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The User's Column, January, 2006
Column 306
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

This is my traditional year-end column, in which I comment on trends in technology and the industry, speculate on the future, give my Chaos Manor User's Choice Awards, and present the annual Chaos Manor Orchids and Onions Parade.

Awards are nominated by Byte readers and editors as well as by myself. Winners are chosen by me. Note that I make no attempt to present my Users Choice winners as "best", since I have long since given up trying to test and use every brand and product in the industry. On the other hand, I can generally get anything I seriously want, I never use anything that isn't "Good Enough," and I don't recommend anything I am not using.

CES: Las Vegas in December 2005
Opening Day at CES. Intel and Microsoft are here, but CES isn't really a computer show even if it has taken the place of COMDEX. This is Opening Day in the Automobile Hall: a thousand GPS, Superloud Stereo, and other gadgets for your car.

This year the column deadline falls during CES, the Consumer Electronics Show. In the absence of Comdex, CES has more than filled the void; it has also filled the entire Las Vegas Convention Center AND the Sands Expo and Convention Center. Thus: I always go to CES, so this is filed from Las Vegas. Look for our CES reports.

The Sky is Falling

As I write this, the computer world is holding its breath in anticipation of the worst computer worm/virus attack in our history. Nothing much has happened yet - as of noon, Thursday, January 5 - but the potential damage is enormous.

The WMF exploit potentially allows the bad guys to run any program they like - from spyware to maliciously corrupting or erasing your files - through an infection you acquire simply from looking at a web site, or receiving (but not opening) an attachment to your email. The potential for the exploit has been with us since the 1980's. The notion was to allow code to be incorporated in a graphic image, so that "the function could be called by Windows if a print job needed to be cancelled during spooling." For reasons not clear to me, no one noticed that this made all versions of Windows exceedingly vulnerable to drive-by penetration, until suddenly this burst upon us during the Christmas holidays.

As of this moment, Microsoft has announced a fix due on January 10. It isn't really a fix, more a workaround, but it's hardly a final solution. Eventually one supposes there will be a new Service Pack to eliminate the problem at the source, but I don't expect that any time soon. Presumably the Microsoft quick fix will reduce the urgency of the problem. Until then, my advice is to be very careful: don't visit strange web sites, and don't open graphics images sent by anyone you don't know; and even if you think you know the source, be sure that's who sent it. Of course that's always good advice, but image files, as of now, are as dangerous as .exe files.

All this comes at a time when Symantec's Norton Anti-Virus, the old standby, has become so encrusted with needless gump that it's getting an onion this year; yet we need up to date virus detection programs now more than ever. I no longer recommend Norton, but if you have it and it's working, this isn't the time to turn it off. My quarrel with Norton isn't effectiveness but efficiency: it has become bloated. But it still works.

For those looking for alternatives to Norton, look into Avast! and Grisoft. Just make sure you have something effective running, and keep it up to date.

Trends in 2005

Just as I no longer pretend to know what's "best" (as opposed to Good Enough), I no longer pretend to know what the "most significant" developments have been, so when I comment on trends it is because I think they are important enough to deserve attention. I will leave it to others to decide which are the most important.

Dual-Core Processors

One notable development has been competition in CPU and motherboard support chips. Several years ago when AMD took up the challenge to Intel's near monopoly, it was even bets on how long they would survive. Now it's clear that AMD is not only here to stay, but offers serious challenges to Intel. That competition is good for all of us.

One measure of AMD's success was their "true dual processor chip" as opposed to Intel's kludge. AMD not only puts two CPU's on a single chip, but also provides communications between them; whereas the Intel "dual-core" (now called "Core Duo" in Intel market-speak) Pentium D is two complete chips in the same package; they have to go outside the CPU chip to the bus to communicate. This is slightly better than having two chip sockets on one motherboard, but it's essentially the same thing.

AMD has a much more sophisticated arrangement, with on-board memory controllers; even with an intercore bus on the chip die Intel would have to go external for some memory functions. Eric Pobirs notes that "AMD saw the current state of affairs coming and planned for it well before Intel began to realize that the gigahertz gravy train was running out of steam."

AMD has also succeeded in marketing dual core chip designs, not only to those interested in acquiring them immediately, but to "dual wanna be's" who build or buy AMD systems with inexpensive CPU's intending to replace the original CPU with a dual as soon as the prices fall or their incomes rise. The result is a renewed interest in multiple processor systems, and this has generated significant work in developing application software to take advantage of multiple thread computing.

On the other hand, some applications are already threaded, and if your applications aren't threaded, Windows is: if you're running a CPU intensive hog (such as Outlook) that eats all the cycles it can get, multi-processors give you at least a chance that the app won't eat everything, thus leaving a little CPU power for everything else. That has certainly been my experience: Outlook brings a slower dual processor system to its knees less often that it does Anastasia, my 3.2 GHz 800 MHz FSB Pentium 4 communications system.

Dual processors on a single chip haven't caught on in part because it's a chicken and egg situation: until more applications take advantage of multiple processors, there seems to be little point in investing in multiples, but until there's an installed base of multiples there's little incentive to invest in rewriting applications to take advantage of multi-processing. Of course we have SMP systems, and Linux has learned to use them with multiple desktops and greatly improved multitasking, but SMP didn't have as much impact on the Windows world as I think it should have.

SMP and Dual Processors were in fact quite effective for multi-tasking, but until recently most Windows users didn't do a lot of multi-tasking. Eric Pobirs speculates that one reason for the failure to market multi-processors at the user level was the difficulty of showing any fancy results on benchmark tests: it was a failure of the journalists to get the story right. There's some justice in that accusation. Multiple processors did make for improvements in user experiences, in that they prevented the not too common but infuriating tendency of the machines to just hang for from one to ten seconds at random intervals; but since that didn't happen too often and wasn't easily simulated for a demonstration, it was hard to justify the expenses of upgrading to dual processors.

Until recently most computers weren't doing much multi-tasking. Now it's a great deal more common to open a stack of applications, such as Microsoft or Google desktop search indexing, instant messaging, various clocks and alarms, and email programs, and leave them all running in background while working on the main tasks. Multiple processors make that a lot more pleasant by avoiding sudden glitches, and I expect people will begin to notice. Meanwhile AMD marketing has managed to get attention for their dual CPU chips and spark a renewed interest in multiple processors. This is a spiral headed in the right direction, and that is good for all of us - particularly for Outlook users.

Some day we will all be using dual and multiple processor machines. Pournelle's Law (the original one, back in 1978, in answer to multiple users on a single PC) said "One User, at least one CPU." I won't go so far as to say "One task, at least one CPU," because that would get ridiculous; but as I have said before, no one truly wants to share CPU cycles with anyone, including himself, and we are all multi-tasking now.

As the trend to multiple processors develops we will come to an era of true computing power surplus; and when we all have "more than enough" computing power, many things will change. We noted much of this in our WinHEC report: multiple operating systems on single systems, and meta-OS capabilities that can simultaneously run different applications on different OS's, all transparent to the user. Couple this with the introduction of 64-bit computing and we are in for another roller-coaster ride.

Meanwhile, Orchids for AMD and their dual-processor systems, and congratulations on being here to stay. Competition is good for all of us.

The Storage Revolution: Orchids and User's Choice Awards to Kingston and Seagate

It has been creeping up on us for years, and now it is upon us: we all have access to enough storage at moderate costs. Now true, there are exceptions to "all", as David Em and some others who manipulate and edit enormous video files will attest; but even they have more storage than they dreamed they would have for another decade. And for the rest of us, storage just isn't a problem.

Thumb drives have gone from a few megabytes to gigabyte and beyond. Add the U3 technology that allows you to carry most of your Windows work environment in your pocket, install it painlessly on any Windows machine, do your work, and when you're ready to go, remove it leaving no footprint or information behind. If you haven't tried this new technology, do so. It will change your life.

We first tried this new technology with a product called Migo (see the February column). Migo technology is now part of Kingston, and you can get Kingston Thumb Drives with U3 technology up to 2 GB, which is about the right size if you want to carry a lot of data with you.

Of course some of the applications you will want must already be installed on the machine you are guesting on. Others can be installed on the U3-enable USB drive itself. As of now, you can't install Microsoft Office on a USB drive, so you can't carry that with you - but you can install Star Office and use it whether or not it is installed on the machine you're going to use. As of now there's no indication that Microsoft is going to change this but stand by.

A large Chaos Manor Orchid, and a User's Choice Award to Kingston's Data Traveler (link) with U3 Migo technology. If you ever use other people's machines for production work you will wonder how you got along without it.

In addition to silicon-based storage, there were great advances in spinning metal, and those are just getting started; I've heard that it won't be long before you'll be able to get a terabyte of portable external storage for reasonable cost. Meanwhile, large Orchids and a Chaos Manor User's Choice Award to Seagate for their entire line of external storage devices, starting with the 5 GB "cookie" (link) we've often mentioned here; this one fits in a shirt pocket, powers up from the USB connection, and works splendidly with laptops including Lisabetta the TabletPC. We also recommend the handy 100 GB External Storage Drive. This one uses two USB connectors, one for data and one for power, and thus doesn't need an external power supply. I carry my 100 GB jewel in an old ballistic nylon case I was given for a Microsoft CE computer back when those first came out; there's room for the 100 GB and a redeye Microsoft Mouse with its cord. Alex just stuffs his Seagate 100 into the case with his laptop, the Hewlett-Packard Pavilion zd8110us (really a portable desktop replacement, see May column), where it functions as a safety backup device. It also carries data files too large to go on his Kingston U3 Migo Thumb drive. There's now a 160 GB version of this drive.

We also have Seagate 400 MB drives installed for backup on every critical machine in Chaos Manor. That may seem like wretched excess, but it's cheap insurance, since Niven sometimes works here, as do other associates, and a day's work is worth as much as the drive costs.

The storage revolution was internal as well as external. This was the year when Serial ATA drive connections replaced the long-standard parallel drive connection for primary disk drives in new machines. In addition, RAID 1 (mirroring) interfaces have become common on high end motherboards. With a RAID as the primary disk drive you're pretty safe from data loss (assuming you continue to use standard daily or weekly backup procedures).

The Chaos Manor User's Choice Award for disk drives goes to the Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 500 Gigabyte SATA internal drive. It's fast, it's quiet, and it's reliable, and if you're building new systems, this the drive to put in them.

VOPT and DiskMapper, Again, and Again

For about the tenth straight year VOPT (http://www.goldenbow.com) gets the Chaos Manor Orchid for disk defragmentation programs. Defragging hard drives isn't as important in these days of enormous capacity drives, but if you fill your disk to 80% and more, you'll find you need to defrag - and while our desktop systems usually have a lot of extra disk space, our laptops often don't. I noticed the other day that Lisabetta, my TabletPC, was down to about 1 GB out of an available 32. I used Micro Logic's DiskMapper 2 NT (http://www.miclog.com/) (another annual Orchid Winner) and found a number of old programs I no longer run. DiskMapper makes it easy to find and delete large unused files, and I made another 7 GB available.

Then I ran VOPT, and Lisabetta is in shape to go on another trip as my main travel machine. I have been using Golden Bow VOPT for about twenty years now, and I have yet to lose one byte of data from running it. As always, recommended.

The Digital Camera Scene

The digital camera is ubiquitous. They range from big professional SLR cameras using a variety of interchangeable lenses to pocket cameras with small fixed lenses in a form factor that would have made Mr. Leitz envious. Leitz's dream was to design a camera that would be so easy to carry that you'd always have it with you. His pocket cameras went a good way in that direction, but he never even dreamed of cameras built into telephones, and stand-alone cameras you can carry in a shirt pocket and still use to get better pictures than your old Brownie took.

Leica is still with us, and today at CES they introduced a new line of pocket cameras. The Leica philosophy was that the camera you have with you is the camera you will use, and they are still making some of the smallest high-quality cameras around.

There have been so many advances in camera technology that, provided you stay with the major brands and popular models, it's hard to make a serious mistake in buying a digital camera. Choose a form factor you like at a price that's comfortable and you aren't likely to go wrong. Some are better than others, but that in part depends on prejudices of those assigning ranks. In fact, nearly all of them are good enough to take the kind of pictures most of us want. I still carry and use four year old digital cameras. I've been meaning to get a new one, but every time I decide to do that, I get so much conflicting advice that I decide to wait a while: my old Olympus is still good enough for nearly anything I do.

My own requirements are fairly simple. I am unlikely to carry lenses, so I need the equivalent of a lens that goes from about 28 to 150; that is, mild wide angle to reasonable telephoto. The telephoto capability is mostly needed for interview portraits. People look a lot more comfortable if the picture is taken from a distance rather than having a camera rammed into their faces; and with a reasonable telephoto capability you can make a public appearance photo-op shot look like something you took during an exclusive interview. I don't do much of that kind of photojournalism now, but I used to, and I sometimes miss it; if I get a new camera I want the capability.

Two other requirements for me are the ability to take a rapid burst of pictures - if you go to rocket events you need that - and that it look like a professional camera. That latter sounds silly but it isn't: once you have a press badge you still need to jockey for position to get good shots, and no one gives way to the kind of pocket camera Aunt Millie uses to get shots of the grandkids. Professional cameras are black, and says Nikon, Canon, or possibly Pentax. It's not that other brands won't take just as good pictures, but they don't have the cache. Or so I am told.

The bottom line is that digital cameras are excellent, there are several good brands competing on price, and you can now find the kind of quality in a good digital camera that you used to pay five times as much for with a film camera. Lenses are still about the same price, but many new digital SLR's will use the same lenses as film cameras did, and often a lens collection dictates the brand of digital camera one buys. Since I don't have any lenses left over from my photojournalism days I'm starting over, and I'm delighted as just how many good enough cameras I can get for well under $1,000 now.

One thing on SLR's and changeable lenses: it's very easy to get dust into the mechanism. Ernest Lilley tells me he won't change lenses outside a clean room, which may be an exaggeration but not by much. You're much better off getting a good zoom lens than a bag full of lenses. I'll put that another way: if you are likely to be doing photography that needs a bag full of lenses, you don't need any advice from me.

George Margolin and his FZ-30
George Margolin, former Tech editor of Popular Photography, with the Panasonic FZ-30 he recommends. This was at the PepCom show at CES. The woody wagon was part of the show theme.

At CES I ran into an old friend, George Margolin, former Technical Editor for Popular Photography, and he showed me his Panasonic FZ-30, a 12X Zoom camera with both automatic and manual focus, the best image stabilization he knows of, and a really stunning macro capability that works as close as three inches: he showed me using a borrowed $100 bill. The resulting image was nothing short of remarkable. The camera is under $600 street price, and I'm sold: stay tuned.

And Larry Magid of CBS swears by his shirt-pocket sized Kodak Easy-Share 360 which he bought for a bit over $300 at Costco.

Meanwhile, whatever camera you use, you'll want to download Kodak's EasyShare software, which gets a large Chaos Manor Orchid. This allows you to build albums easily and efficiently. A picture can be in more than album, but only one copy of the picture is needed, since the albums use pointers. You can upload albums to the Kodak web site, making it easy to share the pictures, and of course you (or anyone else you have pointed to the pictures) can order prints from Kodak at competitive prices. It all works simply and easily, and the price is right. Try it, you'll like it.

I'll have more on cameras next month after CES.

Onion of the Year:

Without doubt, the Chaos Manor onion of the year, putrescent with dual garlic clusters, and sprayed generously with eau d' mouffette, goes to Sony for introducing a rootkit as a Digital Rights Management device for Sony music CD's. We told this story in the November and December columns. As I write this, the news is that Microsoft will shortly have detection and removal tools built into Microsoft AntiSpyware, and that should be out by the time you read this. Microsoft Malicious Software Removal kit (link), an on-demand scan, is reported by Sony to be safe and effective. I would not advise using any removal tools other than those Microsoft develops, since Rootkits burrow deep into both the registry and the software kernel, and it's very easy to foul things up completely.

A Chaos Manor onion is the least of Sony's problems. There have been unofficial consumer boycotts of all Sony products, and many class action lawsuits. Some of those have already been settled in the usual manner: a $7.95 gift certificate to the actual complainants, and $100 million to the lawyers who brought the suit on their behalf. I doubt the trial lawyers will notice, but they get one of my smelliest onions anyway.

I note in passing that by providing a way to remove the Sony Rootkit Digital Rights Management software, Microsoft may well be guilty of multiple felonies under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which criminalizes the publication of tools for defeating copy protection software. I doubt there will be any prosecutions, of course.

Annual Onions to MPAA, RIAA, and DMCA

The execrable DMCA deserves its annual onion, as do both RIAA and MPAA. In one story this year, MPAA sued an elderly grandfather for $700,000 because his grandson had downloaded four (4) movies without paying for them. RIAA then generously offered to settle for "only $7,000". At last count they had bullied their victim into doing a public Maoist self-criticism and warning to others as an act of atonement, and they will drop their lawsuit.

I make my living from intellectual property, and I certainly have few kind words for pirates and piracy; but lawsuits that leave victims ruined for the crime of downloading four movies remind us of Jean Valjean's dozen years in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread. Such draconian actions bring down contempt for the law without doing much to solve the problem of piracy.

RIAA isn't much better than MPAA in this regard, and in addition, has earned the contempt of the recording artists on whose talents the whole recording industry depends. They too have filed outrageous lawsuits, infuriated their artists, and by generating contempt for the law, contribute to acceptance of successful piracy.

For more on how RIAA selects its victims, see http://p2pnet.net/story/7446 and for the legal story see http://recordingindustryvspeople.blogspot.com/. The copyright and piracy issues are important and we'll have a lot more on this in future columns. The important thing to note is that DMCA is seriously broken.

Firefox: The User's Choice

A large orchid and the Chaos Manor User's Choice Award for best browser of the year goes to Firefox's recently published Version 1.5. I was not impressed by prior versions of Firefox, but this is the cat's pajamas.

We gave all major web browsers a fair chance, and didn't get back to Firefox until late in 2005 after Version 1.5 was released; but once we installed it, there was no looking back. I can just about guarantee that once you install Firefox 1.5 with the recommended add-ons, you won't be tempted by any other web browsers. If you haven't tried it, go to http://www.mozilla.com/ and get your free copy. Then go to the December, 2005 column and get the recommended add-ons. You'll be glad you did.

Orchids for Firefox Extensions

Large orchids for the whole community of Firefox add-on developers. You won't believe how many there are, some frivolous, some downright silly - you haven't lived until you have heard CNN translated into International Talk Like a Pirate language - but many are highly valuable and a few are indispensable. Hurrah for all of you.

The Godot Hybrid

The - wait for it - Godot onion-orchid goes to Microsoft for Internet Explorer 7. We've seen the Beta 1 as an MSDN preview, but there have been no updates since then. We suspect that it's taking Microsoft longer than expected to update the old features, much less add new ones, while making the new IE secure. Kudos to Microsoft for caring about security, but they get the Godot hybrid for taking so long.

Orchids, Users Choice, with Onion for Microsoft AntiSpyware

A large orchid and the Chaos Manor User's Choice award to Microsoft AntiSpyware. This free program is still in beta, but it works flawlessly. Updates are automatic and nearly invisible. I was concerned when it first came out, and I have continued to update Ad-Aware, Spybot Search and Destroy, and WebRoot, all very good anti spyware programs, long after I adopted Microsoft AntiSpyware as my defense of choice. Periodically I run the updated versions of each on my machines - at Chaos Manor we do these silly things so you don't have to - and I have yet to have them detect anything not previously detected by Microsoft AntiSpyware - well, anything other than cookies.

As Dan Spisak says, if you worry about cookies, you probably ought to invest in tinfoil (See On the Effectiveness of Tinfoil Helmets at http://people.csail.mit.edu/rahimi/helmet/).

So. Having given Microsoft AntiSpyware both an orchid and the coveted Chaos Manor User's Choice Award, why am I including an onion? The short answer is Claria, formerly known as Gator: Microsoft AntiSpyware detects Claria's obnoxious "stuff I don't want on my computer-ware". It doesn't recommend you install it, but it doesn't label it. You can read the entire story in the July column (link) . Microsoft apparently wants to avoid lawsuits, and there is a legitimate question about the formal definition of "spyware" as opposed to "stuff you just don't want installed on your computer."

Some of my associates believe I am letting Microsoft off far too easily, citing Microsoft's treatment of Gator as evidence of not merely lawyer-inspired wimpery, but actual evil. I note this without accepting it, but Microsoft really needs to consider whose side the company is on.

The bottom line, though, is we do recommend Microsoft AntiSpyware with automatic updates. It has worked very well for us.

Update on the WMF Vulnerability

It appears the sky is not falling, and much of the reaction to the WMF vulnerability was a bit over-blown. That does not change the fact that this is potentially one of the most dangerous vulnerabilities Windows has faced: it is in the wild, it can be acquired without the active cooperation of the user, and once acquired it can do literally anything including phone home for more payload packages that bypass your firewall and anti-virus programs.

We will probably never know how many computers were turned into zombies by this exploit.

Microsoft now has two patches for this exploit. My advice is that you go read Microsoft Security Bulletin MS06-001 at this link and follow the advice, then look for any later material from Microsoft. And keep your anti-virus software up to date. The AV companies are reactive, of course, but they did a good job of reacting to this.

If you installed the "emergency" patch from the Internet Storm Center, you should uninstall it, preferably before installing the Microsoft patch. I say preferably only from logic: I uninstalled it before installing the Microsoft patch on one machine, and after the Microsoft patch on the other, and I see no ill effects on either machine. The uninstaller is in your Control Panel Add/Remove programs.

We seem to have come through this storm with most of us unhurt. Of course we have no idea when the next one will come over the horizon. Microsoft bashers say the sky can fall tomorrow.

Update On Digital Cameras: Kodak EasyShare V750

iPod, Shuffle, and Kodak V750
Some cool stuff. iPod 4, iPod Shuffle, and the Kodak EasyShare V750 Dual Lens shirtpocket camera.

I got the Kodak EasyShare V750 at CES, and immediately began using it to take pictures without looking at the instructions. There is a complete instruction book in the package and reading through it will show you many features worth knowing about, but right out of the box with no help at all I was able to take publishable pictures. This camera literally fits in a shirt pocket, goes from wide angle to a good telephoto (12X), has a great macro capability that works down to a couple of inches, and is both light weight and rugged so you can take it anywhere.

Do not buy a digital camera until you look at this one. I didn't get it in 2005, but I have no hesitation giving it a Chaos Manor Orchid, and it will certainly be candidate for a 2006 User's Choice Award. Highly recommended.

Orchids to DARPA

The DARPA Grand Challenge was simple enough: an autonomous vehicle to make its way from Barstow to the Nevada border in under ten hours. The prize in 2004 was one million dollars. No entry got very far, and there were many who called for an end to the contest.

DARPA persisted, increased the prize to two million dollars, and continued the contest with the same rules. In October, 2005, twenty-three entrants qualified to compete. Of those, five finished the course, four of them in under ten hours. The winner was on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Orchids to DARPA for having the courage to continue the challenge despite political opposition.

Shouting in a Crowded Room: An Orchid for Belkin and One Cheer for the IEEE 802.11 Standards Committee

Wi-Fi has been a tremendous success. (By Wi-Fi I'm talking about 802.11b/g; 802.11a, running at 5 GHz, hasn't really caught on.) Any radio survey in an airport, a hotel or (especially) an office building with multiple tenants will show a great choir invisible, silently filling the air with advertisements of their availability. The problem: There are only eleven channels for Wi-Fi in the US, and they overlap. That's by design; Wi-Fi frequency-hops. The majority of access points (APs) default to channel 6, which leaves channels 1 and 11 less congested. Still, more devices means more interference, so less throughput. Interference is noticeable while watching or listening to streaming media, and it can really affect Voice Over IP; dropouts mean dropped frames or glitchy audio. Technologies like StreamEngine (from http://www.ubicom.com/, embedded in routers from D-Link, ZyXel and others) can only help so much; if a packet is interfered with, retransmission takes time, and too many retransmits means dropped frames.

To date, our favorite tool for discovering competing Wi-Fi devices is Network Stumbler (available from http://stumbler.net/). This software takes over your wireless card (nicely-it gives it back when it's done), turns it into a survey tool, and shows you the few or many APs and cards it sees. Load it on your laptop, walk around your office, and you will likely see exactly why your wireless link hesitates, drops connections, or is generally unreliable.

You may also catch a few rogue APs. They're so cheap, everyone thinks they should have their own, which would be fine if everyone's cubicle were wrapped in aluminum foil. Most of us don't dwell within Faraday cages, so more APs mean more noise, and actually decrease total throughput. Your Own Private AP may increase your throughput, but like shouting over other conversations at a party, it may get you dirty looks, and will increase total noise; and when everyone is doing it, no one is heard.

NetStumbler won't detect other forms of interference; it only shows other Wi-Fi devices. Background: Wi-Fi runs on the 2.4 GHz ISM band-Industrial, Scientific and Microwave-shared with your microwave oven, your 2.4 GHz cordless phone, and a dozen other gadgets. All these raise the noise floor for Wi-Fi, making more interference, less throughput, unhappy users. We hold out great hope for the MetaGeek Wi-Spy (link) a USB device plus software, which promises much better noise analysis for a paltry $99, but we haven't tried one yet. Still, you can't analyze your way to reducing interference, if you can't eliminate the noise source.

The most recognized 'law' of computing power is Moore's, which implies computing power doubles every 18 months. Moore's actual observation had to do with density of transistor circuits on chips, and directly affects the DSP (Digital Signal Processing) revolution. Increased DSP capability allows cellphones the size of a Hershey bar to grab conversations out of the air, or Wi-Fi chipsets to be embedded in a Sony PSP. DSPs increase in smarts at least as quickly as CPUs, a less-publicized but important component of the computing revolution. Wi-Fi is a DSP success story, and smarter DSPs mean more throughput. That's what happened between 802.11b (11 megabits/second) and .11g (54 megabits). It's what makes Bluetooth finally a success (Bluetooth runs on ISM, too).

This is a technological problem, but it has a political component. The Wi-Fi chip companies need to agree on a standard for faster transmission. The standard should be backward-compatible, use the ISM band, and tolerate more interference. There is such a standard, IEEE 802.11n, but it has been stuck in committee for far too long.

Meanwhile, Chaos Manor Associate Eric Pobirs observes that "802.11a is making something of a comeback because so much b/g/pre-n equipment has been sold to people who have no idea how to take existing equipment into consideration when they set up their own. The spectrum in the area of my current home is severely overcrowded. Fortunately, none of my neighbors appears to know how to change the channel from default or I'd be facing a serious problem distributing the DSL connection through my house. (I can see 8 APs, including my own, from my desk. The number has been as high as 12 but I suspect some of them have given up on wireless.)"

And, Eric continues, "It is notable that the WiFi adapter for the Xbox 360 includes 802.11a in addition to b/g. That raised an eyebrow when I first saw it. I think they see a need for alternative spectrum to insure good online gaming performance in locations that are already crowded with wireless users, not to mention wireless controllers in the b/g range. Since this is just a USB device it is likely that MS could support cheaper third party b/g units with generic reference drivers, as TiVo does, but whether they'll respond to that demand remains to be seen.

"Plenty of existing Xbox Live users were already invested in Wi-Fi bridges to avoid running a cable to their entertainment centers. I use a Linksys Wi-Fi bridge with my RePlayTV and it has been perfect for almost three years. I could easily share it with the addition of a hub but using an inexpensive Wi-Fi router in bridge mode is simpler and means only one power supply. This remains something of an open secret in the console gaming world. Most people don't realize that they can use the router that sells for much less than a bridge just by setting a single menu entry. This also means there is a backup router handy if the main one fails. Far better to lose a part of the home network temporarily than the whole thing."

Users Choice: Belkin Pre-N Wireless Router

We use Pre-N devices at Chaos Manor, and the Belkin Pre-N Wireless Router (link ; see the March and June, 2005 columns) gets a Chaos Manor Orchid: it has worked flawlessly for months, and greatly increases the range at which all laptops can connect to the Chaos Manor wireless network. Thanks to the Belkin I can work downstairs at the breakfast table using Lisabetta the TabletPC connected to the Chaos Manor wireless net. With any other router the network is invisible there.

The Belkin Pre-N does an even better job if the laptops are also equipped with Pre-N transceivers, but of course the only way to do that is to install a Belkin Pre-N Network Card (link). No laptops have Pre-N devices built in because the smart money is sitting on the sidelines, not finishing their newest chipset designs until the standard is finished.

Hence this award: One Cheer to the company members of the IEEE 802.11n standards committee, because they are trying, but only one for bickering instead of finishing the standard.

An Orchid and Two Cheers for NERO

When it first came out few years ago I was one of the first to recommend Nero, Burning ROM, as the hands down CD making software of choice. It worked, and it didn't make coasters.

And, indeed, for making CD's and now DVD's (including Blu-Ray) you will not do better than getting Plextor hardware and the latest copy of Nero, and both Nero and Plextor get well deserved Chaos Manor User's Choice Awards. They Just Work.

Of course that has been true for some time. I've used other disk burning software over the years, but I always go back to Nero - indeed, I discovered the other day that we're still using Nero for making copies of Mrs. Pournelle's READING TLC software on a Plextor drive. The remarkable thing is that neither Nero nor the Plextor drive have been updated or changed in any way for more than five years. I have faster Plextor drives now, and I have at least a dozen upgraded versions of Nero (which no longer much uses the "Burning ROM" part of its name), but the setup we have Just Works, and works well enough that I haven't had any great incentive to make changes.

Perhaps that was the problem: Nero was so good at burning CD's (and later DVD's) that once someone bought a copy there wasn't a lot of reason to upgrade. Every company making quality goods faces that dilemma: what do you do if the first item a customer buys will last him the rest of his life? Nero's solution has been to add features. Lots of features. Tons of features. There's now audio capture and editing software. Home media software. Dolby Digital. Remote viewing capabilities for home media center use. Time shifting. Backup software. And a partridge in a pear tree.

The problem is, I don't do all those things, and I can't possibly test all those functions. Moreover, I have other software packages to do most of those functions, and it may be unreasonable, but my initial thought is that specialized software probably works better than a general purpose "media" software solution like Nero. That's the general impression of most of my associates. On the gripping hand, we already know how to use most of those specialized programs, and we know they're good enough. Could Nero be better? Should we try it to find out?

The good news is that you don't have to worry about it. Nero, at $80 or so, is the right choice for burning CD-ROMs and DVDs. It's still as good at its primary mission as it ever was, and it's still recommended. Once you have it, you'll also have all the other features, and you can try them out. In particular, if you want to make either Audio or Video Podcasts, Nero is said to be good enough. The Mac is the most popular machine for recording and editing podcasts; it's hard to say what software package is most popular among Windows audio podcasters, but my guess would be Audacity. Still, several well-known audio podcasters use Nero by preference, and Nero 7 hasn't been out all that long; it will probably grow in popularity.

I've installed Nero on one of my laptops and I'll use it to record some interviews while I'm at CES, so I can report on that capability next month. Meanwhile, if you don't have Nero and you're planning on burning some ROM's and DVD's, you won't go wrong with Nero. Recommended.

Sony Sound Forge Audio Studio

Sound Forge was the most popular professional sound editing program for Windows before Sony bought the company, and it has remained so. Sound Forge has a thousand bells and whistles and effects, and it can take years to learn all the things you can do with it; but fortunately you don't have to make use of all that stuff to get a good result.

Installing Sound Forge is simple, and using it to make your first recording is about as easy. The controls are intuitive, there are levels meters to indicate just what recording level you should use, and once you have the wave file you can make a copy and experiment with effects to your heart's content. Some say Sound Forge is overkill if all you're doing is recording and editing voice podcasts, but the alternate view is, why not use the best and be done with it?

You can make the argument that the best tool for doing sound recording and editing is a Mac, and I don't want to get into that discussion. If you're going to use Windows, in my judgment Sony Sound Forge Audio Studio is the program to have, and it gets the Chaos Manor User's Choice Award for sound recording and editing.

D-Link Gaming Router

We use the D-Link Gaming Router (link) for reasons we've explained in previous columns, and it gets a well deserved Chaos Manor User's Choice Award. While we're handing out award, D-Link gets a big orchid: we use a lot of their products, and we've yet to find one we don't like. In general, if you need something and D-Link makes it, you won't go wrong buying that brand.

One you install a new router you need to test your visibility on the Internet. For that you go to Steve Gibson's establishment. A big Chaos Manor Orchid goes to Steve Gibson (http://www.grc.com/) for his attention to computer security and his free Shields-Up! tests. If you don't know about Gibson I suggest you go visit him now. You'll be glad you did.

Ray-O-Vac 15 Minute Charger

Large Orchids and a Chaos Manor User's Choice Award to Ray-O-Vac for their 15 Minute Charger and battery line. This gadget works precisely as advertised: the batteries last longer, and fully recharge in 15 minutes. They don't seem to develop "memory" problems, so whenever I take out a digital camera, I immediately switch the batteries, putting the four in the charger into the camera and putting the ones from the camera in the charger. That way I know I start with fully charged batteries. Another charged set rides in a compartment in my brief case. With those three sets of batteries I have been able to do a whole day covering conferences or shows, come back to my hotel room and swap for the set in the charger, and go out to more events. The Ray-O-Vac 15 minute battery system has changed the way I do photography and I can't think how I managed without it. Highly recommended.

The UPS Scene

Every year I issue this warning: If you value your time and your work, make sure your computer is connected to an Uninterruptible Power Supply, otherwise known as an UPS. There is never a time when you are absolutely safe from power failures and power spikes, and gremlins always arrange that the power failure will take place when you have done your best work but have not yet saved it.

You are warned. If you value your work, get an UPS. If need be go on line and order one right now. I'll wait.

Now, as to what kind of UPS, there are dozens of brands, but there are only two you should consider. Yes, I know, there are probably others that might well be good enough. I wouldn't know. What I do know is that there are dozens of other brands that are not good enough, and the two I recommend are enough better than good enough that I have stopped investigating. If anything happens to change my opinion of these UPS systems I will let you know; but for the moment the two brands I recommend are APC and Falcon, and each gets a very large Chaos Manor orchid.

Falcon UPS Plus (link) cost more per kilowatt of protection than the APC UPS systems (link). They are also more convenient, and marginally safer. This is entirely due to design and technology, not quality control or workmanship. Falcon UPS systems use regenerative on-line UPS technology, and in my experience - more than a decade of hard use with each brand - their batteries last longer. One Falcon UPS in use at Chaos Manor survived the Great Power Spike of 1989 (link) and continued to work for another five years before it was replaced.

Three years ago I installed four APC UPS 1400 units and four Falcon UPS Plus units of similar capacity. Note that the APC units are "switching": their batteries aren't in use until there is a power failure. The Falcon units are regenerative on-line. All have worked flawlessly through a number of power failures, some catastrophic. In every case I was able to shut down my systems in an orderly manner before the backup power was exhausted. In no case has one of the units of either brand given me cause to worry.

And in no case did I give either unit proper maintenance including letting them drain power then recharge. Most manuals say you should do this, but I never do, and I know few outside big companies able to afford full time maintenance program management technicians who do. Most of us hook up our UPS and forget it, and as far as I am concerned that's the way it should be.

Two weeks ago, three of the APC UPS 1400 units began periodically screaming at me: their batteries were unhappy. I found it amazing that this happened with three of them simultaneously, but my records show that they were all received and installed at about the same time, and all have had about the same loads, so I suppose it should not be such a surprise.

Meanwhile, the four Falcon UPS Plus units, which actually bear a slightly heavier load - one supplies power to both my main systems including monitors, Belkin KVM switches, D-Link Ethernet switches, speakers, etc. - than the APC units continue to function without complaint. I had not tested any of them in more than a year, but I did let them perform their self-tests after the APC units began to complain; they say they are doing just fine and don't need any new batteries.

Battery Replacement

Replacing the APC UPS batteries is not onerous. Do understand that the units and the batteries are heavy, and you may want assistance wrestling them onto a work table, but once that is done the process is simple enough. APC sends the replacement batteries with clear diagrams of just what to do for every model of unit that the battery will fit.

With the APC 1400 units you pry off the front panel and, leaving it connected by its ribbon cable which is long enough for the purpose, move it out of the way. You remove a galvanized safety plate secured by two screws. The battery has a plastic pull tab on the bottom; pulling on that will draw the battery out of the case. There is a very heavy-duty plug that looks as if there may be some kind of locking device, but in fact there are no locks; it just pulls apart. That takes a bit of effort, but I had no trouble with it once I was sure that just pulling was the right idea.

The new battery installs by connecting it to that plug and pushing it into the compartment. Installing the safety plate may take a few minutes if you don't remember which way it was facing when you took it out; the only caution here is that if it seems hard to do, you are putting it in upside down or backwards. There's only one way it goes, and once you have that right, it is very simple and easy.

Push the front panel back in place, plug the unit into the wall and the loads into the unit, press the on button, and the job is done. The whole effort took about ten minutes the first time, and under five minutes for each of the other two.

Battery Disposal

The APC battery units come with UPS shipment stickers to go over the address sticker. You put the used battery back into the box the replacement came in, tape that shut, affix the address label, and carry it out to the front porch for the UPS delivery man to take away. And yes, it really is that simple. Alternatively, you can dispose of them at your local Toxic Waste Roundup; certainly they shouldn't just be thrown away.

Clearly there are cheaper battery replacements than the "genuine APC" package. I have no experience with them. My view of UPS battery replacement is that it doesn't happen often, getting rid of the used batteries is a pain, and it's worth a bit extra to make it all simpler and easier. Of course if you're faced with replacing a hundred of them all at once you will probably want to scout out deals.

Bottom Line on UPS Units

I can recommend both APC and Falcon. Falcon regenerative on-line units power my main machines including the one I am writing this on, but APC switching systems power about half the servers in the cable room as well as the Cable Modem and D-Link Gaming Router that control my Internet access. Both APC and Falcon units are quiet (except when complaining that their batteries are about to give out) and neither has received any special maintenance. Both have undergone the same power history including a number of recent power spikes strong enough to trip circuit breakers, and both brands have continued to operate without problems.

I prefer the Falcon regenerative on-line UPS power technology designs and for those to whom cost is not the major factor Falcon is what I recommend, but I want to emphasize that for most SOHO operations either of these brands is more than good enough, and both Falcon and APC get Chaos Manor Orchids. Having said that, the Chaos Manor User's Choice Award for 2005 goes to the Falcon UPS Plus, which powers the main systems I depend on, and has never given me one moment's problems.

The important thing is to make sure that every critical element of your operation is powered through an UPS. If you haven't done that yet, do so at once.

Linux, Xandros, and Aunt Minnie

Every year Linux gets easier to use. We are now to the point where reasonably sophisticated users can install and run their entire operations on Linux without panic. This is particularly true if they use Xandros Linux. I know I had no difficulty at all installing Xandros complete with the Windows emulation package, and in short order I had Internet Explorer and Word running nicely under Linux. I rather like the notion of using IE in Linux: I can recklessly visit any web site I like, and if I do get a worm or virus the poor thing will starve to death.

I have reports from associates that Xandros Linux is now simple enough even for Aunt Minnie. It might take a savvy nephew to install it for her, but that would be true for setting up Windows XP. The report is that once Xandros Linux is up and running, Aunt Minnie can do email, browse the web, exchange photographs with her relatives and grandchildren, and do nearly everything a Windows user can do. The major exception is games, and Aunt Minnie isn't likely to be playing games whether on-line like Everquest or standalone like Civilization.

I note also that several writer friends have changed to Linux and they love it. A number of books with highly complex formatting using templates supplied by the publisher are produced in establishments where there's only one Microsoft system and that one is reserved for generating screen images to include in the books: yes, manuals for programs that run only on Microsoft Windows are now being written on Linux machines.

And having said all that, I can't yet recommend Linux, even Xandros Linux, for Aunt Minnie, at least without reservation. You may want to try it, but if you get a lot of calls for help, don't blame me.

Large orchids to Xandros for making Linux usable by most of us. The trend toward user friendly desktop Linux continues and that's all to the good.

The Apple Scene: Part One, Aunt Minnie

If I had to set up Aunt Minnie with a new computer, I would seriously consider getting her a Mac Mini. (http://www.apple.com/macmini/) The total cost of a system including screen and keyboard, backup system, and software would be higher than I'd pay for a Wintel system, but I'd anticipate fewer calls for help. I'd get her a system with the AppleCare package, and Microsoft Word, set her up with a mail account at mac.com, and relax, knowing I would never get frantic calls about virus warnings and updates. Whenever I went over to see her I'd find and install a couple of cool new widgits for her to play with.

Having said all that, the question arises, why haven't I moved most of my operations to the Mac? The obvious answer is that most of my readers haven't, and many can't. I have to stay aware of the Windows scene, and I do find it a bit disconcerting to shift back and forth between the Windows Way and the Path of the Mac. The philosophies are different, and habits die hard.

The Apple Scene: Part Two, Year of Miracles

Apple brought off a couple of miracles last year. The major miracle was announcing that Apple would be moving from Power-PC chips to Intel chips for the brains of their Macs, both portable and desktop - and having done this, continue strong sales of their Power-PC models.

Of course, Apple continues to lead in the development of new tools and business models for distribution of entertainment and other content. While there are imitations of Apple's iPod, it's no accident that "Podcasting" was named for the Apple device. It is also interesting that many Windows users prefer the "genuine" Apple iPod to similar devices designed for use on Windows machines. The iPod in all its variants remains the coolest thing in audio, and now there's the video iPod.

During 2005 Apple ironed out what few bugs remained in OS X, thus finally achieving what every computer system designer aimed for during the 1970's and 1980's: a usable implementation of UNIX on a microcomputer. Not only is OS X stable, but the GUI shell works as one expects a Mac to work. For much of its life, with a Mac everything was either very easy or impossible; now, with the underlying UNIX, often enough the impossible is merely difficult. Properly using UNIX still requires a guru, and UNIX systems remain a full employment act for UNIX wizards, but by building the Mac shell Apple has got around that.

In fact, despite the relative sizes of the two shows, MacWorld was about as interesting as CES. I didn't care to go to both, and I am not entirely sorry I went to Las Vegas, but the fact is that MacWorld probably had as many announcements affecting the future of small computers as CES. In particular, there were the new web creation and Podcasting - both audio and video - tools. It's easier to create your own podcasts with a Mac, and now there's a very easy to use counterpart to Microsoft's FrontPage. We'll have to see how well all this works in the hands of users, but Apple may well ride this Podcasting wave right up to a significantly higher market share.

Apple stock closed above 80 after the first day of MacWorld. Clearly the financial world was happy.

Windows on the Mac

Apple made another smart decision: they announced that the new Intel based Mac notebooks will be able to dual boot in Windows. To be precise, Apple won't preinstall Windows, but there won't be any hardware barrier to others doing so. Apple hardware has a very high coolness factor to begin with: now that you can have both Windows and Mac OSX UNIX on the same machine that can sell a lot of products.

I expect there will be a period of confusion as enterprise developers work to make Apple Intel hardware work properly with Windows, given that the machines won't be released with any Windows drivers, but I have great confidence in the user community. It shouldn't be long before anyone who wants to can dual boot an Apple Intel machine in Windows Vista.

Dual Core notebooks may also be fast enough to run Windows (XP or Vista) in a virtual PC on the Mac. (Of course you can do that now, but, depending on the application, the result ranges from noticeably to painfully slow.) Virtual machine systems have a deserved reputation for being slow, but as systems get faster, "slow" becomes a relative term. A slow Virtual PC on a Mac may still be faster than a Windows machine was a few years ago, and almost certainly will be fast enough for many applications, including all but the most demanding games. Eric notes that, assuming that Virtual PC on an Intel Mac is reasonably fast, most will prefer to use than rather than dual boot.

Windows on the Mac will be an experiment this year. As the trend to multiple core chips continues, I expect to see dual operating systems machines become standard; and as the hardware gets even faster we will come to an era in which neither "dual boot" nor Virtual PC will be necessary. Both operating systems will be booted up and running, and switching between them will be controlled by a meta operating system that also supplies communications between the virtual machines. The user will switch from one OS to another in the same way that we switch among applications at present. It's only a guess as to how long before we have such systems, but given Moore's law and the ingenuity of the small computer community, it will likely be a lot sooner than many suppose.

Whither Apple?

It's easy to project trends that show Apple getting a larger market share, perhaps as much at ten percent in notebook computers over the next few years, and smaller but significant market share capture of desktops. There's also a trend toward using the Mac Mini as a small officer mail server.

However, Bob Thompson raises an interesting point: is Apple a computer company or an iPod and music company? Software is generally more profitable than hardware, and the iPod line is far more profitable than the computers. R&D is expensive. "What would concern me, if I used a Mac, is that computers are now a minor part of Apple's business ... Apple is now an iPod and digital music company that just happens to have a sideline in computers." His concern is that Apple may not intend it, but given the trends may "transmogrify from a computer company to a media company."

It's an interesting speculation, but not one I would worry about unless the trend in growing market share reverses sharply. Few companies quit while they are winning. As Peter Glaskowsky points out, "Apple's profits from hardware sales subsidize its software-development costs. If it didn't sell systems, it would have to sell far more copies of its software to break even - And if Apple tried to sell OS X to run on the whole installed base of Intel systems, its support costs would go through the roof. Apple's hardware business gives its software a protected enclave in which to flourish."

Predicting what Apple will do is an interesting exercise, but few have had much success at it, in part because Steve Jobs has far more control over Apple than Gates has over the Microsoft empire, and Jobs is, well, let us say, unpredictable, with many decisions made by whim and personal preference.

My own view is that Apple's move to Intel, and the decision not to block installation of alternate operating systems on the new Intel-based Apple computers, is very good for the whole industry. We don't give annual BYTE awards now, but when we did, BYTE's Awards were based on innovative technology, impact on the industry, and way cool. In 2005, Apple was out front in innovative technology, with the Spotlight search system as just one example; Apple's impact on the industry is far larger than you'd predict given its small market share; and Apple systems are way cool.

I can certainly send them a bouquet of Chaos Manor orchids.

Apple's DVD Studio Pro 4

One reason you get a Mac is for the integrated video authoring and production software. A good example is DVD Studio Pro. (link) The latest is version 4, which offers features and capabilities that Windows users will have to pay a great deal more to get. Reviewers tend to use words like "awesome", and with good reason.

DVD Studio Pro renders images differently from previous editions, so projects done in DVD Studio Pro 3 will require some non-trivial reformatting work. One might think the remedy is to keep the older version, but the Mac Finder system doesn't allow that: when you install Version 4, all previous versions go south. There are probably renaming tricks you can do to prevent this, but I don't know about them. If you're just starting out with a Mac and DVD authoring software this won't matter.

The entire Apple Final Cut Studio suite costs about $1300. DVD Studio Pro by itself is around $500. Products like these keep the Mac alive not just alive, but important.

The Backup Scene: Mirra

Seagate has recently acquired Mirra. (link) I had already chosen Mirra as the backup product of the year; adding Seagate's resources is bound to improve an already excellent product. The Mirra Linux-based backup system gets the Chaos Manor User's Choice Award this year.

Mirra is a Linux based backup system: you buy their reasonably priced box, attach it to your LAN, use any computer on the LAN to configure the Mirra Box including telling Mirra what files or folders you want backed up, and forget that Mirra is there. The current version of Mirra isn't suitable for very large establishments, but for most SOHO operations it's ideal.

It isn't perfect. For one thing, Mirra wants to back up files right now, and when Mirra is backing up Outlook.pst while piggy old Outlook is downloading and processing mail files, your whole system can slow to a crawl as the two programs eat every available CPU cycle and byte of memory. The remedy to this would be to give Mirra schedules: back up this file only during certain hours. They were contemplating adding that feature before Seagate bought the company, and I hear rumors that Seagate is working on that. I can certainly hope so.

In any event, I haven't found the Mirra/Outlook annoyance severe enough to cause me to abandon Mirra, which remains my favorite backup system.

Orchids and the Chaos Manor User's Choice Award for backup systems go to Mirra.

Onions for Norton

Many years ago, Symantec's then-chairman, Commander Gordon Eubanks, and Bill Gates made a deal. Symantec would develop applications for Microsoft Windows, and Microsoft wouldn't eat their lunch by incorporating Symantec product functionality into Windows. At the time, Symantec's Norton product line included Disk Doctor, Clean Sweep, and other disk management tools, System Doctor which helped Windows 95 and 98 recover from crashes caused by bad applications, and what eventually became the flagship product, Norton Anti-Virus.

Over the years Microsoft began incorporating most of the disk maintenance and cleanup programs into Windows, and eliminated the need for third party anti-crash software by making Windows not only more stable, but better threaded so that bad apps crashed only themselves, not the entire operating system. However, Microsoft never touched anti-virus software even though that would be a natural thing for an operating system to incorporate. As a result, a number of third party companies thrived during this period of benign neglect.

Norton Anti-Virus was the leading anti-virus software for many years, and with good reason. After the dispersal of Dr. Alan Solomon's team, Norton had the best virus reaction team in the business, able to analyze a virus and put up a new virus definition sometimes within hours of seeing the first copy. Other companies were good, but Norton was better.

That has changed, and other companies are at least as good at rapid responses as Norton. Something else changed: Norton began incorporating features into their anti-virus program. Each year there would be a new version of Norton Internet Security (link). Every year it had new features. And every year it was larger, more complicated, and slower. It became difficult to install and nearly impossible to uninstall. More and more users tired of fighting with it.

Norton was easy to come by for those who built their own systems: a free copy came with each Intel motherboard. It also came pre-installed with many new machines including IBM Thinkpads. I stayed with Norton Internet Security - at least the anti-virus portions of the package - through the year 2005, but somewhere last year I decided this was the last year I would do that, and this year I am not renewing my Norton licenses and updates; and Norton Internet Security gets a large onion for the year. I still like their response team, but I can't cope with the complexities that have crept in.

Norton needs to rethink its whole approach to Internet Security. In particular, Norton should go back to offering Norton Anti-Virus as a clean and mean stand alone program.

I am looking at alternatives to Norton AV, because only an idiot runs for long without some kind of anti-virus program. I have several candidates. One, Avast!, is highly recommended by a systems engineer who maintains a number of corporate work stations. My initial experiences with Avast! were pleasant enough, but over time I became annoyed with its tendency to natter at me, and then it developed a very bad relationship with Outlook: with Avast! installed, Outlook would simply shut down every now and then and had to be restarted. Uninstalling Avast! - a simple enough job - cured the Outlook problems.

My long time friend Bob Thompson recommends Grisoft, and uses the free home version (http://www.grisoft.com/doc/1). Security expert Rick Hellewell uses McAfee (http://www.mcafee.com/us/) both at home and professionally. Other advisors like F-Secure (http://www.f-secure.com), which has frequent revisions and alerts for both home and corporate users (McAfee has less frequent home than corporate alerts).

I can't tell you which of these is "best" and as of now I haven't chosen the one I will adopt. They all work, and I suspect the major differences among them will be more sensitive to user philosophy and interface preferences than to technical capability. The one thing we can be sure of is that you need a good anti-virus program from a company that's capable of fast reactions when the threats appear. Get one and install it while you're making up your mind.

ScotteVest

I've had ScotteVest (http://www.scottevest.com/) products since the company was founded, and I like them. The company is known as SEV now, for reasons not entirely clear to me, but they still make the ScotteVest, a high tech version of the photographer's vest. ScotteVests are well made, comfortable, filled with pockets, and rugged. I've worn them out on the flight line for rocket launches, and to various less strenuous journalistic events.

I have no experience with SEV's jackets, but I'd assume that if those are as well designed as the vests, they'll be wonderful, and I'll be looking into those since I am likely to have more use for a jacket than a vest: that is, I don't tend to carry lots of cameras and lenses and accessories, and a jacket would probably suit my lifestyle better. We'll see.

Meanwhile, big orchids to ScotteVest, and if you need a photographer/outdoors high tech vest, this is should suit you just fine.

Kodak EasyShare Software

I have previously recommended the new Kodak EasyShare V750 "shirtpocket" camera; but whatever brand of digital camera you use, you will want to look into Kodak's free photo album management software (link). It's free for downloading, and allows you to build albums that are easy to use and understand. The neat part is that it's done with views and pointers: you only need one copy of a photograph even though it may be included in a dozen albums.

It's easy to use this to send albums to a few or a lot of people, and that all works painlessly.

Of course there are also hooks into Kodak's on-line photo printing service, and they hope you'll use that to order paper copies for yourself and as gifts, but you don't have to use that service if you don't want to.

This is one of the best free programs around; I'd be willing to pay money for this. And now that I have the Kodak V750 (which already gets a cold, dead fingers award), I expect I'll be using Kodak EasyShare software even more.

An orchid bouquet for EasyShare. Recommended.

Travel Power

If you spend much time on the road, you will definitely want to look at APC's web site for travel power equipment. The APC Universal Notebook Battery (link) is nearly indispensable if you spend much time in airplanes. When I travel I try to book flights that offer passengers an outlet to supply computer power; and while I have managed to book such flights, I have yet to get any power from one of them. The APC Universal Notebook Battery, on the other hand, offers from a couple to several hours of supplementary computer power in an 8 1/2 by 10 by ½ inch pack. The UNB comes with a variety of power tips for both charging it and connecting it to your PC. There's a "forked" adapter to allow charging the battery pack while operating a PC on wall power. It's all complete, and it Just Works, delivering a selection of voltages to satisfy almost any laptop. I have seen this for from $150 to nearly twice that, so shop around.

APC Universal Notebook Battery
The APC Universal Notebook Battery, with the split personality cable. The blue light shows that the unit is charging from the same power supply that powers the IBM Thinkpad.

Orchids and a Chaos Manor User's Choice Award for the APC Universal Notebook Battery.

While you are shopping for the UNB, look into the APC TravelPower Adapter (link). This is a natural companion to the Notebook Battery. It delivers a variety of voltages and comes with tips to adapt it to nearly any laptop. On the other end it has connectors to allow you to power it from any 110 - 220 wall socket, an automobile power jack, or, if you can find one, an aircraft passenger power outlet. It's easy to use, and I carry mine everywhere.

APC also has a line of wall plug adapters so that you can connect their TravelPower Adapter to the wall socket in just about any country that has wall power.

Big orchids to APC for their travel power kits.

Belkin USB 2.0 15 in 1 Media Reader & Writer

I never knew there were fifteen different memory card formats until Belkin sent me this unit. I've been using the Belkin Reader/Writer units for years, because they Just Work. You might think, what's not to work? but in fact I have had units that needed installation CD's, and even then the drivers weren't properly done. With the Belkin 15 in 1 (link) everything works the way you expect it to, and I have yet to find a format that it can't read and write to. Big orchids for Belkin on this: it's just one less darned thing to worry about.

Onions, but for whom?

Do you keep an opened paperclip as part of your normal computer operating equipment? I sure do. For reasons I have never understood, every now and then Windows, or the drive unit, or something, get all whompyjawed: I press the button on the drive, the lights blink like mad - and nothing happens. Go to My Computer, right click on that drive, click eject, the lights blink like mad - and nothing happens. Then there's nothing for it but to get out the paperclip and push it into the little hole that all drives have - at least all the drives I am willing to install have, because this odd behavior can happen with almost any brand of drive in almost any machine.

Usually restarting the computer will restore its capability to control the CD-ROM, or more likely, DVD drive, but often enough I don't want to restart because I am in the middle of something.

Everyone I offer this onion to says it belongs to someone else. Microsoft says it's not their fault. The drive manufacturers say they followed all the standards. The motherboard makers say it can't possibly be their fault.

So I have this big onion for someone. One day maybe I'll find out who it belongs to.

Sennheiser NoiseGard

Fans of ear buds may have different preferences, but when I'm on long airplane trips I am never without my folding Sennheiser NoiseGard(tm) 250 noise cancelling headphones (link). For an exposition on how this technology works, see this link where it's all explained very well.

The Sennheiser 250s fold up to fit in a small ballistic nylon case. There's a separate compartment for an adapter in case your airplane wants the older dual-pin phone plugs. There's another adapter for use with " phone jacks. I always carry an extra pair of AAA batteries in that compartment, but I haven't had to change batteries in about a year.

Sennheiser NoiseGard 250 headphones
The Sennheiser NoiseGard 250 headphones with their case

For me the Sennheisers are more comfortable than ear buds, and I can wear them when I leave my seat; that way I have a chance of hearing when someone is talking to me. Earbuds are like earplugs, and attenuate all outside sounds including sounds you want to hear. The Sennheiser noise cancelling system is different, and it certainly works: when I switch on the power to the noise cancelling unit, most of the airplane noise is just gone, but when people talk to me I can hear them just fine. And, of course, they work with movies, either from my Mac playing a DVD, or the movie supplied by the airline.

I don't know how I used to fly without these. Sennheiser 250 NoiseGard(tm) headphones get my Chaos Manor User's Choice Award.

The Game Scene, 2005

Probably the most significant development for games in 2005 was the new Microsoft X Box 360. It has spectacular visuals and surround sound. Everyone who has one seems to be in love with it, and it allows multi-player games such as Call of Duty 2, which is the breakout game for XBOX 360 as Halo was for the original XBOX. Team deathmatches via Microsoft's XBOX Live gaming service add to the fun. I say this from reports from trusted associates: I could have got an early copy of the XBOX 360, but I wouldn't have had time to do anything with it.

Sony's Playstation 3 will have a different impact on the industry: it will make use of Blu-Ray DVD, and putting that many Blu-Ray boxes out will give that technology a running start over its rival HD-DVD.

The trend in games for the PC tended to be toward spectacular first person shooters like Doom 3 and Quake 4, all of which are, I am sure, loads of fun for those who like such games. Not being blessed with ultra-rapid reflexes, I seldom play them, and I'm not competent to comment on them.

I prefer games of strategy, and in particular I like turn-based strategy games. That doesn't leave me much: most strategy games now are called "real time" although in fact they aren't. A real time simulation of a battle would take hours or days, while most RTS games take a few minutes. The only games that come close to "real time" are role playing simulations, such as Microsoft's Dungeon Siege II which was a lot of fun. The best of the strategy games was Civilization IV, which is enough of an improvement over previous Civilization games to be worth installing, but those were already very good.

The best game upgrade last year was Barbarian Invasions for Rome: Total War. It's very difficult to win as the Roman Empire now, particularly if you start with the Western Empire; but then that's realistic. I can recommend both Rome: Total War and the Barbarian Invasions expansion. Alas, Rome: Total War uses an entirely different initialization system from the wonderful Medieval: Total War. Medieval uses plain language scripts to set up nearly all the game conditions, making it possible to design your own game. One initial condition you can set is the total gold available to both you and your opponents; this makes you a lot less dependent on trade, and that is important because of a major design defect in Medieval: Total War, namely, that all the "rebel" territories belong to a single faction. Invade Sweden and the Frisians won't trade with you, nor will, say, Andalusia if that happens to have fallen into "rebel" hands. This is hardly realistic, and given that your income depends on trade, it is a major defect. For all that, Medieval: Total War is absorbing at both the strategic and tactical battle levels, and it remains as good a way to waste an afternoon as any I know.

There were a number of massively multiplayer on-line games last year. The one I keep coming back to is Everquest II, although I did try out Guild Wars and a couple of others including Eve on Line. Star Wars Galaxies has tried to remake itself, with mixed results. It was already losing players, and after the remake it lost many of those who had stuck with it for so long. The new version makes it easier for beginners, but as I write this, SWG hasn't brought in enough recruits to replace the losses of old timers. In my case I have an old SWG account but I haven't visited the game in months. As I said, I keep returning to Everquest II when I have any time for that sort of thing.

I still miss the great turn based tactics games such as Steel Panthers, and I keep hoping those will come back into fashion again.

JVC GZ-MG50u and GR-DF550u Camcorders

First, the ground rules: I am no expert on cameras, but at least I have been using them for a long time, and I have sold some photographs (mostly as illustrations to help sell words, but they were professional sales). I know far less about camcorders, and I haven't even been using them long. My column largely consists of informed opinions, but on camcorders I am a bit less informed that I am about other equipment.

Last year I looked at a number of camcorders. The ones I had the most experience with were consumer grade units from JVC. I used them to cover a number of events, including an XCOR rocketplane flight as well as both computer and social events. I planned to try my hand at video podcasts, but so far I haven't made one, partly because most of my associates want to do professional level video, which requires considerably better camera equipment and lighting, while anything I could do with a hand held camcorder would be more on the order of "guerrilla video": target of opportunity interviews, that sort of thing.

There's also the question of just how useful video, as opposed to audio podcasts, will prove to be. Appreciating video requires ones full attention, and as David Em points out, ignoring a video screen takes a conscious act. One can do other things, including driving a car, while listening to audio. That doesn't work if you have to keep looking at a screen in order to understand what's going on.

I haven't given up on doing camcorder-based video podcasts, but I will probably make several audio podcasts first. On the other hand, I do tend to go places where I might get a "guerrilla interview", and once in a while there's a splendid opportunity; so I needed to choose what camera I should I have in my briefcase on the off chance that something interesting should be recorded.

After a number of experiments I have chosen the JVC GZ-MG50u. This camcorder has an F 1.2 "superbright" lens, and does MPEG 2 recordings on a 30 GB hard drive. The drive will hold 14 hours at "normal" resolution and 7 hours at "ultrafine". There is a 15X optical zoom. I find that it will take better pictures than I do. Friends tell me I will outgrow this camera as I learn better techniques and I am sure they are right, but for a beginner's learning instrument this seems about right.

My method for learning is simple. I use the camcorder when I walk the show floor. I can take pictures and record notes. Years ago I did this using a Polaroid, writing notes on the back of the picture. The camcorder takes its place, and works better, and I'm learning more about what you can and can't do with the instrument.

My one complaint is the battery life: I get about 2 hours with the battery that came with it. That's not enough for covering a show. New lithium hydride batteries that can be charged no matter what their state of discharge a cost under $30, and I intend to get several, which should solve that problem.

The alternative to the GZ-MG50u was the GR-DF550u which uses tape and thus is somewhat larger and heavier than the hard drive GZ-MG50u. The GR unit has an eyepiece viewfinder as well as the standard review screen, and for outdoors in bright light the viewfinder is a lot easier to use. It has about the same lenses as the hard drive unit, with 15X zoom, and low light capability. My preference for the hard drive unit is not very strong. Either would do for "guerrilla podcasts", and I'm still working with both.

I don't have enough experience to have strong opinions about which brands are better and for what; as I said, either of these will take better pictures than I can. I'll keep working with them, and if I outgrow them I'll let you know.

Computer of the Year

The fastest and most interesting computer we built last year used the ASUS A8N SLI Deluxe motherboard with Socket 939 for AMD Athlon chips. We built it with a single core Athlon, and our next upgrade will be to drop in a dual. We actually have two of these machines. One is running the experimental version of Windows Vista.

AMD Socket 939 dual core CPU is still the way to go for building fast, reliable systems that will be useful for a while. That's for top end. For "sweet spot" bang for the buck systems you can get good performance for considerably less with an Intel 945 motherboard and dual core Pentium CPU. It all depends on what you want the system for. Most users will not have a different experience with most of the software they are likely to run.

Most Useful Products of the Year: Tablet PC and Microsoft OneNote

I have no trouble choosing the most useful software/hardware combination for the year 2005: it's my TabletPC and Microsoft OneNote. My TabletPC happens to be Lisabetta, the HP 1100, and I love her; she's been the only machine I tend to use on trips. I can work with a TabletPC on an airplane when the guy in front of me has racked his seat all the way back, and the person next to me has overflowed into my seating area. The brand of TabletPC isn't as important as the concept, and the TabletPC plus Microsoft OneNote will change your life.

You don't have to use a TabletPC with OneNote: it's highly useful with any PC. I use it to collect material for my columns. I can paste in information from any source: web, email, random thoughts; organize it; and then copy and paste into the draft of the column. It has saved me many hours, and has become nearly indispensable.

OneNote is even better with the TabletPC, at least as I use it.

In any event, my User's Choice for the year goes to the combination of TabletPC and OneNote, along with a big bouquet of orchids.

Winding Down

The book of the month is Philip Kurland, The Founders' Constitution (5 volume set). This may give more than you really wanted to know about the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, in that it follows the debates, and presents many of the documents the Framers would have been familiar with. It goes into great detail, and if you have any desire to know about the intention of the Framers, this is the source to have. I only wish this had been available thirty years ago when I taught Constitutional Law; I would certainly have seen that the school library had a copy, and I'd have been sorely tempted to assign them as textbooks.

There were a number of excellent computer books last year, but if I had to choose the one most useful to me, it would be Robert and Barbara Thompson's Building the Perfect PC, from O'Reilly. Of course I build a lot of PC's. I have no problems choosing the recipient of the Chaos Manor Orchid for publishers: hands down the most useful computer book line last year was O'Reilly, with books ranging from highly technical to simply useful. Having said that, I must add that there are a lot of good publishers out there, and if the quality of computer books is any indication, the industry is in great health.

A close runner up for computer book of the year is Michael Geoghegan and Dan Klass, Podcast Solutions (Apress), which is the best introductory through professional level book on Podcasting I have found. If the notion of doing some podcasts appeals to you, get this book before you start. You won't regret it.

The computer book of the month is Auri Rahimzadeh, Hacking the PSP: Cool Hacks, Mods, and Customizations for the Sony Playstation Portable, (Extreme Tech). This is a specialized book: either you are interested in the subject, or you are not. If you are, you will want this book.

Last year was wonderful for movies. We had The Lord of the Rings Volume 3 The Return of the King, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the wonderful The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, adapted from C. S. Lewis's Narnia series. These were all fantasies, which is interesting; I usually like to include some good science fiction in my annual recommendations. Fortunately there was one, not quite in the same league with those three, but definitely worth seeing: Joss Whedon's Serenity, which used the characters (and cast) of the TV Series Firefly to make an epic style movie. It had some flaws, but not many, and was a whale of a lot of fun to watch.

I've already collected a pile of stuff I saw at CES, and next month we'll have a look at some of it. All in all, 2005 was a great year for computer enthusiasts, and 2006 looks to be even more interesting.