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.

November 12, 2007

Last week I complained about Firefox's tendency to demand updates before it can open.

Subject: Firefox


Its OK to say no to an upgrade when you are in a hurry unless you are going to questionable sites. You can always get update later. At least Firefox will restore sessions. What I really hate are updates that require computer restarts when I'm busy.

The notes on explain their philosophy on updates. Finding regressions in a version after release is sloppy but I suppose it can happen when you are fixing 200 items with a lot of volunteers.


I install a lot of nightly builds on the Mac that have been optimized for my CPU. Its trivial because its download and then drag and drop in applications folder so its easy to revert to previous. I stick to release only versions on Windows box.


Just today I was in a hurry: I was on line with Leo Laporte to do a TWIT broadcast, and I needed to reset my other computer so that I could access the del.ic.io.us file where we keep the subjects for discussion. I clicked on the link he had sent me - but Firefox wasn't open, and insisted on updating itself before it would open. I told it to restore the previous session. A number of windows appeared - then suddenly, it began blaring sounds from a tab that was no open, and I had no way to discover which tab was giving me Leonidas' speech from 300. I had to turn the sound off.

Firefox is pretty good, and I got used to it, but it still annoys me. I'll read your reference, though.

Subject: ThinkPads

Regarding your multiple warranty shipments with Orlando, I suspect that in replacing the motherboard (for the previous problem), they put too much thermal paste on the graphics chip. That's a common problem and experienced techs know to avoid it.

In any case, it's a good idea to get it fixed - I know people who are holding on to the T42's (the best ones IBM ever built) and refusing to upgrade to newer models (Lenovo built) because of numerous problems. They range from multiple blue screens and failed USB ports, to the magic "blue smoke" and random thermal related shutdowns to simple dead units (shortly after the warranty expires). These seems to exist with all the new Lenovo (i.e. Chinese) engineered units. A family member just had one show up DOA out of the box. It's been returned, and we're getting a Macbook Pro and using boot camp instead.

I'd caution folks that reliability data for ThinkPads more than a year old isn't, itself, reliable. ThinkPads may still carry the IBM label, but they're not engineered or manufactured by IBM. After 2008 or 2009 they won't even say IBM. At the very least, I'd suggest purchasing the 2 or 3 year, next day on-site warranty option (which is still the best in the business).

What's the old line? Past performance is no indication of future performance?


I have the latest T42p warranty story in the current column. I did get it fixed, and all is well. And I am very happy with my T42p and hope to keep him running for a long time.

Peter Glaskowsky adds:

As far as I know, ThinkPads are still engineered by the same people, and possibly still manufactured by them. Perhaps some reader has more definite information, but to call them "Chinese-engineered" without further evidence is unfair to Lenovo and a little too nationalistic for my comfort.

Some people say ThinkPad quality has declined since the Lenovo purchase, but I can't confirm that from my own experience; the ones I've seen are still very well made.

. png

That has been my experience as well. I have four Lenovo ThinkPads, two with Vista and one with XP. We had a disk drive problem with one of them but it was promptly taken care of without loss of data. Most of the problems - and they were not severe - that we have had with those systems have stemmed from Vista, not from the hardware.

It is my understanding that IBM retains great influence in design and quality control, and certainly we have had good experiences with the newer ThinkPads.

I do prefer the T42p form factor over the latest ThinkPad shapes, and apparently I am not alone in that; but that's a preference, not a show stopper.

An inquiry from a reader:

Subject: Mac Leopard Firewall

Hi Jerry,

Since you've a number of experts who are also Mac folks, I was wondering if you'd pose this question to them:

Given the new firewall in Leopard, and the lack of fine control and default configuration problems with the new firewall, is there either (or both), a good GUI utility to configure the built-in ipfw firewall that's Leopard compatible, or alternatively, good instructions for doing so from the terminal window?

Thanks for any help they might be able to give.



Since I don't have a current Mac, I can't help. I do hope to change that once I get these books out the door. Dan Spisak, who recently brought his MacBook Pro to Chaos Manor to show off Leopard, says:


Regarding your reader who has a question about an alternative interface to Leopard built-in firewall you can point them towards WaterRoof. WaterRoof is a third party application that allows you to do all varieties of configuration of the ipfw firewall in OS X. There are versions for both TIger and Leopard and it can be found here:


This should help with his request.

-Dan S.

Comcast watch, continued:

Subject: Re: Comcast watch

>> Comcast took over the Time Warner Road Runner broadband service in Houston and has forced everyone to change their email address.

When AT&T took over the MediaOne franchise here some years back, they were ALREADY in negotiation with Comcast, and had the gall to tell us that not only would be have to change our e-mail addresses from @ mediaone.net to @attbi.com, but that they'd be changing again within a year to @comcast.net.

This is when I registered a 'vanity domain' for my household; for about $30/year they forward family members' mail to the corresponding ISP mailboxes, and if I choose to shop my Internet connection elsewhere, five minutes' work would take care of the new forwarding rules. In my mind a minor expense for keeping some measure of independence from my provider.

They might also look into setting up accounts with Google's GMail service, which gives you access anywhere you can pull up a browser, and can also be accessed with a mail client via POP3, and now IMAP as well. If you have to broadcast a change-of-email notice to the world, either of these options break the ISP hold on your mailbox.

-- Bob Halloran
Jacksonville FL

----- "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither." - Benjamin Franklin

Regarding Denizens of Hell:

I was reading the final item in the Chaos Manor mailbag about adding the CEO of Comcast, if you still have room for him.

Now there's a surefire inspiration for few hundred words on your blog once you're done with Inferno -- the runners-up or dishonorable mentions nominated for Hell who didn't make the grade.

--Mike Glyer

I have to point out that while you can't libel the dead, the current CEO of Comcast is very much alive. I actually know little about Comcast, but I do note that I have no reader letters defending them....

Dr. Pournelle -

>> "Nobody at Comcast has come up with a good reason why they are dropping the houston.rr.com domain name" <<

Probably this is because Road Runner does not want to have to support email for customers that are no longer theirs. After all Comcast only bought the Road Runner customers in Houston, not all of Road Runner. Changing the domain name was probably a contract requirement of the sale.

"You can imaging the weeping and knashing of teeth, especially for small business owners who have business cards, marketing literature, etc. All with @houston.rr.com"

Given the extremely low cost of owning your own domain, any _business_ that uses their ISP's email service is just plain foolish. It would be like receiving all your snail mail c/o your landlord's address, and then your landlord sells your building to a different landlord which has a different name. I have no sympathy for those businesses that use an ISP for business email to save a very few dollars a year.

Ray A. Rayburn

I suspect this won't be the last Comcast watch...

On eBooks and the future of mass market:

Subject: eBooks

Dear Mr. Pournelle,

Regarding your latest Mailbag and the discussion about smartphones being used as book reading devices. I have been an avid user of eReader.com, a company first created by Palm and that I think is independent now. I have over 50 books loaded in my Palm PDA and read them using the freely available eReader application. For what I see, the same app is available for several operating systems; Windows Mobile and Symbian being among them. I don't know the number of volumes readily available in the eReader.com store, but they must be in the thousands. So if someone wants to use his phone to read fairly new books, it has been possible for some time now. Alas, my phone is a BlackBerry and that one is not supported.

Best regards,
Gabriel Coindreau

I know that it's possible to read novels on current phones, and in fact on iPaq and other PDA computers, but many don't find that a pleasant experience with current pocket computers. That changes almost weekly, though.

On the e-book reader/cellphone business...I'm waiting for further development of thin, foldable display technology. With that your cell phone/music player/PDA would retain it's current form factor and convenient portability, but when it was time to read it would unfold into a paperback book-sized "page." Color and graphics capability is a must-have feature as you have noted before, and embedded video would be nice, too.

Ron Morse

That is certainly one way things will go. I find reading novels on my TabletPC a perfectly acceptable experience, but I know many are looking for electronic paper.

Subject: Ebooks

"I have often said, and say again: there will come a time when technology will catch up with the book business. There will come a time when everyone will be carrying an instrument on which one can read a book with about as good an experience as you would have reading a paperback. The instrument will be your telephone and telep0hone book, as well as GPS locator, email access, video and still camera, notebook, and music delivery system. Nearly everyone will have one. Downloading a new book will be painless and cheap."


That day may be here (or at least almost).

I've tried Ebooks on various Palm platforms (most recently on my Treo 700P phone) and was left dissatisfied. Screen too small for comfort for the most part. For two weeks I've been using a Nokia N800 Internet Tablet and am now a convert.

It's a 800x480 device and the screen is gorgeous. I'm using an application called FBReader that works in portrait or landscape and is extremely readable for these aging eyes. Currently I'm reading Andre Norton's Time Traders from the Baen free library, and I've also downloaded many dozens of free books from Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org). The only caveat with this device is that it does not work with DRM. Hopefully, publishers will get a clue and discard these stupid systems that assume the end-user is a thief.

I'll probably never buy a paperback again.


Jeff Elkins


Subject: book navigation


re book navigation. Take a look at www.e-sword.net . The Bible application they provide for free, especially when loaded up with the resources provided is one of the best written applications I have used in any context. It incorporates many of the type of links you suggest, or similar ones. I've been using it for about four years now and recommend it highly to those interested in historical Bible translations and related materials.

And thanks for being here, you do have one of, if not the, best site going.


That is a good model and perhaps a picture of things to come.

Subject: cell phone as book reader


You say you have a cell phone that you think would do as a book reader. I'm curious what that might be, and what size screen does it have?

When it comes to a device that most people would be willing to carry almost everywhere, it seems that size is everything, with smaller being better. (I know people who don't even like to carry wallets around; I'll admit that I keep my wallet as small as possible with just a drivers license, insurance card, and a couple of credit cards.) Even a blackberry, which is just 2-4 times larger than the smallest cell phone, is a drag to lug around in some circumstances. Maybe not during the course of a business day, but that still leaves a lot of leisure hours to consider. Now a blackberry is pretty limited as a computer or book reader due to the tiny keyboard and small display, and it is hard to imagine something smaller than a blackberry that is still useful for either function. So I suspect that we are looking at a two device future for most folks - tiny cell phones with limited functions that get taken everywhere, like a wallet, and somewhat larger devices that get carried some of the time, and could be used as book reader/web browser/limited duty computer, etc.

There is probably a good business opportunity for someone who figures out a seamless way for you to keep your ultraportable cell phone always synced up with your "doing business" electronic companion. That way, you'd have access to your essential data all the time, even in those situations where you decided not to bring along the electronic brick.

CP, Connecticut

The phone I think "good enough" as a reader (and as a PDA and pocket computer for that matter) is the I-Mate JASJAR. Alas, it isn't a very good phone, so I am not willing to carry it. I believe the next iteration of the iPhone may do the job, though.

Subject: Writers' Strike


Just a thought for the writers....in this age of cheap digital video, why not come up with a few ideas that the studios don't have rights to, and start making videos and putting previews up on YouTube or the like? With a payment for the full episode?

It would scare the living bejeebers out of the producers, and That Might Be A Good Thing, perhaps?

Doug Hayden

It has certainly been thought of. Technology has already made it possible to produce professional quality audio broadcasts of both voice and music with minimum investments; you have to learn some skills, but you no longer need the facilities of a recording studio to make your recording, and distribution is getting a lot easier. At least the technical aspects of distribution are; getting people to pay attention is another matter.

It's not quite that easy for movies, but we're getting there. We do live in interesting times.

For another view:

Writers Guild Strike

A Freak Show Waiting To Happen---If Anybody Actually Gives a Hoot

I seriously doubt the Writers' Guild walkout is going to draw all that much attention outside of a few of the sillier talk-radio hosts. It's more than a little reminiscent of the baseball strike a few years ago. The perception is that the situation is one bunch of (relatively) rich guys going after another bunch of rich guys. It's a freak show, nothing more. Let's not even mention the fact that thanks to Internet webcasting software, there is so much "content" being produced and delivered online that the writers are being undercut on price. Netflix and similar services also hurt the writers, by insuring an inexpensive, more easily accessible aftermarket for old content. (This is why old Star Trek: Voyager episodes are being sold for $ 1.99 apiece.) Today's writers are competing with their predecessors; a situation which did not exist to the same degree in 1980. There is also the little matter of the "reality shows" being far cheaper to produce and market than standard series. No script = less need for writers. In addition, the broadcast networks themselves aren't as profitable as they once were, since their oligopoly was broken by cable networks back in the 70s. No more 45-share weeks, guys ! This strike is an effort to divide up a shrinking pie. The really interesting question, if the strike lasts longer than a few weeks, is going to be whether Americans are going to just turn the set off and start picking up books again. (To coin a phrase: yeah, right.)

Cordially, Mark Schaeber

We're taking it pretty seriously out here in Hollywoodland. We'll see.

Since you like to keep track of odd occurrences:

Under Mac OS X 10.4.x, I used Parallels to run Windows XP Pro so I could use the Windows versions of the Palm and SplashData desktop software for HotSyncing my Palm Tungsten T3. At unpredictable intervals, the HotSync would abort, and I'd have to start again.

After upgrading to Leopard, Mac OS X 10.5, HotSync failed every time.

Doing what I should have done long ago, I moved my Palm HotSync cradle from a Belkin 7-port USB hub to one of the two built-in USB ports on my MacBook. Result: perfect HotSync performance.

I have no way of knowing if this is a fault of USB hubs in general or only of the Belkin hub. I've also noticed that a PS/2 keyboard connected to the Belkin hub with an adapter had fairly frequent burps with lost keystrokes under 10.4.x.. I'm waiting to see if that still happens under Leopard.

Regards, Bill Dooley

Fascinating. I have few reports of problems with Leopard upgrades.