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.

October 1, 2007

We have long warned you against a hurried "update" to Vista; it now looks as if many of the "early adopters" are coming to my conclusion. There are also reports of problems with Office 2007. Here is one of them:

Subject: Excel 2007 Calculation Bug

Jerry,

You have probably already seen this, but just in case I thought I would drop you an email - it seems to have popped up in a newsgroup on the 23rd. This tallies with your advice on not upgrading to Vista just yet. Basically, Excel gives incorrect results for calculations resulting in 65535 (0xffff), probably due to some sort of internal representation change.

http://www.appscout.com/2007/09/excel_cant_multiply.php

I would have thought that regression and fencepost testing of mathematical calculations in particular should have had a fairly high priority for an application like Excel.

A pity - although I absolutely hate the new interface, Excel 2007 has a couple of fairly compelling new features for me, namely the 1M row limit and multithreaded recalculation. Until I can trust it to get the math right I'm sticking to the 2003 version.

Best regards,
Bruce MacDonald

Rick Hellewell comments:

Regarding the Excel issue: the Microsoft Excel Team has responded in their blog here.

Of note: "The key here is that the issue is actually not in the calculation itself (the result of the calculation stored in Excel's memory is correct), but only in the result that is shown in the sheet . ... So what, specifically, are the values that cause this display problem? Of the 9.214*10^18 different floating point numbers (floating point on wikipedia) that Excel 2007 can store, there are 6 floating point numbers (using binary representation) between 65534.99999999995 and 65535, and 6 between 65535.99999999995 and 65536 that cause this problem. You can't actually enter these numbers into Excel directly (since Excel will round to 15 digits on entry), but any calculation returning one of those results will display this issue if the results of the calculation are displayed in a cell. All other calculation results are not affected." [Emphasis added].

So the issue is real, although apparently very narrow in scope and effect.

Regards,

Rick Hellewell


A comment on last week's column lead:

One thought (especially anent Halo 3):

I'm not an economist by training or avocation, but I am getting on in years and tried to pay some attention en route, so...

When the first & second mortgage markets imploded, it was obvious that housing, building supplies, building trades, remodeling and that entire galaxy of goods and services was going to take a hit. In the past, when that happens, people would start to feel a little trapped by their houses and their pent-up spending urges would release into the automotive category, with its own collateralized borrowing structure; this round, though, continuing high fuel prices have worked against the interests of the automotive segment. That, too, has its precedents.

My own read is that the next 3 quarters will be good for products that represent empowerment, entertainment or escape. That means a strong sales era for console games, computer games, movies on DVD, box office, concerts, sporting events, PDAs, indulgent cell phones, computer gear, higher-speed Internet connections, home theater, restaurants, bowling alleys and massage parlors.

Some of which you cover.

Marty Winston

Marty Winston is always worth attention.

On thing I have long known: during economic bad times, entertainers do well. Story tellers never have to fear an economic down turn.


Last week's mail had a rant by Alun Whittaker. That brought in comments:

Re: Alun Whittaker's Vista Rant (Chaos Manor Reviews Mail 9/24/2007)

Jerry,

One of the things that Alun complains about in his rant is:

"Let me give just a few examples: perhaps because I choose to use Firefox as my default browser, every time I click a URL, VISTA produces a loud clunk, opens a dialog box explaining that it can't find that URL and maybe I should check my spelling. Irritating yes, but more irritating is that while this is happening, Firefox is happily starting and displaying the requested web page!"

I'm not sure that this is a Vista issue; I'm seeing it since the last round of MS Updates on my XP system as well, when clicking on a URL in an Outlook message. So it may be an Outlook issue. For my sins, I'm running Outlook 2007.

I do run Vista on one laptop, and it has been pretty trouble-free for me, although there seems to be no end to the amount of hardware and memory needed to deal with today's bloatware to try to keep reasonable performance.

Regards,

Bill Beeman
Smartsville, CA


Subject: Firefox and Vista

In reading about the problem Mr Whittaker had with Firefox and Vista, perhaps I can relate my experience with that. I updated to the latest version of Firefox while still using Windows XP and I had the problem he mentioned of the dialog box popping up saying that that url could not be found. I lived with it and when I put Windows Vista on Killer II ( my new computer custom built by me), it had the same problem.

I solved the problem by changing the click format to single click with select by mousing over and all works well. If I make a mistake and double click then I get the dialog box. In any event, the problem seems to be related to Firefox, at least that has been my experience, as the problem existed with Windows XP, and occurred after I updated Firefox. I am really satisfied by Vista with the exception of the problem which doesn't allow you to direct MIDI in/out to a MPU401 port. I am forced to use Cakewalk Sonar 6 for all Midi in/out to external instruments. In addition MAUDIO still doesn't have a Vista driver for their Midisport 2X2 interface, which is still current. I made the change to EDIROL and their 3 in 3 out MIDI interface, as they are quite prompt with their drivers.

I'm looking forward to Inferno II and have just finished Burning Tower. Good stuff.

Jim Cook

I have Firefox running with Vista, and sometimes Firefox updates wipe out the history, sometimes the session manager restores the previous session. Alas, the same problems happen with XP. I don't find any more problems with Firefox under Vista than with XP, and I do like Firefox enough that I use it for my default browser; but I keep Explorer ready to open, just in case.


Subject: Linux in the mainstream

Jerry,

I was reading your Computing At Chaos Manor September 25, 2007 entry .

At the bottom, you mentioned installing Linux and seeing if it was possible to survive on it alone.

I have been "examining Linux" for many years now starting back with the early Slackware installations which required 20 or 30 floppies to install and which we would carry around in old shoeboxes. Generally I would install it check it out, declare it "not ready for primetime" and move on. As the years went by the use would get longer before it was again replaced by Microsoft Windows.

The final hurdle to qualify for my "ready for primetime" award was a user friendly installer and the ability to add and remove programs as required. The final hurdle as far as I am concerned was reached with Ubuntu. The version of Ubuntu that I am using is 7.04 Feisty Fawn. When version 6.06 was current I felt that it was plenty good enough for a real test and I put it on my wife's computer. I have a tendency to not notice things about computers that drive my wife nuts, so I figured that if she could use it with very little intervention and not have problems that would pretty much settle it.

After I changed to Ubuntu, my wife noticed the difference in the interface but it didn't even occur to her that the operating system was different. Ubuntu operates differently than the XP that it replaced but she went on without any bump in her use what so ever. I expected and hoped for a short period of tutoring and tweaking, but other than adding some third party patches to allow web related animation and such to work( something which is now built into 7.04) I had to do nothing, she just hummed along. The worst thing about her computer is that she won't let me update the operating system to 7.04. She likes it the way it is.

I'm not saying everything with Ubuntu has been rosy, but about the only bump I've had with it was when I upgraded the software in my install of 6.06 and some part of the sound stopped working. It wasn't long before the Ubuntu community had fixed whatever it was and the sound was back, but for awhile it was kind of annoying. I guess my advice being that which has always been a good idea, back up early and often.

Well, sorry to ramble on, but just wanted to share my experiences with Linux. Oh, and it really doesn't take a lot of hardware to run either, my wifes computer is a several year old Pentium. It certainly takes less horsepower to run Linux than it does to run a contemporary Windows install.

Thanks for years of enjoyable reading,

Steve

I really do intend to give Ubuntu Linux a try; but I am first and foremost a fiction writer nowadays, so it's not my top item. Now that Inferno II is done I need to finish Mamelukes, the fourth Janissaries novel; at which point I can come up for air...


A series of fortunate comments.

This began with a snarky observation by Robert Bruce Thompson, who tends to take delight in showing the the Emperor has no clothes, and in particular that Vista is less than meets the eye.

It looks like the Windows stealth update is causing some real problems.

See this Windows Secrets link and this ZDNet link.

--
Robert Bruce Thompson
thompson@ttgnet.com

Not surprisingly that generated a lot of comments among the advisors. Meanwhile, the story developed out in the real world. First to respond was Dan Spisak.

Subject: More on the Windows stealth update

Well that certainly looks like a big PITA for sysadmins. It looks like MS need to release an installer for the silent update files so the DLLs can get properly registered after a Windows Repair has been performed. This isn't exactly difficult for them to do, but they should get on the ball about rectifying the situation ASAP. In the meantime it looks like there is a workaround, but it's damn annoying.

-Dan S.

Rick Hellewell said

There is a narrow set of circumstances for this problem:

1) You have to 'repair' back to a prior version from the Windows install CD's

2) Then you would normally go to Windows Update (usually manually) to get the installs.

3) That will first get you the update to Windows Update program itself (which works OK)

4) Getting other updates will fail because of the registration problem.

Most sysadmins will have 'images', I'd think, and would restore a computer from their image rather than the Windows CD "repair". I am not sure whether the same problem will occur with image restores; it may be (speculating) that those would have a similar problem.

No word yet on this issue from the Microsoft Security Response Center blog (here: link ).


Subject: More on the Windows stealth update

I think that some of the 'format and reinstall" advice is a holdover from earlier versions of Windows.

Although it does have its place.

I've been playing with a system that was infected with all sorts of malware (mostly spyware). As an exercise (and experiment), I wanted to try out various programs to fix it. I used open-source and commercial software (after imaging the disk) to try to clean out all the crud.

I've spend about 15-20 hours on it (much of that watching the various programs run), and I am not convinced that I got everything.

So my recommendation is that in the case of a severe malware infection, the best procedure is to copy off any important data, then do a total reinstallation (format and reinstall). Using the vendor's "restore CD" should get you back to the factory-fresh installation. (At the corporate level, a re-image is also a good choice that will save a bit of time.)

Then a complete round of updates, installing applications (and updating), and anti-malware software before restoring data files.

And, depending on the age of the computer, full replacement might be an option.

Regards, Rick Hellewell

None of which sounds like fun. Captain Morse added:

Unfortunately, that's exactly what I do during the annual Windows "degunking" maintenance procedure. Or, used to, anyway. I'm not so scrupulous since moving my production boxes to Linux.

I'm not sure if this directly affects a lot of people or not. But, I look around and see that "format and reinstall" is still a common recommendation for a legion of XP problems. I know some of that is holdover from Win95 (where format and reinstall was, in fact, the best solution to a host of problems) and some is just sloth or ignorance, but it seems to be a common prescription none the less.

Ron Morse

So far it looks like a pretty silly mistake for Microsoft. They have control of your systems, and they encourage you to allow automatic updates; this implies that they've thoroughly test the updates before releasing them. Stealthy updates that may require you to nuke the system from orbit and reinstall everything do not encourage confidence in allowing Microsoft so much control.

We can be pretty sure there will be another forced update that will solve the problems. Microsoft has some good people, and they do work hard; and they've got high incentive to get things right this time.

So far I haven't needed to do any reinstallations. I've got my fingers crossed.

The last word here goes to Rick Hellewell:

The Microsoft Security Research Center blog has information on the Repair problem here.

There is also a Microsoft KB article here. The steps to resolve the problem are a bit simpler than earlier reported, running these commands at the command prompt will fix the problem:

NET STOP WUAUSERV 
REGSVR32 %windir%\system32\wups2.dll 
NET START WUAUSERV 

If you have Windows XP 64-bit version, replace "system32" with "syswow64"

...Rick...


Sometimes we can be helpful:

Subject: Outlook - restrict to one CPU - thank you!

Jerry,

Found your note about Outlook taking all the CPU on a dual CPU system and how to restrict it to a single CPU via a Google search and it was exactly what I needed! I get a lot of emails every day and I'd become very frustrated with that behavior; now I can actually work while Outlook does its thing. Thank you!

Darren

Thanks!


Continuing the discussion of author rights:

Subject: a question for you

I read what you wrote about the SFWA/scribd controversy and this bit struck me:

In other words, just now, the arguments are all moral and ethical and have to do with an author's moral and ethical rights to control of his own work; and when we speak of theft of intellectual property, we aren't really talking about theft in the sense of financial harm. On the other hand, it's important to note that while this argument applies to authors and the SFWA members SFWA was acting to protect, it applies with even greater force to the injuries suffered by Doctorow and Scalzi and the others who waxed so indignant over SFWA's actions.

Now I know pretty much everyone in the world agrees with you there, but I don't. Why does an author have a moral and ethical right to control his own work? It certainly contradicts the spirit of the copyright clause of the constitution (not to say that's morally or ethically determinative). What really bothers me is when authors claim the right to control the way copyrighted work is used, rather then disseminated. I don't feel that copyright holders have any moral or ethical right to tell me I can't watch a DVD in linux. I don't feel they have any right to tell me what brand of mp3 player their work can be played on. I don't feel that an author has any right to tell me I can't buy their work, OCR it, and read it on a laptop if I like. In fact I find these claims outrageous from a moral and ethical point of view, though they are well supported from a legal one. Can you defend them?

--larry

I don't know of any law that says you can't buy a copy of my work, OCR it, and read it on a laptop. It's when you give a copy to someone else that you break laws, although no one really cares that much; but when you post it on your web site and tell eveyone that if they come to your site they can see my book; and now you use the resulting traffic to sell ads on your site and raise venture capital -- do you not see an ethical problem there?

I don't know too many authors who insist on the right to skin you alive, or even to tear the wings off flies; nor do I know any who want to tell you that you can't watch a DVD in Linux. That's assuming you've paid for the DVD; if you haven't, it hardly matters what medium you use to watch your stolen property.

I know people who say that authors make outrageous claims, and perhaps there are some writers who talk that way, but it certainly has never appeared in statements from responsible authors' associations. In a word, I suspect you of kicking apart a straw man. While that's always fun, it doesn't really add to intellectual comprehension.

As to your wanting to buy my work, OCR it, and read it on a laptop, why should I care if you do that? I won't give you permission to do it, but it won't really bother me if you send a copy of that to a friend. If, however, you now take my work and put it up on your web site, use it to attract viewers who can have free copies, and sell advertisements based on your web traffic, do I not have a legitimate complaint?

The Constitution empowers Congress to grant monopolies to authors and inventors. It puts restrictions on that power, and most - not all - writers I know wonder if the current term periods are not excessive given the wording of the Constitution. I know I don't want or need the current life plus ninety years that Disney lobbied for.

On the other hand, the Constitution also says that Treaties become the Law of the Land, and the US has signed and ratified the Berne Convention which makes copyright terms life plus fifty years, with no renewals. You may not care for that - I don't, actually - but it is certainly both Constitutional and popular with intellectuals; the provision was insisted on by Victor Hugo and approved by most of the European intelligentsia, and when the US decided to seek international protection for US intellectual properties, it was take the Berne Convention or leave it. We took it.

The current laws go beyond the Berne Convention requirements, and I think you will find many authors would support an effort to repeal the extension from fifty years to ninety years.

The Berne Convention also grants some moral rights to authors. One of them is to prevent publication of a work that has been deliberately altered: in other words, publishers can't take an author's work, mutilate it, and then publish it without the author's permission. Authors can waive that right and some do for enough money; but there's considerable controversy about all that. I don't think this is what you mean.