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Computing At Chaos Manor

The User's Column, February, 2006
Column 307
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

The New York Camera Store Scam

It all started in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show, when I found myself in the pressroom seated next to George and Cathy Margolin. George is the former Tech Editor of Popular Photography and an all around camera and photography expert. He'd heard I was looking for a new camera, and recommended one I frankly never would have thought of, the Panasonic FZ-30.

He was carrying one, and it had all the features I've been looking for. The lenses are good. The 12X Zoom goes from a mild wide angle to a reasonable telephoto. There is both manual and automatic focus. It has a good burst mode. It takes 8 megapixel pictures, far more than I need. And, it looks like a professional camera. If it had a Nikon logo on it, it would be nearly perfect - and it costs about half what a Nikon with similar capability costs.

George demonstrated some of the capabilities, including an astounding macro capability. Then I played with it, taking pictures of the press room inhabitants, both with and without flash. One neat thing about digital photography is that you can take all the pictures you like without it costing anything. I liked the feel of the camera, and the image stability was really remarkable.

I very nearly ordered one on the spot, and I probably would have if the store George recommended had the black one in stock.

Of course I don't really need a new camera. The Olympus C-750 I've carried for years does a more than good enough job for nearly anything I do, and I don't sell a lot of pictures anyway. But, I keep telling myself, the Olympus doesn't have a good manual focus, and there's no real image stabilization so it's hard to take a good telephoto picture indoors. I have missed some publishable pictures. Besides, the Olympus is silver, and everyone knows real photographer cameras are black. The flash is slow to charge. It doesn't do bursts well. But it does work... Once away from George and his camera common sense took hold. There wasn't any real hurry here. I sure didn't need to order a camera before I got home.

Then on the second day of the show I got the Kodak EasyShare 570. It was love at first sight. This shirt pocket camera has both wide angle and telephoto lenses, it's fast, and while it doesn't look like a professional photographer's camera, it does look really cool. I carried that camera for the rest of the show, and it's so convenient that I've almost never been without it since. It literally fits into a shirt pocket, and while it has its limits, I can't think of a better camera for casual use. The best camera in the world won't take a picture if you don't have it with you, and the EasyShare 570 is small and light enough that you can carry it anywhere. I've taken it to the opera, to formal dinners, on hikes, to the Zoo with my granddaughter, and generally everywhere.

So. I didn't need a new camera. But I was learning the limits of the Kodak EasyShare 570. One of them was focus. The autofocus is good, but there are times when autofocus just isn't good enough. The worst part, though, is that in bright sunlight I just can't see the screen well enough to tell what the picture will be, and there's no view finder. Sometimes I really do want a view finder.

About then I got a royalty for the Slovakian translation rights to one of my books. This was beyond unexpected. So. I had unallocated money, and while I could get by with the camera I already have, the Olympus is several years old, and there are some conferences coming up where I can get some really good shots if I have a stable telephoto capability. In a word, I talked myself into buying the Panasonic FZ-30.

Enter WiseTronics

George had recommended a dealer, Abe's of Maine, but when I went there they had the camera in stock only in silver. That wouldn't do, so I went to Google, typed in FZ-30 Black, and let Google search.

The top paid link was WiseTronics (http://www.wisetronics.com), who had the lowest price by far. I did some inadequate investigation of just who this was. It seemed to be an establishment in Brooklyn, and I suppose it reminded me of the original 42nd Street Camera, which, for a while, was a very good source of computer electronics. In any event, after less investigation than I should have made, I used my American Express card to order the camera and a couple of accessories. All went well and I got a confirmation to print out. A few minutes later I got another confirmation by email. All seemed normal.

A few minutes after that I got a message from customercare at Wisetronics. I was busy and didn't read it, assuming it was a routine confirmation of the order. It could wait.

This was Friday night. Tuesday morning my telephone rang. It was "Mike" from Wisetronics, and it was as unpleasant an experience as I have had in some years. It wasn't clear what he wanted. First he seemed to be berating me for not answering their email about confirmation. I had forgotten it, and went back to look. It had a subject of "Information about you" and said I should telephone them at 1-877-678-8990 to "verify and complete processing" of the order. There were also store hours: basically 9 am to 8 pm Sunday through Thursday, 9 to 3 pm Friday, and Saturday not at all. This is reminiscent of the old 42nd Street Photo and its imitators. Otherwise there was no information at all.

I told him I hadn't bothered to read the email, but yes, I would confirm I had made the order. At this point he became abusive. I am still unsure why he was unhappy, but eventually he shouted "Da Da da da da" at me. I asked for his supervisor. He said he was the "Account Executive" and had no supervisor. Then he told me he had canceled my order. He didn't say I would never again do business with them, but he didn't have to, since I certainly will never expose myself to contact with them again.

I shared this experience with friends, and got this letter from Bob Thompson who keeps track of this stuff: "I don't recognize that specific name, but it sounds as though you're being victimized by what's become known generically as the "New York digital camera store" scam. The store names come and go, but they're all fly-by-night operations. They run ads with low-ball prices and then try to force you to "upgrade" by buying other items. Ultimately, they'll refuse to sell you what they'd advertised if you insist on the original price. If you do get a product, chances are good it won't be the model you ordered, will be "gray market" (no US warranty) and so on. Or you may find that they send you what you ordered, but when your credit card bill arrives you find they've charged more than the agreed price.

"If I were you, I'd cancel that order and keep an eye on my credit card statements. Before you consider ordering a digital camera from any on-line source, check its ratings on www.resellerratings.com. Look not only for a high rating, but that there are many votes (to avoid the question of ballot-box stuffing) and a long, good history."

Which sent me to Reseller Ratings where I discovered that Wisetronics has a reseller rating of 0.83 on a scale of 0.0 - 10.0; not encouraging. Another correspondent sent this link, which gives a picture of the Brooklyn store front which apparently houses electronics/camera stores under several names. It seemed that Mike had done me a favor by cancelling my order. I will, of course, pay considerable attention to my American Express bill when it comes. The good news is I have great confidence that American Express can manage this for me; they've always done very well in negotiating for me.

The moral of this story is that just because someone has paid Google for a high placement on their link list makes no guarantee that you will have a pleasant experience in dealing with the company. I should have known this, but I was, in fact, relying on Google to have done some screening of those they urge you to do business with. That was very much a mistake.

I do lots of silly things so you don't have to. This was perhaps above and beyond the call of duty. Be careful out there, and don't forget www.resellerratings.com.

Alexis, the New Communications Computer

My computer situation is a little like my camera situation: I don't have the absolute latest and greatest, but what I do have is plenty cool and good enough for most of what I do.

The one need I have is a faster communications system. Anastasia, the main communications machine I have used for a couple of years, is a 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 home built on an Intel D875PBZ 800 MHz Front Side Bus motherboard. You'd think that would be more than good enough, but that's not quite the case.

Anastasia is, after all, doing a lot of work. She's running an anti-virus program. She runs Microsoft OneCare Beta, about which more later in the column. My web site is designed and built in FrontPage running in that machine. Most of my web surfing is done on Anastasia with Firefox. And of course Anastasia runs piggy old Outlook 2003, with extensive rules to sort mail into categories, and InBoxer which uses Bayesian rules to filter out spam. In a word, my communications system works pretty hard, and in addition to all that I expect to be able to open Word with spelling and grammar checking, and dash off a quick essay for posting on my web site. I use another machine for books and this column, but there's a good bit of writing done on the communications machine.

I have a love-hate relationship with Outlook. On the one hand, it does most of what I want. It's got a decent calendar and appointment system, it does task lists, and it maintains mailing lists for me. The contact management is acceptable. I am quite fond of the rules system for dealing with mail. My only real complaint about Outlook is that it sometimes eats every CPU cycle, so much so that I can be working on an essay in FrontPage and the system just halts while Outlook brings in and processes a pile of new mail.

There are tricks you can play on Outlook. One is to have a myriad of .pst files, so that each one is small. That's a bit of a pain; while Outlook's single monstrous unparsable outlook.pst file can be irritating, it's also convenient, and since I installed Outlook 2003 I have had no problems with that huge .pst file other than the time it takes to copy it over to my TabletPC when I am about to go on a trip. Tricking Outlook is all very well, but what Outlook really needs is a faster machine. Since what I needed was a good excuse to build a dual core machine, this looked like a good opportunity.

The system was built around an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+, which has a full 1 MB L2 cache per core. The motherboard is the ASUS A8N32-SLI Deluxe. The case is the Antec P180. Power supply is an Antec 480 Watt TruePower 2.0. The disk drive is Seagate's newest Barracuda 7200.9 500 GB. My initial configuration uses the standard AMD heat sink and fan, but I have a much more powerful cooling system we'll try another time. Initially the system had only 1 GB of memory in two 512 MB DIMM's but was quickly upgraded by adding a pair of 1 Gigabyte Crucial DDR DIMMs for a full 3GB total.

There were some minor problems in getting the system assembled and running, but those didn't take long. There have been a number of problems getting all the communications and utility software transferred to the new system, and tuning it all up so everything looks good. That story will take up the next couple of weeks, but I can give the summary report now: it's great.

My goal was to build a nearly ideal system for Small Office/Home Office use, one that will do all the business operations, then play any game you might fancy. I've got that.

Details further along in the column, but the new dual core technology is the right way to go.

The Career Programmer

The book of the week is Christopher Duncan, The Career Programmer: Guerilla Tactics for an Imperfect World, (Second Edition), Apress. Duncan is a "mercenary" programmer: he works on contract programming jobs. This is not a book about coding and programming languages. Duncan assumes the reader already knows how to write good code. His first principle is that managing a successful career in programming has almost nothing to do with coding ability.

He makes that case in 250 information-dense pages, covering everything from making estimates to getting along with the Suits (including how to cover for them when they've completely bobbled the project; after all, they sign your checks).

It has been a long time since I did any coding for a living, and everything has changed since the days of the IBM 650 and the first matrix inversion programs. I know a lot of programmers, though, and this book rings true. Anyone contemplating a career in programming will not go wrong reading The Career Programmer.

Building Alexis

Alexis, in the big Antec silver-front tower
Alexis, the new communications system, in the Antec P180 case. This Athlon dual core system is quiet and fast, and now does all the mail, web, and other communications tasks at Chaos Manor.

Alexis was designed to be not only the main communications computer at Chaos Manor, but also a system capable of being the only computer in a medium sized Small Office/Home Office (SOHO) establishment. She should be fast at surfing the web and pulling in downloads, have decent sound and graphics editing capabilities, be able to burn DVD's, run a number of programs at once, have crisp good looking text displays, and, once the day's work is done, be able to play just about any game including first-person shooters and real time strategy games with lots of objects on screen.

She must be reliable, quiet, run reasonably cool, and have automatic backup.

I already had Alexandria, a 3.2 GHz Pentium 4, performing that task. She was pretty good at it, too, except when piggy old Outlook 2003 was bringing in new mail, checking it for viruses, deciding whether or not it was spam, and using the (excellent) Outlook rules system to sort the mail into categories and assign it priorities - while at the same time the Mirra "real time" backup system was trying to copy the Outlook.pst and other Outlook files even as Outlook was changing them.

Even then, Alexandria was usually good enough; but every now and then she'd get overwhelmed. I would be answering mail, or writing an essay for my web site, and suddenly the system would freeze. I could continue typing but no words appeared on screen. Trying to change Outlook folders got no response, except that sometimes I'd get a "Not Responding" added to the Outlook program title bar. All this would fix itself in from ten to fifty seconds, but sometimes, when the Mirra backup system was being particularly frantic about backing things up while Outlook was bringing in a very large file, it might take longer - or it would recover only to glitch again in a few seconds.

A long time ago, when systems were much slower, I decided on two "main" machines: a communications machine, and a writing machine. Since the writing machine doesn't do anything else when I'm writing, it never freezes or hangs up, and at first the main writing machine would be one of my older ones tuned up just for that one task. If I wanted to play games I'd go to yet another machine set up just for that purpose. Over time that got a bit old, and I upgraded the writing machine to be the games machine as well - after all, I don't play games when I am writing. It's not fair to the game. Civilization IV deserves better than that! The upshot, though, is that when the communications machine is being cranky I can always turn to the writing machine to get some work done until things settle down.

That division of labor has proven fairly satisfactory, and has the great merit of redundancy since either machine can do the other's job at great need; but the fact remains that it's annoying to be working on mail, or an essay for my web site, and have the machine lock up. It was time to upgrade the communications system.

Another thing was obvious: in the past I upgraded systems by going to a faster processor, but that game is over. Intel won the pure speed race, until it ran into the heat wall. AMD had also been notorious for its heat problems. We've covered all this in previous columns, so I won't go into details. The important point is that just when it looked as if AMD was going down for the count, Intel ran into that wall. It became clear to everyone that just adding more clock speed wasn't going to make systems that were both practical and faster in operation. It was time for some cleverness.

Both AMD and Intel are plenty clever. Both came up with dual core chips - two CPU cores in the space of one CPU chip. AMD's dual core systems are more elegant, with more common elements in the chip itself, while Intel's first dual cores are really just two CPUs sharing a chip: they have to go out to the bus to talk to each other. Intel has cheaper dual core (marketed as "Core Duo") systems, but for now AMD has better and more elegant, and, more to the point, more efficient in using the new CPU cycles.

Since it was clear that I wasn't going to upgrade Alexandria by putting in a faster chip, or even building a faster single core CPU/motherboard combination, dual core was the way to go. I settled on the AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400, which is not their fastest, but is a step up from the slowest, and should be plenty fast enough.

Designing a System

Choosing a motherboard was simple. AMD has a list of approved/recommended motherboards for their chips, but if you ask around, you'll get the same recommendation from just about everyone: the ASUS A8N32-SLI Deluxe. I used an earlier model ASUS A8N SLI board when I built Satine in an Antec Super LANBOY LAN Party luggable case (see April 2005 Column). The only problem with this board is that it wants PCI-Express video boards, either one or two depending on whether you're after insane video performance. Fortunately we have a couple of decent mid-range nVidia boards. I did have both of them in Satine, but I have no real need of that much video performance even in a LAN Party luggable machine, and I certainly don't need that much in a communications/SOHO system. I plucked one of the nVidia GeForce 6600 GT boards out of Satine. The 6600 was top of the line when I first got those. Now it's a mid-range board. If this were going to be my only computer for both games and communications, I would get a higher end video board, probably nVidia's second-latest.

By second-latest, I mean that there's always a sharp price reduction between the very latest and greatest in video cards, and the ones that not long ago were the top of the line. That break may be between the fastest and second-fastest, or it may be a bit further down the performance scale, but it's generally easy to spot. Most of us call that the "sweet spot", and it applies to CPU chips as well as video boards. As to why nVidia rather than ATI, nVidia has managed to stay well ahead in the dual-board contest, and a pair of sweet spot nVidia SLI boards working together will give great performance at reasonable costs. ATI has come out with paired systems, but in my judgment they are not as conveniently employed as the nVidia line.

Building Alexis
All set to build Alexis, the new communications system, in the Antec P180 case. Note the power supply is in the lower compartment, and there is an exhaust fan on the top of the case.

My new system will support a pair of the latest and greatest SLI boards if I really want to turn Alexis into a screaming games machine, and the cooling system in the case would handle that; details below. In fact, though, the single midrange nVidia 6600 will do for anyone not planning on really demanding games. At some point I'll put both of the 6600's in and see what that does, but I don't expect to notice the difference unless I take to playing first person shooters on my communications machine.

I also have a Diamond Stealth ATI 3300 PCI-Express board, and for just about any purpose I'll actually use Anastasia for, the performance of the ATI 3300 and the nVidia GeForce 6600 are indistinguishable. The board is certainly fast enough for Civilization IV and Rome: Total War. More important, though, ATI text quality is very good, and that's what really counts in a business machine you'll be staring at all day. If you will never be trying dual video boards in your SOHO machine, you will want to look at what ATI has available before making up your final parts list.

Choosing a Case and Power Supply

There are a lot of good cases out there. For years I invariably chose the latest and greatest beige case and power supply from PC Power and Cooling. At the time this was a good choice, but the resulting machines aren't very sexy. For years I ignored their looks and went with beige PC Cool cases because they were rugged, but I confess I became envious of those with better looking systems. In any event, PC Cool no longer makes cases, and long before they got out of that business their plain Jane cases had fallen way behind Antec in design features for making it easier to build systems.

Antec has spent considerable time and money developing ways to make it easier to build machines in their cases. The drive mounting systems, both internal and external, are well thought out and easy to use. Bezels and face plates open easily - if they don't, study the mechanism because you're doing it wrong. They've paid attention to cable length and air flow. Some of the cases have pretty blue lights, which don't add to system performance but sure do look cool. They can also have temperature sensors with readouts on the front panel. Those are only useful if you put the probes in the right place, but given that you've done that, it's very useful to have independent confirmation of the temperature data your chip monitoring software is reporting.

PC Power and Cooling never did develop any nifty case features, so I'd given up on their cases well before they quit selling them. They still make good power supplies, but so does Antec. When we built Satine we used the Antec Super LANBOY case, because she was designed to travel in the back of the Explorer when I go on writing trips. Out of habit I used the latest and greatest PC Power and Cooling power supply. It worked fine, but it was a lot louder than I liked.

After some thought I replaced the PC Cool power supply with the similar in wattage Antec TruePower 2.0 power supply that came in the Super LANBOY case. Both power supplies had similar performance, and by similar I mean nearly identical right down to ripple you can see with a scope. The Antec power supply made noticeably less noise, and given my hearing problems, if I can detect a difference I can pretty well guarantee that you will. I've left the Antec TruePower in Satine, and after some thought I decided to use a 480 Watt Antec TruePower 2.0 for the new machine.

I was already pretty sure we'd go with an Antec case. I did some inspection in local computer stores, and was briefly tempted by one of the really cool cases that look as if they've been streamlined for Mach 4, but sanity prevailed. My choices were the Antec Sonata II, which is an upgrade of the Sonata case that holds Wendy, the 3.6 GHz Intel Pentium 4 Prescott system I am writing this on (see the August, 2004 column for details; Wendy was the hottest system in town when we built her); and the Antec P180 which is a mid size tower with superquiet features.

One upgrade to the Antec Sonata II is a side fan that cools the video card. I've got two major systems built in Sonata I cases and I've had nothing to complain about, so the Sonata II was a serious temptation. However, I liked the looks and size of the Antec P180. It's a large case, what we used to call a "full tower", and it would be quite suitable for a server if I were into building servers.

As an aside: while all my servers are in fact home built, I don't strongly recommend "white box" servers. If you have a business that needs a server, you may want to look into getting what my friend Bob Thompson calls "a real server."

Thompson adds, "For SOHO shops we do recommend building servers in the sense of seriously bulked-up standard systems with RAID, etc., but when you get into small businesses with 15 or more clients, especially if they're running line-of-business server-based applications, we recommend buying an IBM server."

A "real server" will cost more but it will be reliable. In my case I don't need "a real server" since nearly every operation in Chaos Manor is done with software installed on the local machine. My servers mostly manage the Active Directory network, which enforces some security policies for me, and makes it a lot simpler to add machines to my net. We'll go into more detail on the server scene another time; I just wanted you to be aware that building your own server might not be the best policy, whereas I strongly recommend that SOHO users build their own work station.

As mentioned, the P180 has a number of attractive features. One of those features is a separate power supply compartment on the bottom of the case. By separate, I mean the power supply is thermally isolated from the computer itself, and resides in its own "wind tunnel" with a separate intake fan.

Working inside the Antec P180 case
The Antec P180 case power supply compartment. The rings (right) allow you to pull out the drive bays. Note the plastic covers that restrict air flow between the upper and lower sections. The black object in the center of the lower compartment is a fan.

The P180 is quite large; large enough to hold as much equipment as I'll ever want to put in this machine. Larger size ought to make for better cooling. Note too, that I if you want to make a "box of drives" to use as a backup server, this is a very appropriate case for that; and yes, I do recommend you build your own box of drives backup system, preferably with its own Plextor DVD writer. More on that another time.

The P180 is different from other cases in many ways. I've mentioned the separate power supply compartment in the bottom. That compartment comes with some plastic barriers that allow you to seal around the power cables that pass through into the motherboard bay. There's a separate fan in the power supply compartment, arranged to pull air in from the front of the case to flow through one of the hard drive compartments before it goes into the power supply. The power supply fan then blows that air out of the case. Clearly that is the proper bay in which to mount the primary hard drive for the system.

Thermalright XP-120 and a Silverstone fan
Now that's a heat sink. Thermalright's XP-120 and a Silverstone fan will cool most anything. Installation is tedious but not that difficult. If you go with a Silverstone fan you'll need some thin aluminum or copper wire to attach the fan to the heat pipes on the XP-120.

Heat Sink

AMD makes a heat sink/fan that usually comes with this chip, but I didn't have one, so I looked into alternatives. You start by going to the AMD web site and looking for recommended heat sinks ( link).

I asked an AMD engineer what he used on his own X2 system, and ended up with the Thermalright XP-120. On the same day that it arrived I also got the standard AMD unit. My reaction in looking from the AMD to the Thermalright was a bit like Crocodile Dundee. "That's not a heat sink. This is a heat sink..." The XP-120 is massive, with copper tubes and big fins. It is designed for a 120 mm fan, but the fan isn't included. You need to get one, and what kind you get is important. For air flow the Silverstone line of fans is superior, but the infamous fan clips of the Thermalright expect your fan to have a different mounting geometry from the Silverstone. This is easier to show in pictures than to explain, but the bottom line is that if you go with the Silverstone fans, you need to throw away the Thermalright clips and use copper or aluminum wire to attach the fan to the heat sink's pipes. That works all right. See this link for pictures and more details.

Silverstone and Antec fans
It's not easy to see, but there's a fundamental difference in construction between the Silverstone fan on the left, and the Antec fan on the right. The XP-120 fan mounting system is designed to clip to the Antec type design; to mount the Silverstone you need thin wires to strap it down to the XP-120's heat pipes. Fortunately that's not hard to do.

Everyone recommends that you remove the motherboard before you install the Thermalright, rather than trying to attach it with the motherboard in place. With a case as large as the P180 that might not be necessary, but it's likely to be easier. Dan Spisak installed an XP-120 heat sink in Larry Niven's newest machine, and reports that getting that heat sink in is "Something between annoying and a major pain." You can find half a dozen descriptions of installing the Thermalright by Googling "Installing XP-120 Thermalright" and they'll all have pictures. I recommend that you look at several.

Note that you remove from the motherboard the plastic mounting cage that surrounds the chip mount and install the one that comes with the Thermalright XP-120. I can practically guarantee that you'll want to find and beat senseless the people who designed the mounting system: since you have to take the mounting device off the motherboard and put on another, they could have made one that's a lot easier to attach the XP-120 to. I suppose they thought that adversity is good for testing one's mettle. Me, I'd like to test their mettle with a war hammer.

The AMD Heatsink/Fan

I have gone through the motions of installing the Thermalright, and eventually that's what will go into Alexis, but my first tests with this system are using the AMD heatsink and fan. So far that has worked quite well. I am told that the fan that comes with the AMD thermal control system is not reliable and many have experienced fan failure, but so far I haven't experienced any problems. Alexis runs a bit hotter than I like, and I will change over to the Thermalright system one of these days, but so far I haven't had any reason to do that.

Memories

A communications machine will have a lot of open windows in Firefox or Internet Explorer, and it will be running many programs in background; it's going to need a lot of memory. One gigabyte is barely enough, and given Firefox's notorious memory leaks, it may not even be barely enough for more than a week between shutdowns. Plan on two gigabytes, and more doesn't hurt.

Just before I assembled Alexis, two things happened: I got confirmation that Crucial was sending 2 GB of memory in two 1 GB DIMMs, and a gigabyte of Mushkin memory in 2 512 MB DIMMs arrived from a PR agency with a note that I've always written about Kingston and Crucial memory, and wasn't it time I tried something else?

Since the Mushkin was what I had when I needed to bring up Alexis, it's what I put into the system. It worked, barring a couple of startup glitches I don't really understand - and that's really the point. I doubt that this memory had anything to do with the glitches, but how can I be sure?

It has been my experience that if memory works at all, it will be reliable, and in that sense it's fungible and may as well compete on price alone. The reason I continue to advocate premium memory, specifically Crucial and Kingston, is that it's one less damn thing to worry about: if you're using premium memory and have a system problem, you can be pretty sure it's not the memory that's causing it, and get on with your troubleshooting.

A couple of days after I got Alexis running properly, 2 GB of Crucial memory arrived. I removed the Mushkin and installed the Crucial in the two primary memory slots (Dual Channel systems need memory in pairs of matched DIMMs). No problems appeared. Then I put the Mushkin memory in the secondary slots. That worked fine, too, and Alexis now has 3 GB of memory. I just looked at Alexis: she's got fourteen open windows ranging from Outlook and Word to Norton Windows Commander to Firefox with 23 tabs, plus Sun Clock and the Distant Planets screen saver. Task manager tells me there is 1.09 GB in use when Alexis is idling. That spikes up to about 1.2 GB when Outlook 2003 gets busy.

One other thing: Three gigabytes of RAM is actually more than 32-bit Windows XP can directly address without PAE, the Physical Address Extension (PAE) option. A quick look at Alexis's System control panel shows, yes, 3 Gbytes of RAM installed and available. Prior to XP Service Pack 2, enabling PAE required a change to the Windows BOOT.INI file. On Alexis, it was enabled automatically.

The moral of this story should be clear: plan on using a lot of memory in your SOHO machine. It's a good idea to install at least double the amount you would use for a single-core processor system in your dual-core system; you'll probably use it. The limits on 64-bit Windows, Linux, or another 64-bit operating system are much higher - far higher than any amount of memory you could ever fit! So, double that again. It's cheap insurance.

You don't have to buy premium memory, but I recommend it; as I said, one less damn thing to worry about.

Final Assembly and Test

The Antec P180 case has front mounts for two USB 2.0 ports and one Firewire port. The ASUS A8N-32 SLI Deluxe has an external Serial ATA disk drive connector on the back panel plus the usual USB 2.0 outlets, but no Firewire port. Instead there is a separate mount with both a standard and a mini-Firewire socket, and two sockets on the motherboard to connect them to. In my case I connected up all the front panel USB and Firewire ports, then connected the rear Firewire miniport. None of this is difficult.

Installation of the Seagate 500 GB Serial ATA drive was simple enough. The whole assembly took considerably less than an afternoon, even with interruptions. Time for testing.

When you first bring the system up you may have to do it several times; at least I did. First it seemed to be stuck, and there was no "Insert boot media" message; it just hung. I turned it off and put in the Windows XP SP-2 CD. That booted, and there was a lot of trundling, but then I got a blue screen. They tell me that insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over in the hopes that it will work "this time for sure," but in fact persistence paid, and on about the fourth attempt I got it to boot and install from a Windows XP SP-2 CD. I have had no boot problems since.

Tweaks

It takes hours to format a 500 GB drive, unless you use "Quick Format." I never do that. The full format procedure tests each sector as the formatting is applied, and in my view that leaves one less thing to worry about. I let it format while I went to dinner.

Once that was done, installation of Windows XP Professional went smoothly. The ASUS installation disk has a whole bunch of goodies on it, and they're not all apparent: that is, there is more than one tab on the initial menu, and you want to notice that. Once the ASUS installation disk brought in the drivers for sound and Ethernet those started working automagically, so except for the formatting time, it took under two hours to get Alexis joined to my Active Directory network and updated.

Next was installation of Microsoft Office. I prepared for that by shutting down Outlook on Anastasia, then copying over Documents and Settings/Jerryp/local settings/application data/Microsoft/Outlook from Anastasia to Alexis. That folder contains outlook.pst, archive.pst, and several other specialty .pst files, and is the default location Outlook looks to for its data files. I installed Microsoft Office, then started Outlook for the first time. There was some hoohaw, but persistence pays. I did have to enter my mail accounts with passwords manually. One of my mail accounts uses a non-standard port. I hadn't written down everything, but the remedy for that was to go back to Anastasia, pull her Ethernet connection so she couldn't go out to the Internet and grab mail, and examine the settings on my mail accounts. They're all in ASCII except the passwords. Those you'll have to know.

Eventually Outlook looked the same on both machines. Well, nearly the same. They were configured the same, but on Alexis all the text looked awful. That would take some tweaking.

First tweak was to go into Outlook and set the mail fonts to Georgia 12. Then go into Control Panel/Display/Appearance/effects and change the smoothing function to Cleartype; that's probably the most important tweak for making text look better. Now go into FrontPage and set its defaults to Georgia. Do the same for the web browser. That fixed the text. The system looked good.

Preview in Plaintext

Now for security. I went back to Outlook to change the Preview display to Plaintext. This is important because viewing previews in Plaintext protects against the screwy vulnerabilities, such as worms embedded in images, which have come out lately. Moreover, a plaintext preview has the option of converting to html very easily, so you can view trusted mail as it was sent while avoiding random links from strange mail. If you use Windows and Outlook, I urge you to preview all your mail in plain text. It's the simplest precaution you can take and the payoff can be large.

Finding out how to do that is not easy. It can be found in Help, but only if you know where to look in the first place. Once you find it, it seems to be in a logical place, but it's easy to forget: it's Tools/Options/Preferences/email options (a button). That brings up a list of check boxes, one of which is "Read all standard mail in plain text". There's another, "Read all digitally signed mail in plain text" which I have also checked; I don't get a lot of digitally signed mail in html to begin with.

Finally you go to Tools/Options/Mail Format and you can tell it what format to use when you compose mail to go out. I set that one to Plaintext as well, not to protect me, but to assure those who get mail from me. Why those two settings are not on the same page, or linked in some way, is not clear to me, but I presume they were installed at different times by different teams and no one thought it was his job to integrate them.

Eventually I had all the video tweaks done, and everything looks great on Alexis.

Migrating Firefox

My biggest problem was moving all my applications. Some were easy. Norton Windows Commander, an abandonedware file manager I find I can't live without, copies easily enough: just copy the C:\Program Files\Norton Commander directory and drag a shortcut out to the desk top. The first time you try using it, it will tell you that certain MfC030 dll files aren't present. The remedy would be to install from the floppies, only those floppies are so old that about half the time a new floppy drive can't read them. Fortunately I have copies of all those files in the C:\Windows\System32 directory on just about every machine I have (since I always put Windows Commander on every new machine) so it's easy to find them and copy them over.

Firefox was a slightly different problem. When you install Firefox it wants to import bookmarks and cookies from Internet Explorer, but that's it. There's no way to send it looking across the net to the old copy of Firefox on the previous machine. The remedy is Mozbackup (link), a freeware utility that backs up your settings in Mozilla including Firefox. When you invoke it, it gives a bunch of options for what you want backed up. Choose everything you want to transfer, and make the backup file. MozBackUp has one obscure trick: when you use it, it puts out a backup in a place called "default," but it's not apparent where that is. I looked in Documents and Settings/myusername/Local Settings/ drilling down to the Mozilla and Firefox applications data, and they weren't there. Exploring in those various application data files will make your head explode. Eventually I did a search on the file type, and discovered the profiles hide in Documents and Settings/yourusername/ all right, but in /My Documents, not in any applications data file. Once you cotton on to that, Bob's your uncle. The profiles can be exported across the network (or on a thumb drive). Then install Mozbackup on the new machine, and "restore" the profiles. It's really quite simple, once you know how to do it, and where to find the files.

Upgrading Firefox

There's a new version of Firefox out. It's mostly bug fixes, including a partial fix for Firefox's biggest problem, memory leaks. If you open Firefox and leave it open, over time it absorbs memory it doesn't give back; apparently the garbage collection routines weren't well written. The remedy to this is once every couple of days, shut down Firefox, then restart it. If you have the SessionSaver Firefox extension - and you definitely should have that - it restores all your tabs when you open the system, so you've lost nothing more than a few seconds, and you may have gained quite a few megabytes of memory.

The latest Firefox revision, 1.5.0.1, cleans up some of this, but memory leaks remain. In my judgment, those memory leaks are a small price to pay for the many features of Firefox with its extensions.

Regarding those extensions, there are more every week. I found one, "Go to Google", that puts a tiny "G" button in the Firefox status bar; punch that and Google opens in a new window. I tend to be sparing about adding extensions to Firefox, but every now and then I find a new one that intrigues me. I end up removing most of them because I don't use them, but I've never had a conflict of extensions - possibly because I do remove all those I don't really use.

Microsoft AntiSpyware and OneCare

There's no official reason why Microsoft stayed out of the anti-virus business until recently. My guess is that Symantec early on agreed to write applications for Microsoft Windows, and since Norton Anti-virus was Symantec's flagship product, Microsoft stayed away, but that's pure speculation. What isn't speculation is that Microsoft now offers an anti-virus package, and just now it's free.

It's part of Microsoft OneCare. Here's what Microsoft has to say about it: "This PC health service is always on, running quietly in the background. It helps give you round-the-clock protection and maintenance - virus scanning, firewalls, tune ups, file backups, the whole nine yards. Delivered to you in a smooth, hassle-free package." (http://www.windowsonecare.com/)

Right now OneCare, like Microsoft AntiSpyware, is free. I have been running both those programs on my main systems for about as long as they have been out, and my experience has been quite positive. I see surveys and tests of anti-spyware programs in which Microsoft AntiSpyware fails to detect some ghastly threat out of a host of plagues the test computer was afflicted with, and I suppose I believe that's true; but I've never seen one of those infections outside a laboratory.

My test of AntiSpyware is simple. Every couple of weeks (mostly when I haven't anything better to do) I update AdAware, Spybot Search and Destroy, WebRoot SpySweeper, and whatever other anti-spyware program I may have lying around, and run them on machines that have had no protection other than Microsoft OneCare and AntiSpyware. I have yet to have one of them detect anything sinister. They do find cookies, but not only am I not paranoid about cookies, in many cases I want the darned things since they make it easier to access certain web sites - like www.byte.com - that I go to a lot.

I've done the same with anti-virus kits: having left my system to the tender mercy of Microsoft OneCare and nothing else, I will periodically run an anti-virus program by plugging in an external disk drive and running it off that; or by having another machine on my network examine its neighbor's hard drive. Again I have yet to detect anything sinister. There have been some virus packages in mail attachments that were shunted off as spam and deleted, but remain in the "recycle bin" because I haven't emptied it yet, but since I never open mail attachments I am not real sure about, that hardly counts.

In other words, so far Microsoft AntiSpyware and Microsoft OneCare have been Good Enough. On the other hand, I do a lot of silly things so you don't have to.

I do point out that my main line of defense is a D-Link Gaming Router configured to make me pretty well invisible. If you want to know if your site is visible to automated probes, go see Steve Gibson's Shields Up at www.grc.com and let him test your shields. My second line of defense is that I always preview - and for that matter open - mail in Plaintext, and I never convert mail to html unless I am quite certain of the source. My third line of defense is that I don't open unexpected mail attachments. Finally, I use FireFox rather than Internet Explorer.

And of course, even prior to my first line of defense, I allow Microsoft OneCare to keep my systems entirely up to date. This can sometimes have the annoying side effect of restarting a machine in the middle of the night, since Automatic Updates will do that if that particular update requires a restart; but for me that's a small price to pay. Most of my systems aren't doing anything at all when they're idle, and the communications machine is just gathering mail. If it gets restarted there's a big lump for it to process when next I log in, but again it's a small price to pay.

I won't recommend that you abandon all your anti-virus and anti-spyware to become part of The Borg, but I can say that so far nothing bad has happened to me.

One last point. All this applies to Windows users only. While there were some Mac viruses prior to Mac OS X, since OS X there have been precisely zero, nor have there been any spyware or keyloggers that can sneak into your system unawares. There is no need for Mac anti-virus or anti-spyware software. There is Mac malware, but you have to cooperate in installing it; by default you do not run your Mac OS X as the Administrator, and before you can install software it will ask you for your password. Social engineering still works, but they'll have to talk you into cooperating: unattended and remote attacks don't work.

Digital Hotspotter

The Canary Wireless Digital Hotspotter (link) is small enough to fit in your pocket, runs for weeks on AAA batteries, and does just what it's supposed to do: it scans for wireless networks and reports on their name, signal strength, channel employed, and security status. The only drawback is that it scans for only one network at a time: that is, once it reports a network, you can push the scan button again and it looks for another, etc.

Here in my office it always detects my secure Belkin Pre-N network and shows three or four bars of signal strength depending on where I'm standing. Pushing the button again may or may not detect another network. Usually it does, a neighbor whom I have persuaded to set up with a WPA password. Another push of the button usually reveals nothing, but sometimes there is a third, and perhaps even a fourth, network, both open, meaning I could jump in and use them to broadcast a lot of spam were I so inclined.

The Hotspotter is large enough that you probably don't want it in your pocket at all times, but it's not so large that it can't reside there when you're in an airport lounge. Of course you can test for connectivity with your laptop, and given that the laptop I usually carry is Lisabetta the TabletPC she's usually easily available and on standby; but if your laptop isn't that convenient, or is turned off, it sure is easier to take out the Digital Hotspotter to search for connectivity.

This is one of those gadgets that you probably don't really need, but it's not terribly expensive, and it sure is convenient. It would make a great present for a frequent traveler.

Video iPod

Video iPod
Podcast mania. Leo LaPorte with Mac Break on the iPod, and Amanda Congdon's Rocketboom on two other screens. The Brookstone iPod dock makes it really convenient.

I had to see what all the shouting was about, so I got a video iPod; and I have to say, it is way cool. The small screen is bright and crisp, and I find it's about as easy to watch that, close up, as it is to watch a larger image on a screen farther away. Now so far most of what I have seen on the video Mac is podcasts, and they're designed with that small format in mind; but that's the point. I'm not likely to watch reruns of Firefly or Sergeant Bilko or movies on something I carry in my pocket.

I can put the iPod in the Brookstone cradle on my desk. The speakers give a good sound, I can still hear the telephone, it's easy to stop the performance if I need to do something else, and the iPod screen is small enough that it doesn't demand all my attention all the time. That latter was a surprise to me.

Astonishingly, my 30 GB video iPod is thinner and lighter, and has longer battery life than the not much older 20 GB audio only iPod.

Sharing Audio

A quick note: if you're in the habit of sharing your iPod experience, you need the Griffin SmartShare. This looks like a simple audio output splitter, but the trick is that each branch has a separate volume control. I can't think of any time or place I'd use this, but if you're in the habit of sharing your iPod while riding on a motorcycle it might be useful. And, of course, it's just right for dancing, which I expect is the primary use for it.

Apple and Intel

The Mac Book Pro with the Intel Core Duo is available. Should you buy one now?

My guess would be "not yet." Those who use professional level Mac software - Photoshop, Office, Final Cut, etc. - won't be able to work with the new Intel Mac at all. Some programs run under Rosetta, but most don't. That all changes in March, when Apple will have transitioned all their professional software to universal binary. For those not familiar, universal binary is fat binary code that contains both PowerPC and Intel Core code; the Mac makes the appropriate choice. Astute readers will recognize this "fat binary" approach from the last time Apple converted, from 68000 to PowerPC.

This is all said to run as fast or faster than on the old Mac, but most of it isn't available. A few applications run under Rosetta, but many of the professional applications don't run at all on the Intel Mac, and won't for a couple of months.

As to Rosetta, it doesn't suck when running Office, but it doesn't race along either.

There are also a number of accessories coming for the new Mac, but many of them are in the Real Soon Now category. All this indicates to me that there's no big hurry. And having said that, yes, I want one. The new Intel Macs are cool. I want one, but not just yet.

I learned this Alexander Pope couplet in high school English. It seemed good advice at the time, and still does:

"Be not the first by whom the new is tried,
Nor yet the last to cast the old aside."

Windows on the Mac?

To the best of my knowledge, no one has Windows running on an Intel Mac; and that includes the Macintosh Support Group at Microsoft.

There's no legal or official reason for this. Both Apple and Microsoft have the same official policies: "We're not going to make it happen, but we're not doing anything to prevent it, either." On the other hand, the technical reasons are formidable.

The BIOS - Basic Input/Output System - has been with us since the earliest days of small computers. The ability to hack up a BIOS to bootstrap the loading of an operating system was the mark of computer success in those times. CP/M was published with assembly language routines to help you get it into your computer. Each new set of hardware needed a new BIOS, or at least needed modifications to the BIOS. Several companies specialized in writing BIOS code. All versions of Windows from the earliest through XP Pro load through BIOS code.

That's all changing now. The BIOS is dated, and we are seeing the last generation of computers that use the BIOS to load the actual operating system. Instead, computers will employ EFI, which stand for Extensible Firmware Interface. The basic idea is presented here: http://www.intel.com/technology/efi/ . The key point is that Windows XP and earlier load through a BIOS, and the new Intel Macs don't have a BIOS. They all use EFI.

Windows XP 64-bit supports loading by EFI, even if 32-bit XP does not; but that does no good, because there are no 64-bit Intel Macs, and there aren't going to be any for some time.

Fine. Windows Vista loads though EFI, and many of us have early builds of Vista. Can you load Vista on an Intel Mac? And the answer appears to be, not yet. If anyone has managed it, he's not talking. Microsoft's Alchin has said that Microsoft won't be porting Windows to Intel Mac hardware.

And having said all that, it's just a question of time. I wouldn't make a heavy bet that the first demonstration of Windows running on an Intel Mac won't have happened by the time you read this. When it does happen it will be a great feat and bestow bragging rights on the programmer team that accomplishes it.

But getting Windows and Mac OS X to dual boot on the same machine isn't the wave of the future. It might be convenient to have both OS's on one machine, but it won't change your life.

What will change lives, and boost Apple's sales something wonderful, will be seamless applications. For example, you are running in the Mac OS, but there, on the dock, or as a desktop button, is a Windows program. A game not yet ported, perhaps. Or any Windows application. You click on that, and some Rosetta-like program translates the calls the application makes to Windows into the appropriate interface calls to the Mac OS. The application doesn't know it's not running in Windows, and the Mac sees no need to tell it different. The Core Duo chips in the Intel Mac have hardware level support for Intel's Hardware Virtualization Technology (VT). For more on this see http://www.hardwaresecrets.com/article/263.

Virtualization to allow Windows Applications to run inside the Mac, with the Windows App looking like just another tab or item on the dock, will be the killer app for multiple core CPU's, and once that capability is developed the entire market will undergo a sea change.

I'm convinced that this will happen a lot sooner than people think. I said back last Fall at WinHEC that as hardware capability increased, the wave of the future would be using all the new capacity to allow a number of virtual machines, each running a different OS and each unaware of the others, to run on the same system. The Intel Mac will probably be the first platform to implement this.

Paying for Quality Service?

The Internet is abuzz with denunciations of Edward Whittaker, CEO of SBC/AT&T. In a Business Week interview (link) he hinted darkly that SBC might start charging extra for decent connectivity between SBC subscribers. Now he didn't put it that way, but that's how a number of blogs and pundits have interpreted his remarks, and it's not that big a stretch.

What he said was that companies like Google and Amazon deliver content to his subscribers over "his" pipes, and "what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?"

The obvious answer is that his subscribers are paying him, and they want the content from Google and Amazon and others or they wouldn't be asking for it; so it's not Google using "his" pipes, it's his subscribers. He didn't invest in "his" pipes with the notion of sucking out revenue from the people his subscribers want to make contact with; his investment was in the means for providing services to his subscribers. That's not enough for The Phone Company, of course.

Well then, Whittaker replies, unless companies like Google and Amazon pay him some money, perhaps he will degrade the service they get. Their packets may get pushed off and delayed unless they pay for premium service. His subscribers, who are already paying for what they thought was high speed connectivity, won't be getting the service they thought they had paid for unless Amazon and Google pay up; but to Whittaker this will be all right, because the content providers will pay, and his subscribers will never see any additional charge on their phone bill. Only of course they will, because if Google or Amazon were mad enough to pay this shakedown fee, they could and should put it right on the bill they send their customer: One copy The Framer's Constitution (5 Volumes), with shipping and handling, $64.50. Fee extorted from us by SBC, $1.21. Have a nice day. Or something of the sort.

This is the kind of situation that class action lawyers dream about. Ten million customers, each with perhaps a dollar a month damages, several months, triple damages, punitive damages... The clients get a coupon for a free telephone call on Washington's birthday, and the lawyers get $50 million cash.

There's also the technical issue: how will SBC decide what packets need to get a Quality of Service hit, and which ones will not? And do that on the fly. It's not easy, and I doubt they currently have the technical means to do it.

This is a silly idea whose time will never come. I can't think it will really happen, but it does no harm to nip this insanity in the bud. I gather Google already has made its answer, which was, roughly, "Nuts."

Google In China

Google has famously said their main business principle is "Don't be evil." Google is the good guy in opposing the SBC/ AT&T grab. Google's role in the latest Chinese government attempts to repress the flow of information isn't quite so clear.

There are those who say that Google - and Microsoft, and Yahoo, and Cisco, and all the other US companies that work at extending the Internet to China - are, by cooperating with Chinese government efforts to control how the Internet is used in China, being seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. In one unfortunate case, Yahoo handed over the IP address that allowed the authorities to identify a journalist whose "crime" had been to transmit a copy of a public document about the Tiananmen Square riots. The journalist has recently been sentenced to ten years in a Chinese pokey; and zeks in China don't have it a lot easier than they did in the Soviet gulag.

It's easy enough to be outraged about this, and we all are, but as Business Week Online points out, it's a little more complex than we see at first look (link). Among other things, not only did Yahoo have a legal obligation to hand over the information, but there was no indication of what was being investigated: it could have been a spammer, or a Chinese phishing site. The Chinese authorities don't generally tell why they want information they have a legal right to get.

That, at least, is a pretty straightforward case, and I am sure Yahoo regrets its part in it for reasons other than bad press.

Now what about crippling search engines? Making it difficult - the Chinese authorities hope impossible - to find essays on democracy and freedom? Let us say that the journalist above did manage to smuggle out information that tells more about the decision process during that fateful week in June of 1989; is it evil to make it impossible to find that story? Assume it is: what should Google do? Wash its hands of China?

These are not trivial questions, and any course of action here has far-reaching consequences.

Arthur Koestler famously said that a sufficient condition for the undermining and eventual collapse of a totalitarian society is the free exchange of ideas within that society. I pointed out in 1982, just after the Falklands War, that this presented the Soviet Union with an insoluble dilemma. The Falklands engagement showed that military power was impossible without modern computer capabilities; the high-tech side wins no matter how badly handicapped by distance and logistics, at least in a straightforward military engagement. But: you can't have high-tech computer power without widespread use of computers, and if people have computers they have communications. Further, the Chinese have promoted the Open Source meme, which requires the free exchange of information.

The Chinese leadership trying to restrict the free exchange of ideas is a bit like the boy with his finger in the dike - actually more like the scrat in the Blue Sky Studios Ice Age cartoons. It isn't going to work, and they know it. On the other hand, they don't have the same task that the Soviet Union did. The Soviets really were Communists, or tried to be. You couldn't graduate from a Soviet university without forty units of Marxist theory, and even after there were almost no Communists left among the Nomenklatura, they all pretended to be.

Much of the Chinese leadership has always been more Chinese than Communist. They pretended to be Communists for a long time, but they were cured of that when real Communism ran the country during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1969. The Red Guards - students, mostly - took control of the country, and the result was utter chaos. China is only now getting over that - and the present leadership, who lived through it, have never got over it. I'm convinced that one reason the Tiananmen Square demonstrations were finally put down so ruthlessly was that the leadership had lived through one revolution and they didn't think China could survive another.

Certainly they don't pretend to be Communists now. The People's Republic retains the name, and some of the structures of Communism including the Party and the cadre system for control of the hinterlands; but no one in authority is expected to believe one word of Marxism, or in the inevitable victory of the proletariat. Mao is revered, but his Red Book isn't studied, and they're sure glad he's dead. Chinese government now looks an awful lot like Imperial government, and has many of the same problems of Imperial China. They desperately seek prosperity because prosperity is a sign of the mandate of Heaven. They hold fast to central rule because fragmentation under warlords has always been the path to chaos and destruction. In that sense it's easy to understand their obsession with bringing Taiwan back under their rule. They see Taiwan as a breakaway province under a warlord, and if one province can secede, then others may.

Given all this, what is proper for Google, and Microsoft, and all the others? That would have to depend on your projection of the future of Sino-American relations. If China is the national enemy, then doing anything that increases their technological abilities is treason. If, on the other hand, China is a potential world trading partner and friend, then helping them develop the tools of prosperity and internal communication will inevitably lead to a loosening of control. Prosperity leads to a middle class, and a middle class always seeks political influence. Indeed, Aristotle's definition of democracy is rule by the middle class - the middle class being those who possess the goods of fortune in moderation.

These are matters that require discussion and debate, and ultimately must be determined by the highest authorities. In 1970, Stefan Possony and I published The Strategy of Technology, subtitled Winning the Decisive War. The opening epigraph reads:

"A gigantic technological race is in progress between interception and penetration and each time capacity for interception makes progress it is answered by a new advance in capacity for penetration. Thus a new form of strategy is developing in peacetime, a strategy of which the phrase 'arms race' used prior to the old great conflicts is hardly more than a faint reflection.

"There are no battles in this strategy; each side is merely trying to outdo in performance the equipment of the other. It has been termed 'logistic strategy'. Its tactics are industrial, technical, and financial. It is a form of indirect attrition; instead of destroying enemy resources, its object is to make them obsolete, thereby forcing on him an enormous expenditure...

"A silent and apparently peaceful war is therefore in progress, but it could well be a war which of itself could be decisive."

--General d'Armee Andre Beaufre

That was true then and remains true today. The United States is never going to defeat China in a land war in Asia, nor is open warfare inevitable.

A few years ago, one of the most despised regimes in the West was Spain under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, usually referred to as "Franco Spain." Certainly the Franco government was unpleasant, and there was political repression - but there was considerable economic freedom, and at one time Franco's Spain enjoyed the highest economic growth rate in the world. Franco and his allies held power in part because they were afraid to let go; but as they held power, their economic policies encouraged the growth of a middle class that had little in common with either of the bitterly opposed sides that had fought the Spanish Civil War. Today Spain is considered a free country, a full member of the comity of western nations.

The present Chinese government resembles the old Imperial government, an Empire without an Emperor. It also resembles Spain under Franco, which was officially a monarchy without a monarch. It might be well to think on that when we make strategic decisions.

Outlook in China?

As we were discussing the Chinese situation, Chaos Manor Associate Dan Spisak had a thought. What the government wants is a situation in which "the Central Planning Commission must approve your email. Item by item. Could it be that Outlook was designed to help the Chinese solve their problem?"

I have a new version of Office 12, and I'll probably install that on Anastasia, the old 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 that my new AMD Athlon Dual Core 4400+ replaces; perhaps that won't be quite as piggy as Outlook 2003. I'm not holding my breath.

What's in That Picture, Anyway?

Digital pictures are easy to take, and with enormous hard drives, easy to store. What isn't easy, if you're even a moderately active shutterbug, is finding your pictures later. Google Images can find an amazing number of items based on keywords, but it's not actually searching picture contents. Such technology will arrive, but right now I can't ask my computer to show me all the pictures of my granddaughter in a pink dress, unless I've manually entered such descriptive data - the technical term is metadata - previously. Of course I would need a place to put that data. On physical photographs a felt tip pen and the back of the photo is the usual place.

This is hardly a new problem. Aldus (creators of PageMaker, now part of Adobe) launched Aldus Fetch 13 years ago. Fetch was the first image organizer we ever saw. It was pretty crude, but it did have a catalog feature, and a way to store some metadata with the picture. As early as 1993 the Associated Press was using a custom version of Fetch to index by IPTC fields. More on International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC) fields below. Fetch is now subsumed into Extensis Portfolio (link), and while the first image organizer that we know of, it's hardly the only one on the market.

Actually, metadata for digital pictures goes back at least four decades, to the 1960s, as the volume of "AP WirePhotos" and the like greatly increased. Photo editors needed a way to track the subjects, credits and captions of pictures they received. (The official AP history says Wirephotos themselves go back to 1935: link.) The International Press Telecommunications Council was formed in 1965 to "safeguard the telecommunications interests of the World's Press" (link), and your photo-editing software uses its best-known standard, IPTC codes.

There are IPTC and EXIF fields; IPTC fields mostly describe picture contents, while EXIFs describe picture characteristics, such as the camera used, flash setting, exposure, etc. EXIF codes are a creature of the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industry Association (link); the best description of EXIF codes (Exchangeable Image File Format) seems to be at the "unofficial" site (http://www.exif.org/). Most people will be interested in the more-common EXIF fields, though there are also dozens of manufacturer-specific settings, peculiar to each company. IPTC fields are more oriented to "the three C's" of photojournalism: Credit, Copyright and Caption -information you'd need if you were a photo editor looking for pictures to put on the front page.

Since these fields are just as useful for non-professional users, IPTC fields were soon adopted by the digital picture universe. That was in part driven by the Associated Press, which introduced the "AP News Camera 2000" (an early digital camera), in 1994. Today, just about every photo manipulation program, including Adobe ImageReady, Cerious Software's Thumbs Plus, and Extensis Portfolio, will allow you to read and set IPTC and EXIF fields manually, in file types that support them, like .JPG and .TIF. (.BMPs don't.)

Setting IPTC or EXIF fields programmatically is a different issue, and therein lies a tale.

That's Mine, so I Marked It

All this came to the fore when I needed to organize a whole raft of photos, watermark them so they couldn't be easily used by others, stick captions on them, and publish them on the web.

Byte Senior Contributing Editor David Em pointed out that PhotoShop has had batch-processing since about version 5, so I investigated doing the watermarking there. Unfortunately, while powerful, I couldn't figure out how to watermark files with PhotoShop's batch-processing features.

That's when we discovered Watermark Factory 2 (ink), well worth the $40 for download, especially if you're running eBay auctions or the like. Unlike PhotoShop's batch feature, WF2 lets you make watermarks pretty simply, without understanding all the voodoo magic of batch processing. We wanted two watermarks, one in the lower left and the other in the upper right corner, with a picture description stamped diagonally across the picture. We also wanted the watermarks to be never more than about 10% of the total picture size, and the text embossed so it's visible (but not obtrusive) on any picture. WF2 does all this, on a single picture or an entire directory.

Some pointers: WF2 is not blazingly fast on large directories of pictures, and you will need to try out various settings before you find the ones that work best for you. It will use any IPTC field as part of the description text, though again you'll need to experiment to find results you like. You should of course use a "before" and "after" directory, lest you overwrite the only un-watermarked copy of something you care about. Save your settings when you like the final result.

Once I figured out you could use IPTC fields as a watermark, the question became: How do I set the fields?

Accessing IPTC Fields

I wanted to extract the description from a FileMaker database, matched by the picture name, and make the description the caption for the picture. I found an Italian plug-in (link), which both reads and sets IPTC data. There are lots of other applications which will read IPTC fields, but this was the only one I found which would set them, too.

Inside Scan hasn't yet been updated for FileMaker 8, but on FM7 it's simple enough, if you're at all conversant with programming in FileMaker. IPTC fields are numbered, so I had to figure out which field was the copyright, which the caption, etc.

For those of you using Microsoft Access, there are developer-oriented programs for reading and writing EXIF and IPTC data, such as the ActiveX control Watermarker (link). I'm sure there are plug-ins for other development environments and applications - look for one designed to both read and write EXIF and IPTC fields.

Thumbs Plus Galleries

Once the IPTC fields were properly set in the picture files, and the watermarks were made, I wanted to make a web photo gallery. Fortunately, Cerious Software's Thumbs Plus 7 (link) will use IPTC fields as a picture's description, so the hard part was done. I used the web page wizard (alt+F9) to create the gallery, selected the IPTC caption as the picture caption, and let fly.

Fortunately, disk space is cheap, because I now had three different directories, each with a copy of the pictures: The original picture gallery (which I had sorted and edited in Thumbs); the ones after watermarking, and the ones in the gallery, ready for uploading. Actually, there was a fourth, the directory of the pictures directly from the camera; I'd had to edit, rotate and sort them before I made the first picture gallery.

Thumbs also lets you batch-update or change the IPTC fields for a whole directory of pictures: Control-A to select all images in a directory, then Control-I to open the IPTC Editor. This is a great way to set an entire batch of files to have the same data, like the copyright notice or contact information. (Don't select the caption field, or you'll overwrite the captions you just set! Another reason to save early and often and keep copies of the originals.) Click OK, and wait for all of the files to be processed. You'll notice that, in Thumbs' main window, files with IPTC fields have a green "i" in them.

Before I could do that, though, I found some of the pictures were inexplicably set to read-only, and Thumbs will just error past R/O files. So it was into Windows Explorer, select all of the pictures, ALT+ENTER to get into the properties for the lot of them, uncheck "read only", click "ok", and wait. (I know there's a DOS batch command to do that, but it was late and just easier to use the Windows Explorer. This machine didn't have Norton Commander on it.)

There were several morals to this whole story: If you're going to make a complicated workflow, write down every step. I had to do this process several times, and I managed to forget one or another step each time. After muttering loud imprecations, I went back and wrote it all down, beginning to end. It sits in my logbook, in case I ever have to rebuild that gallery.

The next moral: Try a process this complex on a smaller number of pictures. Each processing step on a single picture takes a fraction of a second, but chewing through 1,600 of them is a good excuse for a cup of coffee. Then, once everything works, run it complete.

I can remember in the 70's when I was science editor for a weekly newspaper, filing stories from AAAS meetings. Getting photographs on the wire was a big deal in those days, and few reporters would attempt it. Big events like AAAS had press room personnel and facilities, or if we were in a big city I could persuade a non-competing big city newspaper to develop, print, and transmit pictures: negotiations usually involved dinner or drinks or both. It's a lot easier now, if you have the right tools. In our case the tools were FileMaker, the InsideScan plug in for FileMaker, Watermark Factory, and Thumbs Plus. Of those we use FileMaker and Thumbs Plus all the time anyway. There may be other tools that will work as well, but these do the job nicely.

Kodak EasyShare

FileMaker is a real data base that will do professional level work. If you're just interested in organizing your photographs into albums and slide shows, and sharing them, Kodak's free program EasyShare is a very good tool for that task.

When you download and install EasyShare you'll be offered Kodak's print service: for a reasonable fee they will print designated photographs and mail them anywhere. This can be quite convenient.

I use the Kodak 570 shirt pocket camera a lot - I've almost never been without it since I got it - but EasyShare works with any digital photographs. If you're not familiar with this program you probably ought to be.

DocuPen RC800 and ABBYY FineReader, and PDF Transformer

This is a package that any spy would have killed for a few years ago. Indeed, if Sandy Berger had the DocuPen RC800 he wouldn't have had to stuff National Archives documents into his pants to get copies to work on at home.

We mentioned an earlier model of the DocuPen last year. The RC800 (link) has color as well as black and white capability. The instructions have been revised, and it's easier to use.

DocuPen and friends
The DocuPen RC800 and its cable. You don't use the cable when scanning documents; the pen pulls across the page and stores the image in memory. On the left is the standard leather case. On the right is a more rigid case which is the one I use.

We were originally a bit confused because we thought of the DocuPen as working like a scanner: attach it to your laptop, and read images directly into the computer. It doesn't work that way. Instead, the DocuPen is a stand alone scanner. It doesn't have to be attached to anything. It has internal memory to hold the pages in memory - they advertise up to 100, which would be black and white; I know it will hold a dozen or more pages in full color. Actually, the memory in DocuPen is an 8 MB MicroSD, and it's replaceable, so you can carry spare memory cards if you think you'll need to copy a lot of documents before returning to base. Once you have the images in the DocuPen, you connect DocuPen to your computer with their proprietary cable, and transfer them over.

Transfer tends to be slow. I am not sure why they used a proprietary cable and thus had to go with TWAIN drivers; it would have been simpler and easier to use USB 2.0 connectors and the same file storage protocols that standard thumb drives use. Indeed, it seems inevitable that they'll go to that one of these days.

Meanwhile, the DocuPen works. File transfers are slower than I like, but once you get the hang of image scanning - one smooth motion of the pen across a book, magazine, newspaper, photograph, sheet of paper, beer coaster with notes scrawled on it - and you've got it. Of course you have no way of knowing the quality of your image before you transfer it, so before you try the DocuPen for anything important you'll want to put in an hour or two practicing with it; but eventually you'll develop confidence in it.

The DocuPen comes in a good leather protective case, and I've transferred mine to my everyday brief case. I haven't yet had reason to use it other than to practice for this review, but I imagine its time will come.

The images you get in DocuPen are saved in PaperPort's .max, or, alternatively, as tiff, jpeg, or bmp files. Now you need to get that image into an editor or word processor. When I got my DocuPen, I was also given a copy of ABBYY FineReader OCR 8.0 (http://www.abbyyusa.com/) , as well as ABBYY PDF Transformer (link) . These two programs, plus DocuPen, make up a package that's hard to duplicate.

PDF Transformer can be very useful in taking a pdf file and turning it into something you can edit. It's not 100% perfect, but it's pretty darned good.

Fair warning. Document scanning, reading, and transformation can be messy, and it's nowhere near 100% accurate. Spelling and grammar checking in Microsoft Word will help spot errors, but it won't get all of them. Editing a large document to remove wrong words that don't show up as misspelled is one of the world's most boring jobs. The only thing more boring is typing the document in from scratch.

No package of scanning and translation tools is perfect, but this combination is a lot better than some previous scanner/OCR/editor tools I've had to use. I wish I'd had them back when I was trying to get electronically readable copies of books I wrote on my Selectric Typewriter in the days before I got Ezekiel, my first computer. (Incidentally, Old Zeke is still on display in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, where he sits on a pedestal made of old copies of BYTE potted in Bondo.)

Isaac Asimov once wrote a story in which all academics carried a pen they could use to scan documents. Everyone used one, and it changed the nature of scholarship. Isaac wrote well before the Internet existed, and thought in terms of scanning in order to make paper copies. The DocuPen does all that Isaac predicted and more. If you need copies of books, magazine articles, papers, etc. that you can't carry off to a copy shop, this is the tool you need.

Winding Down

The game of the month was Sid Meier's Civilization IV, which eats far more time than I ought to let it have. It's taking me a while to get used to; while the overall play of Civ IV is easier than in previous versions, and there's a lot less micromanagement, some of the tricks we used - capture enemy Settlers and put them to work transforming your land, since they don't cost anything to maintain - don't work. On the other hand, you're not constantly shifting troops around to put down riots, and that's a blessing. All told, if you don't have this game, and you like turn based strategy games at all, you will want to get this one.

Brookstone Oscillating Massage Belt
The Brookstone uZap in action. When Alex first saw this he said "What the heck is that?" I suspect this will be a common reaction.

The gadget of the month is the OSIM® uZapTM Oscillating Massage Belt from Brookstone (link) . This is another variety of passive exercise machine, and I don't suppose it works any better for taking off weight than any of those others did. On the other hand, it does feel pretty good when it's giving you its massage. It's easy to use, and while when I first started playing with it I did so out of a sense of duty - very much one of those silly things I do so you don't have to - I have found myself rather fond of it, and I've continued to use it because I like it. You might want to go to a Brookstone store and try it out. I find I can write while it's working on my tummy - it's going now - and it does pretty good things for lower back ache.

The movie of the month is Disney Studios' 8 Below, about a team of 8 Husky sled dogs left over the winter in Antarctica. One of the dogs looks a lot like Sable, our red Siberian "empty nest dog," so I suppose it was predictable that we'd like the movie, but in fact it's quite well done. This isn't the sort of movie that wins awards, but it sure was fun to see, and the dogs are beautiful. And if you have not seen The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, run, do not walk, to a theater where it's showing. You do not want to miss that film, and you want to see it in a theater, not on a TV screen. This is C. S. Lewis's wonderful story told in all its glory, and there's not a dull moment in it from the opening air raid in London to the end.

The book of the month is George Packer, The Assassins' Gate, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. His viewpoint is not mine, but he is an honest reporter, and many of the incidents he witnessed speak for themselves. The United States is not good at imperialism, but we are trying to operate in a land that has no traditions of freedom and democracy. We can't treat the population of Iraq as allies and colleagues because while most of them may be exactly that, enough are not that it is far too risky. Treating them with suspicion undermines our purpose in being there.

In another life I was a strategy analyst and advisor, and one thing I have learned: armies break things and kill people, and if they are not good at that, they are no good as an army. The US Army is very good at breaking things and killing people. It is not so good at building democratic institutions. Now very elite forces can sometimes do both: be effective combat soldiers, yet useful as occupiers. It takes very dedicated troops and elite units to do that, and even for them it's a temporary thing. For long term occupation duty you need constabulary trained in military government. That's not an army, and won't be much use at fighting wars. The United States doesn't have such a force. Keep those principles in mind as you read this book.

The first computer book of the month is Chris Pine, Learn to Program, from The Pragmatic Programmers. This book is written in a breezy informal style, but it does cover systematic principles of programming starting at a very elementary level. The language used for instruction is Ruby, which, like Python, is a free language available on line. If you have ever wondered if you have a knack for programming, this is an inexpensive way to find out.

The second book of the month is just out, Repairing and Upgrading Your PC, by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson, O'Reilly. This is the essential handbook for keeping your system going, and you need a copy, just in case.

I'm out of time and space - well, it's deadline time, and this column is long enough by far - and I still have piles of stuff on the ready table. Every month I think there's nothing left to say about the computer revolution, and every month I prove myself wrong.