Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

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

September 3, 2007

Much of my weekend time was taken up by the great SFWA/SCRIBD/EFF flap, which I will cover in my column. In addition, it is 109 F outside and the temperature here remained at above 90F all night; while the city is asking for stringent measures to conserve power. One way we did that was to go see Stardust Friday night; if you haven't seen that, do so. It's wonderful.

Regarding IBM Access Connections:

Subject: Thinkpad Access Connections

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

I have my second Thinkpad now and I wouldn't dream of turning Access Connections off. I regularly switch between two wireless networks and two wired networks plus (less frequently) another three wireless networks. Needless to say, the printers I use in all of these locations are different. On one of my connections I have to use VPN software. Access Connections keeps track of all of this and I never have to worry about how to connect to any of these networks. Plus, all the information got transferred with the Thinkvantage System Migration Assistant when I switched to my new Thinkpad.

Best wishes,
Charlie Breindahl

I suspect you are correct, and that what I ought to do is figure out the proper use of the IBM Access Connection rather than turn it off to allow Windows to do the job. Still, I have managed to tame the Windows connection software so that it's all pretty automatic for me: when I open the Thinkpad in a new environment, say a coffee shop with T-Mobile connection, all I have to do is swipe my finger over the sensor and I am logged in and connected. It's the same when I come home or go down to the beach house. I suspect IBM Access Connection is better if you can figure out how to get it reliably set up and get Windows out of the way, but the Windows Connection Manager does seem to be Good Enough.


On Windows Vista:

Jerry,

Microsoft has made many good and interesting improvements in Windows Vista. However, one area that has not changed is "content free error messages" and lack of consistency. A primary example of this is the following:

In a Windows Vista Home Premium system with two drives C: and E: with the OS on C: and Windows XP Professional on E: try the following:

While logged on as an Administrator and with User Account Control turned off create a new folder within a My Documents folder under an account in the Documents and Settings folder on the E: Drive. The folder is created successfully. Now try to write to that folder. The following dialog box appears:

You do not have sufficient permissions to write to this folder contact your systems administrator.

Well, I am the System Administrator and am logged on as such. Besides I was just allowed to create this folder.

Now, if I take the trouble to go to the E: drive and create the necessary permissions I can then write to the folder that I just created.

In an attempt to protect the users from themselves, Microsoft has gone to rather ridiculous and productivity destroying lengths that end up driving users crazy. First, if a folder is "protected" then I shouldn't even be allowed to create a folder within it. Second, the error message should contain some useful information since it was created when a logged on user with administrator privileges attempted the action that generated the error message. Third, is it even appropriate for this to happen with User Account Control turned off?

One of my clients had a rather troubling experience with her new HP system with Windows Vista Home Premium. The HP update that come preloaded on the system kept trying to download and install an updated driver. Each time an installation attempt was made the "you do not have sufficient permissions contact your System Administrator message appeared. User Account Control was turned off on this system. A call to HP technical support resulted in the following suggestion: "Use the System Restore partition to restore the system to exactly the way it came from the factory and then we can help you if you still have the problem." A rather ridiculous request that brought back memories of OS/2 versions prior to OS/2 Warp where the stock support response to problems was "format your hard drive and reinstall."

Bob Holmes

I've had similar problems with Vista. Mostly annoyances, but it doesn't seem to handle permissions and access well, which is why my advice continues to be "wait for Service Pack One before using Vista."

This letter and a couple of others sparked a discussion among my advisors. Dan Spisak says:

Subject: Does Anyone Like Vista?

I use Vista on my main desktop and haven't had anything happen with it that has made me want to despise or hate it. However I tend to end up getting the majority of my work done on my MacBook Pro. I have run into one or two annoyances with Vista that some googling and time managed to rectify. I haven't really run into any software issues per se with it.

Personally, I think half of the problem was that initial press reports and reviews either had little good to say, or went into full blown Microsoft bashing mode regardless of what was actually going on with the product itself. I think the initial round of lukewarm to negative press has gotten ingrained in many people and reflected back and magnified to the point where even mentioning Vista seems to cause parroting back of other peoples complaints with it, even if it doesn't apply to a persons particular computing needs.

Probably the biggest recommendation I can give regarding Vista is to make sure whatever system you put it on has good driver support. If you can get that then I feel like the rest of it falls into place. I know I sound like a broken record here, but Vista has only had one blue screen event happen in my use and it was caused by ATI's 7.3 video driver and rolling back to 7.2 fixed the problem. When ATI's 7.4 driver came out the BSOD issue was gone and since then I have upgraded to the newest ATI driver each month without incident. I have also been updating the BIOS on my Intel DG965OT motherboard whenever Intel has issued a new BIOS, which has been nearly bi-monthly and sometimes monthly.

My other recommendation would be to avoid running 64-bit Vista on home-built hardware unless you really have spent time determining the status, stability and support roadmap for all the hardware in a system. Otherwise I would say make sure to buy a workstation class machine from HP or the like that ships with 64-bit Vista so you can be certain its been validated with good drivers and hardware, etc.

Overall, the stability of my Vista system has been excellent. I have yet to run into something I can not do on it that I could do on XP.

Some of the new layout and Control Panel locations/reorg takes getting used to but now that I am familiar with it I don't find it all that bad. I like the new Start Menu and overall system look myself.

-Dan S.

All of which is good advice. If you're going to use Vista be sure to use it on a machine that can handle it, and make certain you have the proper drivers.

We also have a comment from Chaos Manor Associate Eric Pobirs, who is always worth paying attention to:

Re: Does anybody like Vista?

For a lot of people it could just come down to Vista having a different feel to it, for lack of a better word. Especially with all the bells and whistles turned on. When someone has been using the same OS for a long time this can make the difference jarring.

The difference isn't necessarily right or wrong, just different. I ran into that a few years ago with a Linux distribution I was trying. I forget which one but that isn't important. The problem was that it just felt wrong. It was baffling. Everything was working correctly so far as the hardware support went. But I just couldn't get comfortable with either of the desktop environments offered. This was a pretty popular distribution, as Linux goes, so I couldn't help wondering if others were feeling this oddness, where everything was technically correct but uncomfortable. It reminded me of times when there would be a woman in a magazine or movie who was supposed to be terribly sexy but just didn't work out. All the parts were there and seemingly correct but something was awry.

My conclusion at the time was that I'd have less discomfort if I were a novice with little or no ingrained 'feel' for another environment. Somehow, the implementers of that Linux desktop managed to do things in a way that didn't feel right, despite the environment being so functionally similar. This appears to be some preference in how stuff is done there that varies greatly from Mac and Windows. I can switch between those two with ease. They both feel right to the touch and view, despite having a lot of differences in how they do many things.

I suspect Vista has managed to fall into that same situation. I have no problem using it but I am immediately conscious of the difference when I move from an XP system to a Vista system. It just feels different. It isn't as jarring as that aforementioned Linux distro but I'm used to going between a lot of different systems in a day's work. Users who've been using the same setup almost exclusively for a long time may get a greater disruption.

Eric

I'm reminded of an old User Friendly cartoon in which one of the techs is looking at an unfamiliar distribution of Linux; the only thing showing on the screen is a command prompt, and he's explaining to Miranda, "Can't you see that it's just all so wrong!"

My problem with Vista hasn't been the feel. Except for the change in what you get with a right click on the screen, I find the Vista arrangement easy to comprehend and often preferable. My annoyances start when things won't share properly, or Vista just does something entirely unexpected. I am sure it will all work out with the first Service Pack.

Captain Morse adds

This reminds me of the response I'm tempted to write to most of the Linux reviews I've seen in the mainstream computer media in the last two years. The only thing missing is the obligatory "learning to do things from a command line builds strong minds and bodies," which I guess is not an issue for Vista users.

Perceptions are a very funny thing. My view is that _most_ of the Vista reviews I've seen are slavishly fawning and the apparent result of a mind-meld between Wag-Ed's Vista team and the "author", or perhaps evidence that Microsoft rented time in Steve Job's reality distortion field.

Of course, I'm not an exactly unbiased observer, either. And, to the best of my knowledge I've never touched Vista. I think I saw it in a store once, but I never went back there.

Ron Morse

David Em on Vista and the imaging professionals:

I've talked to several imaging pros (photographers, printers, a couple school lab managers)over the last several weeks who use Windows, some in mixed OS environments.

When the subject of Vista comes up, each has grimaced, then produced a guttural sound of disgust. It's becoming a little comical. They all have tales of woe. Every one is still working with XP for Windows work.

Maybe regular users don't have any problem with Vista, maybe most people like it. I have no firsthand sample of opinions there. But these folks hate it. I'm not exactly hot on Vista myself, but I was surprised at the virulence of their reactions.

-- David


Peter Glaskowsky comments:

Last week's letter from LWATCDR reminded me of a thought I had while getting a demo of the Zonbu box from Zonbu CEO Gregoire Gentil. The writer said:

> On the Mac everything is easy or impossible. On Linux anything is possible.

The Linux setup on the Zonbu box is very Mac-like. It's highly optimized to "just work" out of the box, but with a diminished ability to be customized since there's very limited local disk space and the system depends on the Zonbu remote-storage service. Zonbu hasn't done anything to stop people from hacking the system, but they aren't going to help, either.

This gave me that "easy or impossible" feeling I've always had about the Mac, but for both Zonbu and the Mac these days, the "impossible" part of the old saying is no longer really appropriate. Advanced users can do a lot of kernel hacking on the Mac, and obviously there's no limit to what can be done with a Linux box.

And the "easy" part is a big turnaround for Linux. Ten years ago, everything on Linux was just plain difficult. Today, nothing in the ordinary user experience is difficult, at least on the better distributions, but some things are still easier than others. (Kernel hacking will never be easy.)

I'm still waiting for the promised Zonbu review unit, but I'm certainly looking forward to it. I don't really know anyone I'd recommend it to, but maybe I'll figure that out once I have some hands-on experience.

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If I can ever get out of Hell - which is to say, do the final rewrite of Inferno II and get it off to the publisher - I fully intend to take a good and powerful box, install Linux on it, and just see what happens when I play around with it. If I am going to do much with it, then it will have to have easy communications between the Linux box and Orlando the IBM t42p ThinkPad that I carry up here to the monk's cell when I am doing serious work. (It's 104 F outside right now and this cell is the only air conditioned room in the house; i.e. the only place I can escape from Hell).

I am assured that Linux knows how to talk to Windows, and Linux Office-like programs know how to exchange files with Microsoft Office, so all will be well. I believe this, but rewriting Inferno II while keeping up with this column and mailbag are difficult enough without adding that learning experience to the burdens. But I will try it. Real Soon Now.


On the subject of Administrator accounts....

Some advice from sysadmin training back in the day when I was a VAX administrator.

We always created 3 accounts with administrator rights. That way if one of the accounts becomes disabled you can log in as another administrator and salvage things.

We then create user accounts and EVERYONE logs in as a user - even the sysadmin has only normal user rights most of the time. It minimizes the chance for accidentally messing things up.

The first thing I do when I get a new computer (Windows, Mac, Linux) is to create a couple of extra administrator accounts "just in case".

Jim Coffey

Good Advice.

I pass the following along. I have NOT tried it. Be sure to read Rick Hellewell's warning commentary that follows:

Subject: Forgotten XP Password

Hi Jerry,

A reader mentioned an issue with not being able to login to XP due to it setting a password.

I've found a piece of open source software invaluable in recovering forgotten passwords on my own and clients' machines. It can be located here

http://ophcrack.sourceforge.net/

Simply burn the image to CD, boot and within a few minutes it can recover the majority of passwords on Windows platforms.

Cheers,

David Peters.

Rick responds:

Regarding the use of "LOphtcrack" (cq) to crack a Windows XP password, I will agree. As one who sometimes does computer forensics on systems (mostly as an exercise in building my computer security skills), the LOphtcrack program works admirably.

Because it uses 'rainbow' tables (it has hashes of tons of passwords included), the program is usually able to determine a password in under ten minutes, sometimes under 5 minutes. The length of time to determine a password depends on the complexity of the password, of course. But since most people create passwords out of common words (or two words, perhaps with a number of two), the program is quite successful.

Of course, to grab the password, you need to have physical access to the computer (so you can run the program locally or via booting off the CD). If you have administrative access via a networked domain, you can grab the "SAM" file (contains the user/password in encrypted form) from a remote computer. At the office, since I have domain administrator rights (and the job description along with a 'get out of jail free' card that allows me that access), I am able to decode the password of a remote computer quite easily.

In the computer security world, physical access will trump any computer protection. Administrative-level access, whether through being a domain administrator, or by a trojan with administrative privileges, is the next best thing to physical access.

Your readers should be aware of the risks involved in the unauthorized access of a computer. Don't go trying out the LOphtcrack program on your network without proper authority -- it is a felony in the US (and probably illegal in Germany with their new anti-hacking law).

Regards, Rick Hellewell


Subject: On Chinese vitamins

While most vitamin and supplement companies behave the way Doug stated in his email to you, there are a few who do not. The Life Extension Foundation has an interesting web page on the issue, which describes their own policies.

In addition to LEF, I've also heard of Twinlab and Vitamin Research Products (vrp.com) as companies which not only buy from good sources but do a thorough check on every shipment they receive, usually via HPLC (a technology which does not merely look for a few known contaminants, but spits out an exhaustive list of every compound in the sample).

Naturally, vitamins from these companies are not cheap.

--
Norman Yarvin

I have a long and successful history of trade with the Life Extension Foundation, and while they tend to be pricey, their publications are reasonably clear about what they offer, and I have found their products to be of the highest quality. I admit to being a bit of a vitamin nutcase.


Finally, David Em on the iPhone:

I visited a friend in San Diego last weekend who has an iPhone, which is really a tablet.

The big screen's 144 dpi res is very sharp. Operation's very intuitive, only one button. One handed operation for most everything, no stylus required. Good interactive map navigation. Web pages display much better than other mobile devices I've used, with really good zoom and scroll features. I was able to stream videos off YouTube. And it's the best iPod yet.

The only big ding was it can activate a group call when a call is in progress if your chin hits a name in Contacts.

Overall I really liked it. Apple could sell a passel of these even without the phone.

- David

Peter Glaskowsky notes:

Alas, no stylus allowed, either, so handwritten notes and fine-line drawings are impossible.

I keep thinking about buying one, but between that and the various software shortcomings, I know I wouldn't be happy with it.

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My own view is that the iPhone is about one stage away from the pocket computer we put in The Mote in God's Eye back in 1972, and I can't wait for that next step.