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 27, 2007

Last week we were not kind to Vista. Marty Winston, (who got Isaac Asimov using small computers back in early DOS days) has a different view.


Still running Vista and I would not go back - I keep experiencing new things I like about it that cause me headaches with XP - it has its own discordant annoyances, but like any learning curve (anybody remember Wordstar dot commands), once you get past those it's easier to hear the harmonies.

I have a new 2.66GHz quad core on my old D975XBX2 mother board and it's wonderful - I give Outlook affinity to core 3 (numbering is 0-3), Word to core 2, and nothing else anything specific. Windows OneCare is my sole anti-malware and slows down nothing at all. Isolating the CPU loads of Outlook mail fetches and Word auto-saves to those two cores really helps keep the rest of the system from stalling.

I run a pair of APC 1500VA UPS systems, each with a strap-on booster battery pack, for enough total power to handle my system, including the printer, the cable modem, the gateway and everything else for a few hours (longer if the load is lighter).

My most recent failure was a thermal overload - a failure in the computer in my fridge-style CPU cooler - replacing that cured everything - about 5 hours total down time, including the customer support call and the shopping trip.

Zero data loss, I should add.

Marty Winston

My experience with Vista hasn't been quite so benign. I spent a week (well an hour or so distributed over a week) trying to get Stardock Animated Desktop to work again. Nothing happened, but I made one more try just now, downloading the moonscape image again, and that worked. I have no idea why.

Vista does work for me. I like the desktop and the gadgets. I have had some problems with networking, but none recently. I miss some of the right click options XP used to give us, but I can't say I have many specific complaints.

One problem is that I no longer think of myself as a power computer user and columnist who also writes fiction. Lately I have concentrated on being a writer who uses computers, and I find I spend more time thinking about the process with Vista, while with XP I just get the job done. That too may change. I don't dislike Vista at all; but with a few exceptions like yourself, most of my correspondents write to tell me of problems, particularly with drivers.

I haven't uninstalled Vista from anything yet, and I may install it on the big Quad processor system I'll be building; but my recommendation remains that you don't "upgrade" any system from XP to Vista. I am sure Microsoft will have a Vista service pack that will fix many of the problems.

Last week I said I didn't have a virus scanner working. I got several messages with recommendations.

Subject: Low impact e-mail scanner and home e-mail server

Dear Jerry,

Just read your Computing at Chaos manor August 22. I have two remarks:

1. If you're looking for a low impact (and free) virus scanner I can recommend clamwin. It doesn't do any background checking. It just scans files when you tell it to. It has automatic updates of the virus database too.

2. If you have a computer that regularly downloads e-mails from your IP why not set it up as imap server and use putty to create a secure ssh tunnel for imap from your laptop to the server when you are at the beach house? I've used this setup for years and it works great.

If you need more info on how to set it up feel free to contact me.


Chera Bekker
Chaos Manor Patron

Thanks for the offer. I periodically get recommendations to use IMAP, but the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. It's not that hard to transfer the .pst files from the desktop to the laptop.

Regarding virus checking, many readers have reminded me that Microsoft OneCare, which I use and recommend, does in fact do some virus checking as well as guarding against spyware. Like Marty Winston I have been quite satisfied with OneCare.

Now it's the Mac Users' Turn

Subject: Getting a Mac

My current main machine is a high-end 15 inch MacBook Pro laptop. I've partitioned the hard drive to create a 32-GB Windows partition and use BootCamp 1.3 to run whatever I want to run under Windows XP-- mostly games. At home, we have a Mac Mini set up similarly, although with less disk space, as a backup for our laptops and mostly to play DVDs. We're running Airport Extreme to network the house (securely). I use Fink to manage the UNIX and LINUX software I run on my laptop-- and there are a lot of UNIX security tools that I use in my security teaching. I have two Mac servers that I use in my research--an old G5 runs the web site (Apache), while a modern Intel box is used for the modeling work.

-- Harry Erwin, PhD, Program Leader, MSc Information Systems Security, University of Sunderland. http://scat-he-g4.sunderland.ac.uk/~harryerw

And I get suggestions:

Subject: Backups and Linux on Macs.

Running Linux on an Intel Mac is marginally useful. For most people I would say it just doesn't make a lot of sense, but there are exceptions I can think of.

1. If they want to use a Mac as an MythTV box. MythTV has a lot of very nice features that I just don't think you can find on a Mac.

2. If you are a developer. If you want to develop software that runs under both OS/X and Linux the yes running Linux on your Mac is a good choice. I would us parallels and run it in a Window along with Windows for multi platform work. I can other reasons to run Linux on Mac hardware. On the Mac everything is easy or impossible. On Linux anything is possible.

Backups. Backing up in this day and age is both really hard and really easy. If you need to backup a small amount of critical data you have a lot of choices. DVD-Rs, web based solutions, flash drives, and even the iPod can be a good back up for a few gigs of very critical data. The key is always have more than one back up. The problem is we often have many many gigs of data we want to back up. Tapes are expensive DVDs these days can actually look small.

An interesting solution for you might be a distributed back up system. This is a little "Hackish" but you may be interested in it. This site is dedicated to running Linux on the nslu2. The naslu2 is a small Network attached storage server. You can attach two USB hard drives to it and have an instant server. By flashing it with a full Linux you can add a lot more features to it. My idea is that you could put one at your house, one at your condo, and one at say Larry Niven's house. You store your important files on the NSLU and then the NSLUS would use rsync to synchronize the data. You would have a copy of your data to other places and Mr. Niven would have his data backed up at two other locations. In theory you could set it up so you could access that data from anywhere you have an Internet connection. Just an idea.


I can remember when such machinations would have sounded interesting. Lately, though, I have been busy trying to write novels, and just using these machines is my goal...

Subject: iMac wires

I have never understood the claim that the new iMacs are so nice because they eliminate the clutter of wires. My wife's iMac has a keyboard and mouse (usb wire) , scanner (usb, a power cord to the brick and another from the brick to the wall), drawing tablet (same), printer (same), camera (usb), ipod (usb), oops, out of usb ports, need to get a usb hub (usb, power cord, brick) and I forget what else. The back and under sides of her desk are almost as bad as mine with a PC, except I add monitor, microphone and speaker cables. I am not knocking the iMac's wonderful design, but lack of wires is not one of its features.

Robert Hopkins

That may be, but the new Imacs are just beautiful. At the moment I am surrounded by clutter. I hope to get my work done so I can spend a few days cleaning things up. It's messy in here...

Subject: Macs, servers, mail

Hi Jerry,

I read your column with interest, particularly the email bits as I deal with a smallish flood, I am sure nothing like what you deal with, but still a fair bit every day spread over several accounts and, at times, computers. It may not be ideal, but I keep coming back to gmail. I hardly bother with rules but do try to clean it up occasionally so I don't eat up the 2.8 gig in box.

The things that keep me using it despite worries about archiving my email under my own control (there are ways, just not one I like enough to go through the hassle yet) are the fact I can get at it anywhere, superb search of archived mail, and very good anti spam and anti virus.

The various ancillary applications like the contacts list and calendar are good enough and I have left Outlook and its PITA behavior long behind. I do sit down and start to diddle with the Mac Mail app on occasion thinking to use it as an archival tool, i.e. dump copies to an account it accesses, but other things keep interrupting.

To be frank, I never really thought I would end up using a web-based mail app as my primary, but it has sure made life easier and much simpler. It sure killed any nascent plans to build up a linux-based home server to handle mail etc.

What I do serve from my mini Mac now that I have the MacBook is music. The iTunes to Airport Express connection at my stereo just works and sounds superb. Really nothing else to say about it! The mini is also left on 24x7 to catch various podcasts that have replaced most radio listening for me and to serve as a terminal to the googleplex for mail etc. I have it hooked up to a 20" Apple display and find it a nice rig indeed, albeit light on RAM and HDD space.

Work has migrated to a MacBook. I intended something else but money and priorities pointed to a laptop first. Two gigs of RAM and I am styling with Parallels and DevonThink. I also have Office for both Mac and Windows on it. Not intentional per se, but what the hell.

Bottom line of all this is that I could see you very happy with one of the new iMacs for home and a MacBook for travel. Hang a terabyte of RAIDed NAS off an Apple Airport extreme in the back room for backups with some sort of rsync utility program and be done with it. Rent a dumpster and clean out all the cruft from Chaos Manor.

Of course you would have little to write about on computers, but your fiction output would increase and being a long time fan I would be no end of tickled!


Richard Kullberg

Just at the moment, not having much to write about on computers sounds like a good idea, but I suspect that when I get this novel done, I'll find computing at Chaos Manor much more interesting.

This isn't about computers, but it may be important:

Subject: Report on attempt to avoid Chinese Vitamins -

Morning Jerry,

After the latest round of Chinese product contamination, my wife and I would like to eliminate all food and supplements that are from that country, or cannot certify that they are 'China-Free'. Some may consider this reactionary or extreme, but we decided that if we're going to destroy our own industry with regulations, we at least should have the benefits of those regulations. I fear though, that it's too late - in many cases, there are no domestic suppliers.

I've asked both for country of manufacture and country of origin for ingredients, which are very hard to come by (and not published on the websites - you have to call). Many products labeled as 'Product of USA' or 'Manufactured in USA', in fact contain offshore ingredients. Here's some other points:

1) Most store brands, including Whole Foods and Wild Oats are contract manufactured and sourced from the open market - in other words (mine, not theirs), whatever is cheapest that week. They are unable to state country of origin, nor that they are China free. This includes vitamin supplements, protein powder, and other supplements, but vegetables may be able to be sourced - call them to find out.

2) Almost all Vitamin C - especially if it's derived from Ascorbic Acid, is from China (more than 80%). The last US Vitamin C plant closed last year because it couldn't compete with China. There is one plant in Scotland, but I can't find local retailers for their products.

3) Ginger, Green and White tea and extracts are usually from China. So is Reservatol. As a result, even organic food-based vitamins, like New Chapter, have ingredients from China. Celestial seasoning teas use some ingredients from China (especially green and white tea), but beyond those, can't tell me which ones, or which products use them.

4) Bayer aspirin and most drug manufacturers cannot guarantee country of origin. Many commodity drugs (like penicillin) are from China.

5) Milk-Bone dog treats use supplements from China. Science Diet states that they use no ingredients from China. Fresh Step cat litter is from the US (wanted to make sure the cats weren't breathing contaminated dust).

Most alarming is that the companies don't even know for sure where the ingredients are from! They claim to test all inbound products, yet they only test for known contaminants. More sophisticated analysis that identifies all compounds and goes backwards to identify them are not used as they are expensive and time consuming.

I'm not usually one for Government regulation, but I would support product ingredient country of origin labeling laws (not just location of manufacture as is not required). To avoid the outcry from business over the cost of compliance, I'd allow them to label products as 'country of origin undetermined', or even as 'country undetermined, but China-free'. I suspect consumers would not only avoid Chinese products, but would pay extra for them if they had the option. Free trade must be informed trade.



P.S. It's not just these commodities: China is also consuming so much lead that the price of a bag of shot went from $21 to $40+ in the last year.

Roberta spent some time trying to find running shoes made in the USA. New Balance has an American made line, although most of their shoes come from China. It's not easy to discover that.

Trader Joes has a few vitamins marked made in Taiwan, and I have found some made in Viet Nam. Most don't say.

Apparently the FTC does not enforce requirements to identify country of manufacture.

Subject: ThinkPads and wireless

Dr Pournelle,

I've just read your column part for August 22nd. I may have mentioned this to you before, but in corporate use the Lenovo ThinkPad wireless control software, known as Access Connections, is actually more trouble than its worth.

At the customer where I am working currently we did a massive desktop and laptop replacement/upgrade cycle last Oct through Jan, to replace lots of really old machines with modern hardware and XP SP2. All the hardware is now Lenovo, either ThinkCenter desktops or ThinkPad laptops.

As part of this project we reviewed the tools that come on the "factory build" of Windows, and we rejected most of them!. We removed the fingerprint tool as we had problems with our Cisco VPN client that we couldn't resolve in time. We removed "Access Connections" because we could not work out how to control it centrally and how to support our non technical users.

The advantage of using the tools built in to the operating system (XP Pro SP2 in our case) is that the interface is known to everyone! Additionally the in house secure wireless network uses enterprise WPA2 with digital certificates. This was easy to configure centrally on our Server 2003 Active Directory domain, but we could not find how to configure this in the Access Connections software. We did keep the 'gadgets' such as the Fn+F5 that lets you switch wireless and Bluetooth on and off, kept the Lenovo Bluetooth driver as it supports voice devices compared to XP, and the applet that provides volume level display.

It's a shame that Lenovo feel they have to provide such software, to compete against Dell and HP, however I have to ask why, when the operating system supplied already allows for the functionality, often superior.

I agree completely with your suggestions on Vista, its nowhere ready for the end user yet, IT professionals should be playing with to learn however. XP has proven to actually be pretty robust especially with SP2.

Thanks for the interesting content on your sites.

James Chamier
Farnborough, Hampshire, UK

I did find that the Lenovo Access software worked to connect the Lenovo Tablet PC to the wireless network when Vista simply would not do it. On my XP systems, the Windows access works just fine. It's only with Vista that I find I needed the Lenovo wireless access software.

On Blu-Ray vs HD DVD:

Subject: Blu-Ray and HD DVD Competition

As you mentioned in your Computing At Chaos Manor August 22, 2007 column, Paramount and DreamWorks have moved to the HD DVD camp (see this link for more). While there may not be any "cosmic significance", there is a bit of financial significance, to the tune of $150 million in incentives.

The Blu-ray guys were quick to point this out in http://www.blu-ray.com/news/?id=416 which refers to a New York Times article which describes the situation.

However, this news of assistance to HD DVD supporters may just be a rumor, though the information is supposedly from two anonymous Viacom (the owner of Paramount) executives.

- Alex

P.S. I'm a fan of Blu-ray due to the extra disc size and Java support for authoring interactive discs (rather than the Microsoft scripting language for HD or the annoyingly primitive pocket calculator opcodes I'm forced to use for authoring interactive DVDs).

Alexander G. M. Smith


It appears that Paramount and Dream Works were swayed by money rather than the market place. It has been reported that Dreamworks received $100 million and Paramount $50 million to make the switch and drop Blu-Ray. If one looks at the market place one finds that several outlets accounting for a reasonable percentage of sales have stopped carrying HD-DVD discs. This would appear to be a last ditch effort by Toshiba to try and prevent the eventual win by Blu-Ray. All that it is likely to do is further muddy the High Def disc market and reduce sales of both types of players this Christmas season.

Bob Holmes

For the record, I prefer Blu-Ray for reasons given above. I expect it will win for the same reason that VHS won over Betamax.

And a warning:

Dr. Pournelle,

I am not sure if you have heard of this, but I thought I would pass it on. I have a laptop used exclusively for research. It never connects to any network and all files are transferred into and out of it via a memory stick only. Since I am the only one using it, and it never leaves my house, I never bothered to set a password. It turns out that is an unfortunate thing to do in Windows XP.

Windows creates an ASP.NET machine account apparently for the MS.NET environment. I never noticed this. One day, XP and the ASP.NET machine account decided I needed a password. This happened between my turning the computer off around midnight and turning it back on the following morning. I was required to supply a password to get on my computer. I did not know what the password was, since XP imposed a random password on the account.

I was locked out of my own computer, and completely locked out, since it also set the ASP.NET account with a random password. These were the only two accounts on the machine.

In the end, I had to reformat the drive and reinstall XP and all software. Needless to say, I was not amused.

If any of your readers has a computer using XP with a single account without a password, you might warn them that this is a recipe for disaster.


Bill Gleason

When you install XP you must create an administrator account, which usually has the user name "administrator". You can specify any password you like. That's the one you ought to write down...