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Computing At Chaos Manor:
The Mailbag

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

November 19, 2007

Begin this week with a correction that will also be in the column installment:


We still do make and sell the T Series with a normal aspect screen (non-wide) for 14" and 15".



Jeffrey G. Witt
Lenovo Public Relations

Thanks. I am very fond of the T42p screen.

Subject: Keyboards

Dr P;

You have written, from the days of Byte and Bix, of your requirements for keyboards. Have you noticed that the latest crop of Microsoft and Logitech wireless keyboards lack the "response" of the good 'ol IBM clicky kb? I am writing this on a Microsoft Wireless Laser, and I regularly have to concentrate on pressing the keys sufficiently to enter the correct characters. Is it that kb hardware is all designed around the multimedia, internet surfing, iTunes user, and not those who write for a living?


I think so. This afternoon I was doing some work on the NEC MobilePro 780, which has an electronic "key click", and I was astonished at how much I like that, even though computer generated key clicks long ago fell out of popularity. I suspect there are some such programs that could attached to Word, but I don't have time to look them up. If anyone has experience with them, please let us know.

I prefer the feel of the old IBM clicky keyboards. For years I used Northgate keyboards that had that feel, and then Ortek keyboards, but they have worn out and I don't have a new source.

I am happy enough with the Microsoft "Comfort Curve" keyboards, and I am converting to those, but I'd like them better if they had collapsing spring keys; I do wonder if adding an electronically generated "click" would help, but at the moment I don't have any such program. A search of Word HELP on "key click" doesn't reveal anything interesting.

Captain Morse says

For fans of clicky keyboards:


These are clones of the old Northgate Omnikey keyboards, sold and serviced by people who did the original in North Plymouth, MN. I have a couple of the "Prime" models and use them daily.

Programmable keys are handy for Linux users who like to play with their systems because you can make the most complex password a one-key affair (assuming physical access to the machine is properly controlled, of course).

Ron Morse

I have looked at the web site, and these appear to be very similar to the no longer made Ortek keyboards I have used for years. They have programmable keys, and the keyboard layout is similar but not identical. At $150 per keyboard (I will need four, two for the office, one for the Monk's Cell, and one for the beach house) they aren't cheap, but they ought to last for years so the annual cost isn't so large. I'll order one and write it up in the column.

Subject: Parallels & USB on MacBook with Leopard


It turned out I spoke too soon. It wasn't the Belkin USB hub giving me problems HotSyncing my Palm Tungsten T3 in Windows in Parallels under Leopard 10.5. Plugging the HotSync cradle directly into the computer helped, but the real problem was Parallels itself, specifically v 3.0, build 5160, which their website currently recommend for use under Leopard.

Their customer support confirmed the problem and said it will be fixed in the next release, which is coming "soon." They've had a new build 5540 out in beta for a while now, but it didn't have the USB fix. I trust that the final release will work right. Fingers crossed.

I also tried VMware Fusion 1.1, which is their Leopard-compatible release, and USB is rock solid.

Both Parallels and VMware Fusion can be installed for 30 day free trials.

Until the fixed Parallels comes out, I'm booting into Tiger 10.4.11 from a Firewire external drive and doing my HotSyncing there. Another partition on the same drive is in use by Time Machine. Slick.

Regards, Bill Dooley

Thanks. I'm upgrading my 15" PowerBook to the latest Apple OS, and I'll have more to say on that in a future column. The plan is to use the PowerBook to make my first video podcasts.

Eye-Fi Wireless


I guess the most surprising thing about this product is that I simply hadn't expected it:

Review: Eye-Fi Wireless 2GB SD Card

Bought one for $99. Works flawlessly uploading to SmugMug (which I like better than Flickr). Very cool. You ought to put one in that Kodak that you keep in your pocket...


-- Stephen Fleming
Chief Commercialization Officer
Georgia Tech

Looks cool! I'll have to get one.

Subject: Dual headphone adapter


Regarding the issue where 2 people view a movie (or other content) on one device. Another alternative, if it is appropriate under the circumstances, is to use a dual headphone adapter, available at Radio Shack, Amazon, eBay et al. This plugs into your device and provides two plugs so that two headphones can be plugged in. I have never used one (yet, since this will change in the next few weeks), so I do not know if this affects the audio quality of the source.

Good to hear that Orlando is 100% online again :-)


Dual headsets certainly implies friendliness. It also implies a screen that can be seen from different angles. I expect it would work on an airplane with a laptop.

Subject: Thinkpads and IBM

Hi Dr Pournelle,

I've enjoyed your fiction for years. I own pretty much every word that you or Niven ever wrote. I started reading your computing column only a few months ago. I've found it to be informative and helpful.

I want to comment on the following bit from the Computing at Chaos Manor Mail from Nov 12. It holds a common misconception.

> 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.

Most American OEM PCs today are made on an OEM-ODM model. An Original Equipment Manufacturer (e.g. IBM, Lenovo, Dell, HPQ) contracts with an Original Design Manufacturer (e.g. Foxconn, Asus, Wistron, Universal Scientific) who designs and manufactures PCs to specification. Very little hardware development or manufacturing is done in-house by OEMs any more.

Most of the ODMs are in the Far East. They really started gaining share in the late 1990s. Labor costs drove the biggest ODMs from Japan to Taiwan to mainland China. So most retail OEM customers have been using continental Asian designed PCs for almost a decade now. I don't think it's hurt anybody. If China's plan was to infiltrate US computing, that project was accomplished quietly seven years ago.

I've watched this transition first-hand. When I joined the IBM PC Company in 2005, I shared a lab with the BIOS coders. Today, one of those same guys e-mails a BIOS spec and a test plan to one of Lenovo's ODMs, and out pops a BIOS for us to test.

It took a while to grow into this mode. IBM started shopping PCs out to ODMs around 1998. By 2002, the whole PC line had an ODM component. IBM completed the transition by selling the remaining PC manufacturing lines to Sanmina-SCI in 2003.

Yes, that means there are fewer of us now. Outsourcing is another topic, though.

When Lenovo bought the PC Company in 2005, IBM's contribution was supply chain, specification, marketing, and QA testing. The labs and personnel who provided those things all transitioned to Lenovo entirely. Lenovo has, for the most part, kept those parts in place.

So even though IBM's current input to Lenovo mostly consists of 'I want X thousand units', the key people who made the ThinkPad T42s are still working on the T61s.

As to your DVD performance problem on battery:

The cause is likely the GPU throttling on battery. A lower performance GPU mode saves power and keeps the battery discharge heat from exceeding the unit's thermal profile. PowerDVD solves this by using the CPU instead of the GPU to do the work.


Aha. I guess I knew that and forgot it. In any event, I find PowerDVD works much better...

Subject: Ebook readers -- size vs. readability


I think I have an idea for a system that would -- using currently available hardware -- break the size/usability paradox, allowing a reader as physically compact as anyone would desire, and, a screen as *large* as anyone would need (i.e., physical book page size).

The current generation of very bright white LEDs, combined with the "projector on a chip" technology that uses microscopic "mirror-wobble" to produce scan lines, could fit into a very small package, and produce more than enough light to provide full brightness on a book page-sized screen.

The screen itself would be made of a flexible material with a frosted surface, with micro-fresnel "lens" molded into it (or, laser-cut into it).

When not in use, the screen would roll up, like a windowshade (or, like old-fashioned movie screens).

The key to being able to use it in normal ambient light conditions would be equally simple -- a bellows, like the type that has been used with cameras for over a century. (The bellows could be made of opaque flexible material, like the type used on the original Polaroid SX-70 cameras, rather than a fan-fold paper construction.)

By laminating a circular polarizer to the surface of the screen, it would be usable in fairly bright ambient conditions, and a fold-out hood could be used for situations that were extremely bright.

I think a working device could be constructed that, when collapsed, would be about the same size as a six inch ruler, perhaps 1/3 inch thick. Or, it could be built into a cell phone, as a pull-out screen. (Using aspherical mirrors, the physical depth can be maintained at a very slim form-factor.)

One additional benefit inherent in this design is the lack of a fragile, expensive LCD. If the view screen should be damaged, it can be replaced by the user, at a very modest cost, the actual display hardware consisting of a tiny chip, well-protected behind a sturdy window.

Anyone wishing to send me royalties on this design may do so through you. Please retain 50% of the commission for yourself. :)


That's certainly one approach.

Amazon released its Kindle reader today, and there are a number of early reports. I also inspected Peter Glaskowsky's Sony Reader review (link), and found the Sony somewhat wanting. I'll have a full discussion of where I think readers are going in the column; the Kindle is headed in the right direction, but it isn't there yet .

We've seen flexible "electronic paper" screens in action, and they have very high potential. That may be the way to go.

Comcast Watch, Continued. Last week I said I had no mail in defense of Comcast. That is clearly no longer true:

Subject: Defending Comcast --

Hi Jerry,

Here's a note defending Comcast - I've been a customer ever since they bought TCI and @Home Comcast delivers reliable internet service - 10Mbit down and 2-3Mbit Up (both measured several times). When I've needed service they send knowledgeable service reps who show up on time (once they were early!). I only wish their prices were a bit lower, but DSL doesn't have the performance I need.

Regarding the bittorrent issue, I can't blame them one bit for throttling traffic that impacts the network - but I do think they should disclose what they do. I ran into that one time when I wanted to download a game demo that the publisher (foolishly in my opinion) only provides via bittorrent. was able to work around it with encryption (and opening up ports on my locked-down firewall), but it was a pain. An I lay the blame for that not on Comcast, but on the publisher. If they want my money, give me a direct download.

Given that the vast majority of traffic on the torrents is pirated content, I have about as much sympathy for bittorrent users as I do for the car thief that runs across the spiked mats on the highway.



(Full Disclosure: I used to work for MediaOne, and left about the time of the AT&T acquisition).


A discussion of digital media. This began when Rich Heimlich sent a note to the Chaos Manor advisors:

On the digital media issue I think it's time we talk about something. Digital is supposed to be better is it not? One of my biggest gripes about it is that the industry, across the board, refuses to acknowledge this fact and keeps trying to apply old methods to the new media.

What I mean by this is that I'm tired of being told that songs, books, games, movies I buy online are not available to me any longer should they go missing (like a hard drive crash). Their excuse for this is that you don't get a new copy of a book or a movie if you lose it. Give me a BREAK. There is little cost for reading the database, seeing I bought that product before and letting me get it again. Fine, charge me a SMALL fee for a duplicate but make it possible.

I'm tired of paying as much (or more) for digital content only to have it be less functional, less flexible, less enjoyable and less reliable. It all just reeks of gouging.

Another example of this is EA and games. You pay FULL price to download a game of theirs and they only allow access to it for six months.

Rich Heimlich

The initial responses were much like Chaos Manor Reviews Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey's contribution:

My first thought was "make good backups". I of course backup to the home server. In addition, media that I pay for in download-only format get burned to optical media, put in a sleeve with the "receipt" and license key against future loss.

Oh, DRM? Just say no.


Rich Heimlich responded:

Shouldn't competition and such wipe out this need? I just don't get what the big deal is that we should have to resort to such troubles when a simple database lookup could solve it. It's not like iTunes is going anywhere. The content is there. They know I got it. What's the big deal?


Brian replied:

Sure. That's a hopeful view of the "content industry", to whom you are merely a maw with a wallet. As a revenue "stream", allowing you to reaccess your "purchased" (but let's be clear, they call it a license, thus no sale, thus no rights beyond those granted by the TOS) "content" quantizes that stream, and interrupts their quarterly profit growth.

Me, what I download, I back up, because I don't trust that they'll be in business next year, anyway. Or they'll be owned by a new overlord who changes the terms of service to extract more money from the stream, to get a faster ROI on their investment.



That got Robert Bruce Thompson into the discussion

I see that Major League Baseball recently changed the DRM scheme they use, orphaning all the video that people had paid them for. Their position is basically "tough break". According to them, these folks didn't buy the video. It was a one-time sale, and the fact that they can no longer view the video they paid for is not MLB's problem. No refunds. MLB won't even replace the purchased videos with videos that use their new DRM scheme. As far as I'm concerned, MLB defrauded those buyers.

Ars Technica article link.

And that's just the latest example. Google orphaned buyers of their video as well, although they eventually relented and offered refunds. But depending on the seller to make good a no longer functional DRM'd product just isn't good enough. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who buys anything with DRM that hasn't been cracked is wasting his money.

-- Robert Bruce Thompson

I'm just wondering why it is that we accepted the concept of paying more for less of what we already had.

Think about the music side of things. You could buy a CD for $10-$15 and you have a full copy of all the music that you can rip, move to different devices, back up, store, etc.

Then we're sold the idea of MP3's. They're inferior to the CD-Audio and an album's worth will often cost you more than the price of the real thing. Then you often have to deal with DRM issue and the fact that if you need another copy, you're screwed. It seems the only thing you're paying for is to not get sued by the RIAA. No wonder this isn't growing faster than it is. Here you have a case where convenience is the driving factor and yet companies seem to think convenience means the exact opposite of being convenient in their offering.

It just makes common sense that one of the biggest features of digital media is that it'd be perpetually available to you. No need to go storing all those discs (I own thousands and they take up a huge amount of closet space) or worrying about hard drive failures.

Rich Heimlich

Peter Glaskowsky answered

We accept the concept of paying more for "less" because we get more of other things, of course. You can still buy CDs. If you want a CD, buy one.

People who buy digital music instead of CDs obviously believe they're getting a better deal. Maybe they're buying single tracks, maybe they don't want to have to store a CD, maybe they just want instant gratification. Maybe they don't care about the alleged loss of quality or DRM issues.

So what if anyone else feels differently? As long as there are enough customers to support that kind of business, the record labels are perfectly entitled to pursue it. If it doesn't work out, they'll try something different.

I don't think it's appropriate to argue against a particular kind of business just because you don't want to participate. Literally, it just isn't your business.

Some people go further, resorting to DRM hacking and piracy to create a kind of anarcho- communist market in other people's intellectual property, and that's just despicable.

. png

Don't we do this all the time? If I adopted that policy my answer to any gripe with a product or service would be, "it's just not for you".

What I think we do is discuss why it isn't and if enough people feel that way then there's some grounds for suggesting that perhaps a change might be in order.

The point on this one is that I DO want to participate and DO participate. I refused to buy any digital music until I could get CD-quality music. I waited. Finally, a company called Music Giants came about and offers an iTunes-like service whose distinguishing feature is that all their music is CD-quality lossless files. I now buy there. I'm telling companies, both directly and via discussions like this, that I'd be compelled to spend more if there was no DRM and if they'd help me by helping to protect my collection. If I say nothing and everyone follows suit, nothing changes.

How did these guys get the notion that non-DRM was a good idea? Did they just stumble over it or did they find a number of potential customers who told them that DRM was what kept them from buying?

Rich Heimlich

The usual anti-DRM argument has the effect of encouraging DRM hacking and piracy. You're not going that far, and I appreciate that, but you're still saying that compressed and rights-managed digital media is somehow globally undesirable when you really mean it just isn't what you want.

. png

I'm stating what I don't find appealing about the business and suggesting that it might be a factor for others which might explain why this segment isn't more popular. The two are not mutual exclusive by definition.

My argument for this position is pretty simple:

1) So far every metric taken has shown that non-DRM music is preferred.

2) Every digital store continues to push the bitrate higher. They wouldn't do this if they didn't think it would have a positive effect and I suspect they did it, not on a whim, but in response to queries made to the marketplace. Now we have one provider supplying the full experience. It won't be the last.

As I shared a while back, Jerry and I once were asked by Logitech why the marketplace wasn't responding as well to their new "ergonomic" mouse that they had just released. It was supposed to be the first of its kind. We spoke to the CEO and told him that both of us felt that the half-pie design was nothing even remotely approaching ergonomic. We also told him that he'd be better off taking a piece of clay and taking a mold of the hand while it sat on the desk. Logitech mice haven't been the same since. Nearly all of them are heavily impacted by genuine ergonomics. My current one, a G9, fits the above description perfectly and even comes with two different swappable molds. So was this us just telling him what we didn't want or what was globally undesirable?

Rich Heimlich

That got Eric Pobirs into the discussion:

I think it also helps that player capacity has increased along with better download speeds, making it more practical to offer the higher quality product.

I recall the first digital audio player I had a chance to handle directly, thanks to a PR firm handing them out. A Diamond RIO 500, IIRC. It came with a 64MB Smart Media card. I used Frank Zappa's 'Sheik Yerbouti' as a test and ran into immediate disappointment. The entire album wouldn't fit on the card at a decent quality level. Even an audio book at low quality wasn't going to fit on there. Today, an 8GB iPod Nano or equivalent costs less than the RIO 500 back then.

So it wasn't very surprising that this category of device didn't catch on until a fair bit later. Those 1.8" hard drive based units may have been pricey when they first hit the market but they delivered on almost every other aspect needed to create a mainstream product. Enough people were willing to pay the price if it did everything else well enough.

There are no easy answers for digital media that makes everyone involved happy. The knowledge that digital enables perfect copies never ceases to prey on the minds of those running the store and frequently those creating the content but the tradeoff is annoying the paying customers in a futile effort to limit the non-paying sorts.

For the time being I could only image buying music via download if it were a single track from a CD with nothing else of worth on it. OTOH, those kinds of tracks are frequently collected ala K-Tel, making me further disinclined to buy via download. To the extent that I did at all, I grew up when AOR was king, so I've never cared for buying singles.

Eric Pobirs

Which hardly settles the questions, but it does make things a bit clearer, at least to me.

Regarding Digital Rights Management, I take the view that the DRM schemes presently available do far more to annoy the legitimate users than they do to protect intellectual property rights from thieves and exploiters. So long as that's the case, I think DRM does more harm than good. It doesn't help ebook sales that many publishers have set ebook prices that have nothing whatever to do with the costs of creation, production, and distribution while simultaneously making DRM quite annoying.

Whether that will continue is not clear. Theorists say that effective DRM that doesn't inconvenience the legitimate user is impossible, and any protection scheme can and will be cracked. No matter how difficult you make the protection scheme, someone will find a way to get around it, and once that's found, the methods will be released to the wild. People who couldn't possibly crack the scheme will find out how it's done, and they'll spread the word further.

Critics of this view say that the hardware will make it simple to have painless and invisible DRM systems. If ebooks are reasonably priced with painless and invisible DRM, there's little incentive to seek out pirated copies; iTunes is often given as an example.

Since I make my living from intellectual property rights, I have great interest in this debate, but hardly any final answers. A good part of my life income has been made from mass market (paperback) book rights. If the paperback book is replaced by digital readers and ebooks - and I think this is inevitable although I am not sure how quickly it will happen - then this issue will be vital to professional writers.

We aren't going to settle that matter here...