't already do on Linux, but Lightroom and iTunes are not critical needs and there are work-arounds available if I need them.

I've decided that it is no longer useful to think of home PCs as computers. That's an old paradigm and doesn't reflect how most home PCs are used. They're computing appliances now. With a strong emphasis on the word appliance. I know, I'm probably the last guy on the planet to figure that out.

Let's face it, none of the things that hardware junkies used to worry about are really that critical anymore. The hardware itself is commodity stuff. Reliability and capability is a function of price more than anything else. You've been telling people for years to identify needs to establish desired capabilities, then buy components based on warranty and other quality indicators. That's more true than ever before.

Personally, I'm a little sad that there's not much call anymore for gurus that follow the arcana of who makes the best what. ATI or nVidia? Does it still matter unless you have special needs -- like Linux support? And, if you have a special need you probably already know where to find the special majicks you need.

None of the limitations you listed are particularly important to me. You're the only guy I know who needs 2.5Tb of mass storage on his user machine. In fact, I question whether that is even a good idea. I've got 1.3 TB of disk storage internal to my BadAxe, but only about 88Gb actually needs to be immediately available. 500Gb is dedicated to local backup. That, and the rest of the inactive stuff probably should go off to an external drive or server. Brian makes a good argument in favor of A/V server setups. Why not include installation-wide backup needs, too?

The hydra argument applies equally to laptops and lots of people live by laptop alone. The MacBook Pro has been a bit of an eye-opener for me in regard to just how reliable and capable a small machine can be if properly engineered. Frankly, I'm just not nearly as concerned about component or sub-system reliability in laptops as I used to be. Change my name to Pollyana if you must, but the things just don't break that often.

Future expandability can be an issue, particularly if one chooses poorly at the outset, but the 24 inch iMac can be configured to be as capable as my present Intel Extreme(tm)-based machine, save the video adapter, and that's only an issue if I were to become a serious game-player.

There is one thing I would do differently with an all-in-one form factor machine I would not do with a conventional desktop PC, and that's spend some extra money -- as with most things Apple the easiest way to solve an issue is with money -- and buy the 3 year AppleCare plan. You trade $169 for three years of maintenance insurance. That's not bad value (about 10% of the system price) and whatever goes wrong is their problem. I do that for laptops because I don't want to be fscking around inside that small chassis. And, to be honest here, the iMac is just a heavy and not so portable laptop with a big (beautiful) screen and detached keyboard.

...I still don't know if I am actually going to buy a new iMac. My main box is less than a year old and has way more capability than I use. On the other hand, the conventional form factor sure occupies a lot of space I could use in other ways, and all those cables and interconnects are the most trouble-prone components in the system. It may be too early to replace the present machine just to be able to reclaim floor space. Or, maybe not...

Ron Morse

I started this with last week's comment that "Get a Mac" is a good answer to a number of problems (but not all). When I said that I certainly meant OS X rather than the Mac hardware. The Mac hardware is beautiful, and Ron's point about PC's no longer being computers but "computing appliances" is well made.

I continue to believe that we have not quite got to the point where it hardly matters what operating system we use, but that we are headed there. As the hardware gets faster and better, any well done computer will be able to run any OS, and I look forward to a time when I won't know or care what OS is running which application.

Of course my advisors seek each others' advice. This often results in something of more general interest. Robert Bruce Thompson began when he asked:

Barbara needs/wants a new MP3 player. Some quick checking turned up this one from Sandisk.

It seems to get pretty good reviews, but I was wondering if anyone had any comments about it. I was actually considering an iPod, but I saw a couple of comparative reviews that said the Sansa gives you a lot more storage and features per dollar spent and is better built and more durable (e.g., titanium alloy construction instead of plastic.)

As far as I can tell, it's recognized as a USB mass storage device, which means I can transfer music to it from my Linux box with no problems, or Barbara could just use Amarok to manage her music files.

Also, Barbara is tired of managing her CD collection, transferring discs to and from the wallet that she carries in her 4X4. She asked if there was any way she could just plug an MP3 player into the aux input on the front of her car CD player. I told her that I thought a simple cable from the earphone jack of the MP3 player to the aux input on her car radio would work fine, but then I saw this gadget on Newegg.

Is there any real advantage to using a low-power FM transmitter instead of a cable?

-- Robert Bruce Thompson

I have several iPods which I seldom use. I don't need entertainment wherever I go, and my main use of mp3 players is to listen to recordings such as those of George Mosse's Western Civilization course. Niven listens to a lot of audio books, and I keep meaning to subscribe to an audio book service, but I have arranged my life so that I don't spend much time driving around in cars, so I haven't got around to it.

Dan Spisak advises:

If you can go line level or aux line input do it. Low power FM transmitters can work, but if your market is saturated like ours is in Los Angeles (only useable frequencies are 89.1, 88.3, and 87.9FM) you will find yourself having to hop between frequencies while driving as radio conditions change as the low power FM transmitters truly need a dead-air all static frequency to work best.

-Dan S.

We've tried several of the devices that transmit iPod output to your car's FM radio, and as Dan says, in LA there's a real problem finding any dead FM air space at all. Ron Morse adds:

We've got one of the Belkin FM things for using the iPod in a car and it works...no issues. Sounds good enough.

BUT...since you have an aux input available the biggest potential problem I see is an impedance mismatch or input level mismatch leading to unsatisfactory output. Easily determined by test.

Since you're using an earphone jack, the player's volume control might attenuate the input enough to keep from overloading the input stage of the amplifier in the car player. Start with both volume controls all the way down, connect and select the aux source. Open the volume on the Car unit about 1/4 and listen for strangeness. If none, start the player and slowly advance it's volume until audio is heard. If it sounds OK, it works OK. You might want to fiddle with the respective controls so the player is loud enough at the same car volume normally used for radio or CD just to avoid unpleasant surprises when switching sources.

Then there's the wire itself, but if that isn't a problem you can save some money.


And Peter Glaskowsky concludes:

The e260 is twice the size of the iPod Nano (mostly in thickness) and 85% heavier. It includes an FM tuner, which some people love and some hate (usually because the audio quality of FM broadcast on a tiny radio with a short random-wire antenna is poor compared with that of stored music). The iPod has a better user interface, metal on front and back, and the battery lasts longer.

If the choice comes down to price, the e260 is a whole lot cheaper than the iPod Nano.

I would avoid using an FM transmitter to hook up an MP3 player to a car radio. That basically never works except out in the boonies.

Anyway, as a materials-science geek, what really prompted me to look into the details here was this mention of a titanium alloy. Sandisk's press release certainly mentions titanium:

Its distinctive, high-strength and lightweight back cover is made with an advanced Titanium alloy from Liquidmetal(R) Technologies that is stronger than steel and highly resistant to scratches and wear.

But based on published information about Liquidmetal, it looks like it's somewhere around 75% zirconium. There's titanium and other stuff in it, but it's misleading to call it a "titanium alloy" without mentioning the zirconium. (Similarly, the currently popular "scandium alloys" are misleadingly marketed because they are typically around 98% aluminum plus zinc and manganese, sometimes with only a trace of scandium.)

Nevertheless, I think the Liquidmetal people are doing excellent work and being reasonably up-front about the composition of their product. Independent analysis supports their major claims of strength and hardness, and it seems like an excellent structural material for portable electronics. This overuse of "titanium" is Sandisk's fault.

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We had a lot more mail this week, but due to a power failure in Studio City I'm already late getting this done so we'll stop here.