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Computing At Chaos Manor

The User's Column, April, 2006
Column 309
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Multiboot on Apple Intel-based Systems

From the day Apple announced that the company was changing from PowerPC to Intel chips for Apple Computers, it was clear to everyone that it was only a matter of time before someone found a way to run Windows on an Apple machine. When we discussed this in the February column, Apple's position was that they would do nothing to prevent this, but Apple wasn't cooperating either. I thought then that policy would change, but whether it did or not, as soon as it became possible to run Windows on an Intel Mac, someone would find a way to do it.

I said in the February column that it was likely that someone would have Windows running on an Intel Mac by the time the column came out. Apparently, it took a couple of weeks longer, but it duly happened. In fact, there was a contest, with a $13,000 prize (onmac.net). Meanwhile, it looks as if Apple had been working this problem all along, because in early April Apple announced "Boot Camp Public Beta".

At the moment, Bootcamp is downloadable software that you must install on your Mac. I haven't done it, for reasons we'll get to later, but I'm told it's a straightforward procedure. Future editions of OS X will have Boot Camp built in. Either way, you have an official Apple system for partitioning your Apple computer's hard drive, and making your Intel Mac ready for installation of Windows XP SP2.

You have to provide your own installable copy of Windows OS X, Home or Professional (I recommend Professional). Your copy must be legal because Windows must be activated.

Once that's done, you can choose OS X or Windows XP at boot time.

You Now Have Two Computers

This procedure has the effect of making two computers out of your Intel Mac; but unlike two real computers, both of these can't be running at the same time. Either you're running Mac OS X - let's call that computer "MacTiger"-- or you are running Windows XP - we'll call that one "WinnieMac" - and the two don't talk to each other. Moreover, nothing you do with one of those computers can affect the other, for the obvious reason that Windows XP and Mac OS X use entirely different and incompatible file systems.

That's inconvenient, but there are compensations. For now at least, there are no viruses, worms, and Trojans, O my! affecting the Mac. Well, there are a couple, but they are lab animals; I know of none in the wild, and I've never met anyone afflicted by one. Clearly that's not true for Windows users. Millions of Windows systems have been taken over and now function as zombies to disseminate spam, pornography including child porn, and various malware, and that plague seems to be getting worse. Windows on an Intel Mac is no safer than any other Windows machine.

In other words, WinnieMac will need the standard virus and worm protection, and you must not neglect it; but if you do manage to get WinnieMac infected, it won't bother MacTiger, because Windows uses NTFS, Mac uses HFS, and never the twain shall meet.

Or at least not directly meet: there are means of communication between them.

One possibility would be to create a third disk partition and format that in FAT 32. Both Windows and OS X (and Linux for that matter) can read and write to FAT 32, albeit with a major performance hit. There are also limits to the partition size that FAT 32 will support. FAT 32 partitions used to be limited to 4 GB per drive letter (logical drive), but that has been overcome and the practical limit is 2 TB. However, FAT 32 file sizes are limited to 4 GB, and this limit will apply whether you add a partition to your Intel Mac hard drive, or use a USB 2.0 or Firewire external drive, and this could cause big problems if you are backing up large files. Video files tend to be large.

Once you have set up your FAT 32 drive, you can fire up MacTiger, generate a file with Word or some other program, save it, then save a copy to the external drive. Now shut down MacTiger and wake up WinnieMac. Now you can send your Windows application out to the external drive to get and open that file. For performance reasons you'll want to save the file in the Windows partition and use that copy while you're working on it. Eventually you save it back to the external drive, shut down WinnieMac, wake up MacTiger, and Bob's your uncle.

A better way is to network both computers through Samba (SMB), a file sharing protocol. This is what we use here to send files to and from my (older, PowerPC) PowerBook. Use a second physical machine as a server (it can be another Mac, or a Windows system, configured either as a server or as a workstation), save to that, and once again, when one part of your Intel Mac is asleep the other will be awake and able to read and write files through the network.

And Yet More Methods

In addition to using an external drive or a network as a way station for communication between MacTiger and WinnieMac, there is now a HFS+ file system driver available for Windows. I haven't tried it, but Dan Spisak reports it is available here: MacDrive 6 . This allows your WinnieMac to read and write directly to MacTiger's partition and files.

Then there's Parallels Workstation. You can get a free beta copy release copy at their website. This runs Windows as a virtual machine inside your Mac operating system; and by Windows, they mean just about any Windows that ever existed, including Windows 3.1, 3.11 (which introduced built-in networking), Windows 95, 98, ME, XP, and XP 2003. They also say that Parallels will run MS-DOS, any Linux distribution, FreeBSD, Solaris, and OS/2. Any or all of these run as virtual machines inside the Mac OS X, using dual-core processors and Intel Virtualization Technology (IVT).

Note that not all Intel Macs have dual-core and IVT; if running Parallels Workstation is your goal, make certain you get a model that has those features; of the two, IVT is the more important, but you'll want dual cores. While Parallels runs on "any Intel Powered Macintosh running OS X 10 4.4 or higher," virtualization eats both cycles and memory like crazy, and you'll want lots of both.

Finally, there's Microsoft Virtual PC for the Mac. I have run this on my Mac PowerBook, and it works reasonably well; one presumes that Microsoft will port this program to the Intel Powered Mac, and it will run even better since Windows software is written for Intel hardware. It stands to reason that the less emulation the Mac has to do, the better the performance.

Mustache on the Mona Lisa?

When I discussed this with my colleagues, Bob Thompson wondered why anyone would want to do it. His exact comment was "Running Windows on a Mac? Talk about drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa..."

And for now, he's pretty much right. Early reports indicate that the performance of Windows XP on an Intel Mac is quite good - Walter Mossberg in the Wall Street Journal said "In Windows mode, the iMac was blazingly fast—far faster than my two-year-old H-P Windows computer." That, however, depends entirely on what you are doing with Windows on the Mac. If you're running business software like Office, you are not likely to see any great difference in performance between the Windows and Mac versions of the programs. Some programs, Quicken for example, run far better in Windows than on Mac OS; and of course there are lots of Windows programs that don't exist in Mac versions. Some of them never will.

And there's the rub, because some of those programs are games that require Direct X and 3d graphics acceleration, and for now, at least, none of the Windows-on-Mac emulations can handle that. So long as all you need is 2D VESA video card performance, the emulations work fine, but 3D GPU capabilities are completely missing, unless you are satisfied with running your WinnieMac in dual boot mode. That situation will change, possibly quite rapidly; but if you want to use your Mac to play Windows games, you're probably stuck with dual boot for some time to come.

If all you want is to run a few 2D graphics Windows programs on your Mac, emulation is probably the way to go for the moment. Microsoft Virtual PC for the Mac runs more or less acceptably on my PowerPC Mac; when that comes out for the Intel Mac it ought to be quite good indeed. Meanwhile, the Parallel beta is free. And certainly running both operating systems at the same time is greatly to be preferred to dual boot.

Now. As to why you would want Mac hardware to run Windows, the short answer is, "because you can." Macs are cool. They look cool. They have widgets, and widgets are cool. The heart of the Mac is the Mac OS, and that's cool. In the early days of small computers, getting a PC to run UNIX was the holy grail of programming, and making UNIX usable by mere mortals without access to UNIX wizards was like unto it. Now Apple has done that.

Our resident artist and video expert David Em says, "Personally, I'll be thrilled to run XP on a Mac. There are several world-class Mac-only programs such as Studio Artist and Final Cut that become available, and the existing investment in PC software doesn't go out the window. This is a no-brainer."

Up to now, Macs were cool but Mac users were about 2% of the computer community. Mac users were effectively isolated unless they had a second non-Mac machine. Now, though, Macs are special: they can run Windows and Linux, but Windows and Linux machines can't run Mac OS. This is probably good enough to bring Mac from 2% to 4% of the computer using community, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it go to 6%.

Let me hasten to add that this is a pure guess. Some of my advisors say I'm nuts, but they differ about in which direction my madness has sent me: some say it won't have much effect on Apple sales at all, others that it will do far more than triple demand for Mac systems. We'll just have to wait and see.

Macs are cool, and for many of the programs I run, the Mac versions work at least as well as the Windows versions. Macs are fun - but they do take getting used to, and one of my problems is that I have to do a great deal of my work on Windows machines. That means switching from one machine to another, and that can be annoying. The keyboards are different. I can get used to either, but switching from one to the other takes shifting mental gears and bringing up different habits. If I could do all my Windows work on a Mac system, particularly in a virtual Windows machine on a Mac, I'd be able to get used to both and develop appropriate habits.

Indeed, that last is such a powerful incentive that when I heard I could run Windows on an Intel Mac I very nearly rushed out and bought one. Fortunately, sanity prevailed.

Don't Do It Now

This is not the time to run out and buy an Intel Mac. There are just too many uncertainties. Getting an early start is sometimes a big advantage, but it's an advantage only if you start in the right direction. Just at the moment, it's not at all clear what that direction will be.

Roland Dobbins and Dan Spisak, both expert Mac users, tell me that I'm better off waiting. Dan says "While the issues with the MacBook Pros are being solved with the Rev D motherboard in the newer shipping units, the time to buy an Intel based Mac is as soon as Apple sells a model sporting the Intel Merom mobile next generation microarchitecture dualcore CPU. That CPU will be fully 64 bit compatible in addition to having better performance and lower power usage, and might even have more mature Intel Virtual Technology in the chip. Wait until the Developer's Conference in August." Roland agrees.

I note that 64 bit capability means essentially unlimited memory. Virtual machines eat scads of memory, running at least half a gigabyte to the scad.

It's clear to me that it's best to wait, but it's hard to do. The new Macs are way cool.

We Have a Glimpse of the Future

After last year's WinHEC I posited a future in which we would have massively multi-core machines - 12 and more CPU's - with a management layer between the user and the operating systems. This would allow the user to run multiple instances of several different operating systems. Each instance would be an independent virtual machine, unaware of the others except for a means of communications between them, including but not limited to cut and paste from one OS program to another. UNIX has "pipes" that tell a program where to go for data and what to do with results; there is no real reason why those pipes can't extend across operating systems, and indeed I can use the UNIX features in OS X to do precisely that now. Of course in my present case the program gets its data from the network rather than from another virtual computer, but the effect is the same.

Eric Pobirs notes that we used to have very expensive keyboards in which each key was a small LED display. You could change keyboard layouts or character sets with a couple of keystrokes. This "would make for a good E-ink application. E-ink as send in Sony's e-book product could be a much more attractive way to have a keyboard reconfigured for each OS and/or language. I wouldn't be surprised to see it first in Japan where it would have obvious use for the printed language issues there. The operating systems not offer provision for switching languages within a session. The hardware needs to catch up." I can hardly wait.

Boot Camp Public Beta and Parallels Workstation Beta are the first hesitating steps into that world of the future. Given the pace of this industry, I won't be surprised to see all of it happen before 2012. Five and a half years is three plus Moore's Law cycles. Exponential growth is a wonderful thing.

Now if they'll just make a Tablet version of the Mac and port OneNote to it...

DeLorme Earthmate GPS LT-20

There are tons of automobile GPS systems out there. You can get them built into your car, as my partner Larry Niven did with his Lexus SUV. I don't have experience with most of the commercial automobile GPS navigation systems, but the ones I have used have data entry problems: it's awkward at best to tell the machine where you are going. The screens are small and the data input system is a bit awkward. That may just be me.

DeLorme Street Atlas and GPS LT-20
DeLorme Street Atlas and GPS LT-20 installed on the IBM Thinkpad, with a montage of items discussed this month.

After my ancient Bronco was totaled (link here) in Death Valley, I replaced Bronc with Eddie, an Eddie Bauer 1998 Ford Explorer. That car came with what my boys call an "attack computer" that displays considerable information about engine performance, mileage efficiency, and predictions of the miles left given the gas in the tank and the past few minutes of driving efficiency, but there was no GPS or navigation unit available.

I have since tried a number of hand-held GPS units, and I haven't much cared for any of them, mostly because the ones I bought didn't come with any convenient means of attaching them to a computer or updating their maps. Meanwhile, MapQuest has got better, and I don't take so many trips anyway. The one time I could have used a GPS unit was last Fall when we tried to find a party in a particularly complex part of West Los Angeles, and by the time we did find the place it was late and all the parking for half a mile around had been taken. We ended up coming back to the Valley and having dinner in a local restaurant. This was enough of a disappointment - Roberta had taken the trouble to get her hair done and dress up - that I decided I'd better have a navigation system.

I looked at several of them at CES, and when I was done, I went back to what I used some time ago: I got the DeLorme Earthmate GPS LT-20 and their Street Atlas USA 2006. This does everything you would like, and costs a lot less than any stand-alone unit. Of course it does require a good laptop, but then you probably already have a good laptop.

It takes about half an hour to install Street Atlas, because there are a lot of big files on two CD's. If you're willing to run the program with the data CD in the drive the installation will be quicker and it will use ¾ GB less disk space, but it will also be slower. Disk space, even on a laptop, is pretty cheap now, and I advise you to do the full installation and be done with it.

After you've installed the program the rest is pretty simple. Start the program, plug the GPS LT-20 into a USB port, click the "Start GPS" button, and watch. There's a complete tutorial if you want to do things that way, but in fact the program is pretty self-explanatory. When it first comes up, you'll be looking at a map of the Washington DC area. Look around at the various buttons you can click, and you'll find one labeled GPS. Poke that one, wait about half a minute while the LT-20 acquires some satellites, and the map will change to your current location. I did this on the balcony of Chaos Manor, and when I zoomed in to maximum it was clear that the unit knew precisely where I am to within about twenty feet. It also knew there's fifty square miles of park starting about a hundred yards away.

The DeLorme Street Atlas USA can figure routes. You can talk to it through a headset or the computer's built-in microphone, and it will talk to you with the laptop's sound system. In a word, it does all the stuff that the built-in automobile navigation systems can do. The only drawback is that it's not built-in, and most cars don't have a convenient place to put a laptop. I'll have to look into laptop cradles I can mount in the Explorer.

The last time I had a laptop and GPS in an automobile was Death Valley, with the GPS on the dash and the laptop in the empty passenger seat. A tire blew out, the Bronco skidded against a high berm the park authorities had laid to keep you from going off-roading, and over we rolled. I wasn't all that hurt - you can see pictures on my web site - and while the Compaq laptop was badly damaged, it was still working well enough that I could see precisely where I was, namely 23 miles from the nearest paved road. This was a pretty drastic way to test a navigation program, but it sure worked: I knew where I was, and which way to walk to get out of there.

DeLorme GPS unit on the dash in 1997
DeLorme GPS unit circa 1997 on the dashboard of my Bronco in Death Valley some twenty-three miles before the blowout. The turnoff to a dirt road across Death Valley is just ahead.

I'll be driving to Phoenix for the annual Space Access Society conference later this month, and I expect to use the DeLorme with my IBM Thinkpad to find the best way to the convention hotel. Being a suspenders and belt type I'll have maps as well, but I don't really expect to need them. DeLorme probably provided the MapQuest maps in the first place.

DeLorme also publishes a DVD with US Topological Maps covering the wilderness areas of the country. If you don't want to carry a laptop or TabletPC on hikes into the back country, print out the appropriate sections on a good color printer. They won't be on as heavy a paper stock as the ones we used to buy from the US Geodetic Service, but they'll be just as accurate.

I've been a fan of DeLorme for many years, and their newest system is as good as I expected it to be. Recommended.

TurboTax

A very long time ago I discovered MacInTax. It was so good that it was worth having a Mac if you did nothing else but use it to run MacInTax once a year. MacInTax was bought by TurboTax, which was then bought by Intuit, and as far as I am concerned it's still Good Enough.

My taxes tend to be complex. Authors have a number of complicated deductions and amortizations. Mrs. Pournelle operates a couple of small businesses. We have properties and investments. The upshot is that before TurboTax ne MacInTax it took me days of being unpleasant to do my taxes, and it would have taken nearly as long to explain it all to an accountant. With TurboTax I get it all done in about one day, although it usually takes me longer because it's so boring.

I know there are other tax preparation programs, but in my view TurboTax works and works well. I usually get the "Premier" edition, and I've yet to have problems. Recommended.

VISTA and Pournelle's Law

One of Pournelle's Laws states that before you can do anything important, you will have to do two other things, one of which is nearly impossible. I made this one up in whimsy, but it has held truer than I like, as witness our attempts to install the February, 2006 CTP (Community Technology Preview) version, also known as Build 5308, of Windows Vista.

It didn't look to be a difficult task. After all, we had the September build of Vista (the one released last fall at the Professional Developers Conference, see our BYTE reports and the October column) running on an AMD 64 bit Athlon system built on a Gigabyte K8NS Pro 754 motherboard, and we had been able to do some fairly useful things including downloads, and even some experiments with BitTorrent with both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Vista. Windows Media Player worked well with it, and we could view downloaded movies. The "September Vista" was limited, and often we'd open a feature only to find a placeholder message, so it wasn't anything I'd try for a production machine, but it did more or less work. We figured the update would be a snap.

First thing was to go to the indispensable Microsoft Developers Network (MSDN) and download the installation file. Now make an ISO image copy. That can't be hard. We have Nero, Burning ROM, Version 7, which does all such things, and one of my major machines has the latest and greatest Plextor CD/DVD burners. Nero and Plextor are an unbeatable combination, and I recommend both.

I downloaded the installation file onto the communications machine. Of course that's not one of the machines that has a DVD burner, so the file got copied to Wendy, my main games and writing machine. By then it was late enough that I gave up, and next day I worked on something else, so it was a Sunday afternoon when we decided to get serious about installing the February build of Vista.

As an aside, I had almost decided to skip it: there will certainly be a new build of Vista at WinHEC and that's not much more than a month from now. Peter Glaskowsky pointed out that we'd probably get more out of WinHEC if we'd played with the February release, which "was basically feature-complete, so I'd have to say it qualifies as the first proper beta."

Alex reminded me that we do these silly things so you don't have to. Between Alex and Peter's persuasions I decided I'd have to give the new Vista a try.

Our first problems were no one's fault but my own. I moved the downloaded ISO installation file over to Satine, a working laboratory system, because she had a late model Plextor DVD writer and I thought she had Nero Burning Rom Version 7. Of course when we went to burn the disk, we found that what I had thought was Nero 7 was in fact a version of the Nero sound editor that had come with the CD included with the (highly recommended) Geoghegan and Klass, Podcast Solutions (Apress). It had nothing to do with burning DVD's. That set me to looking for my installation copy of Nero, which was of course hiding in plain sight on my desk. Meanwhile, I discovered that we had Nero 5 on Wendy. Nero 5 was happy to burn an ISO copy onto a Maxell DVD+-R/W disk blank, albeit at only 2X speed.

While that was burning, Alex found Nero 7 and installed it on Satine. Nero 7 supports 4X DVD burning, so we probably could have started a burn on Satine after the installation and have finished before Wendy was done with the 2X burn. In any event, the disk was burned and labeled, and popped into the Gigabyte Athlon test system.

It booted fine. It started Windows Vista. Then it crashed to a blue screen. The blue screen said that if you'd never seen that screen before, try again. We tried again, and got back to the blue screen. It takes several minutes to get there.

The other blue screen instruction was to turn off all BIOS cache and such like, and if that didn't work, update the BIOS. We'd already turned off all caches.

The BIOS Game

Gigabyte is a quality company and makes quality motherboards, but their web site support is disorganized at best. Google sent us to the Taiwan home support site. That site had never heard of the K8NS Pro 754 motherboard. Indeed, the box the motherboard came in had no indication that it was a Socket 754 system, nor did anything printed on the motherboard itself; I know, because I examined it with a strong light. K8NS Pro was the designation, and there was no mention of any socket number whatever, on the box or on the motherboard. However, when I looked on the tiny "map" of the motherboard layout, (this is the little printed plan view that you paste onto the side of the case), the CPU socket was designated "Socket 754". Of course I didn't find that until later. Until I did, the only designation I had for the board was K8NS Pro.

The only BIOS update on the Gigabyte Taiwan support site was for a K8NS Pro 939. We downloaded that, and burned it onto a DVD.

Now some of you will already be smiling. Socket 754 systems are single channel Hypertransport; Socket 939 is dual channel. A BIOS update meant for a 939 system isn't going to work on a 754 system. We didn't know that yet, and it would be a while before we found it out.

It took a while, because you can't update a BIOS from a DVD or CD-ROM. Unless you have Windows running, you can't update the BIOS unless you have a good old fashioned floppy, not a USB floppy, but one of those that connects with a flat cable (with the twist) to the motherboard. And, of course, we hadn't put any floppy drive into that system, which was originally intended to run 64-bit Windows XP and later Vista. It was a modern machine intended for modern operating systems and didn't need no stinking floppy. Only it did. The blue screen told us to update the BIOS, and to update the BIOS we needed a floppy.

Of course I didn't have any spare floppy drives. I did have some semi-obsolete machines that have floppy drives. I will spare you the next half hour of disassembly except to tell you that I would like to find and beat senseless the chap who designed the case for the machine I chose. To open up this machine you must take off the front panel; the side panels then slide forwards. None of this is obvious. But eventually we extracted a floppy drive from that older machine, and installed it in the new modern machine, and tried the BIOS update.

To Gigabyte's great credit, it wouldn't even attempt to install the improper BIOS. That led to a call to Robert Bruce Thompson, who used his vast experience and good luck with Google to find a BIOS update for a Gigabyte K8NS Pro 754 on a Czech web site. This seemed an overzealous exercise in trust. Now more searching. Google didn't want to admit that other places exist, but eventually Bob found the Gigabyte USA site, which is where we should have been looking in the first place, and lo! there was a K8NS Pro 754 BIOS update. He emailed me the URL, we went there, downloaded it, wrote it to a floppy, and that took care of the BIOS update

.

The moral of this story is that your experimental machine should have a floppy drive. Production machines usually get a BIOS update from inside Windows, and may go all their lives without needing access to a floppy, but experimental machines may need a BIOS, or boot drivers, before you can install any OS at all, and for that you'll need a plain vanilla floppy drive. A floppy drive costs under twenty bucks and takes less than ten minutes to install when you're building a new system. Install one. It's cheap insurance.

Bringing Up Vista

The BIOS was updated, after many adventures. We inserted the boot DVD, let it run - and got the blue screen again. The blue screen instructions had no more help for us.

However: as the machine was booting up, we noted that there was reference to a hardware RAID. That RAID wasn't used, but there was apparently some reference to it in the BIOS. We entered the Bios and turned off all references to the RAID, inserted the boot DVD, let it run - and voila! We were asked for an activation key. Back to MSDN, find the product key for Vista, type it in. Choose to reformat the Seagate Barracuda Serial ATA 150 Gbyte C: drive, which went much faster than under XP. Then let the installer run. About two hours later (a very slow fuel gauge shows progress, but there's no other indication that things are happening) we were looking at the February Windows Vista splash screen. Unlike the September edition of Vista, the February build never mentions Longhorn.

Drivers, Drivers, Drivers

The next problem was connecting to the Internet. The previous version of Vista had been connected to the D-LINK Megabit Ethernet Switch, and that had certainly worked, so we never thought of changing that connection - but this version of Vista didn't recognize the gigabit connection. There were no flashing lights either at the switch or at the Ethernet terminal on the back of the computer. Device Manager thought it saw an Ethernet connection, but there was something wrong with it. Eventually we found that the remedy was to connect to a 10/100 Ethernet switch. That worked, using the built-in Vista Ethernet drivers for the motherboard's Marvell Ethernet chip.

The sound drivers installed themselves all right, and we got sound. The video didn't work properly, but nVidia had a new set of Vista video drivers, literally two days old. Those installed properly, and rid us of one unknown nVidia device in Device Manager. Now the video works, at 1280 by 1024 by 85Hz refresh.

As for the rest, Vista hates my hardware. Oh, it identifies most of the components; the RAID hardware is still an "unknown mass storage device", despite being disabled in the BIOS; there are two other just plain "unknown" devices. USB works fine, the nVidia sound driver works, and we can get onto the network. Yet: the machine won't stay up long enough to do any Windows update, and if you are sufficiently curious as to open Computer Management you get a blue screen. In fact, if you leave the system alone for about 7 minutes, it will quite reliably crash on its own.

Now clearly there are plenty of people who have February Vista working properly, and it's very likely that we have just the hardware - a Gigabyte K8NS Pro 754 nForce3-based board with an Athlon 64 3000+ - that it won't work with. Neither the MSDN newsgroups, nor Google Groups, nor any of the less-reliable chat sites have anything useful to say about this. Remember, this hardware configuration worked just fine with the September 2005 Longhorn beta, and we haven't changed a thing.

My remedy will be to check with associates to determine a hardware combination that the February Vista is known to work with, and install it on that. I should have that done in a week or two, probably before the end of this month.

Meanwhile, most of you will get Vista when you buy a machine that has Vista. When those machines begin to appear - sometime late this year, apparently, since the shipment date of Vista to OEM's doesn't appear to have slipped, or if so not by much - it will be time to decide whether to upgrade existing systems, and what OS to install on machines we build. Until then, there's little about Vista that can change my life or yours, and speculation seems a needless opportunity to be wrong, with little upside.

I make no doubt that there will be a lot about Vista at WinHEC, including, with luck, the next Vista beta. I am going to WinHEC, as usual, and I'll pay close attention, and with luck I will already have some experience with February Vista. We did manage to get the earlier Vista running, and I thought it was cool. After WinHEC I'll check to be sure of hardware requirements and install the version I get there, because I think I am going to like it.

What I really want is a version stable enough to install on this machine, the one I'm writing this on, a "main machine," because that way I'll use it a lot and get some real information on how good it is at doing real work. Until I have something stable that I know will work with regular hardware, though, Vista will be a distraction, installed on a test machine I use when I have time and I'm in test drive mode: and that's not a real test by my standards. We do a lot of silly things so you don't have to, but our real job is using stuff to see how it works doing real tasks, not planned test suites.

I am also looking forward to an Intel Mac; I suspect that about the time I get one, I'll be able to put Vista on an iMac as a separate partition. I'll then have a computer that can do Apple OS X, Linux, Windows XP, and Vista. With Parallel and Microsoft Virtual PC for the Mac I'll be able to run a whole bunch of operating systems on an iMac, although Vista on the Intel Mac may be confined to dual boot for a while.

I look forward to that with considerable anticipation.

Make Magazine

I have mentioned this one before, but it's worth reminding you: if you have any skill at gadgetry, or even interest in such things, O' Reilly's Make is the magazine/book series for you. There are projects ranging from toys to the serious. Volume 6 has instructions on how to convert your Prius to allow it to be charged from an external electric power source. I am not convinced I'd undertake that task from the instructions in Make, but it's certainly a good way to estimate the difficulty involved.

Most, if not all, the projects are reports from those who have done them. There are also book reports, product reviews, and general articles; the latter are, to me, the least interesting features.

Even if you never build any of the projects, I find it hard to believe you won't find this more than worth the price of subscription; and if you do undertake one of them, it will certainly save you money. Recommended.

You Can't Say We Weren't Warned

I use and recommend GoDaddy for domain registration. Alex uses GoDaddy.com for registering his client's domains, and recently missed a renewal deadline. Here's his sobering if obvious report.

"I have no one to blame but myself. GoDaddy sends you nag-o-grams, starting 90 days before the domain renewal deadline, and with increasing frequency as you near it. There's also a short grace period after the actual expiry.

"I called GoDaddy's customer support about a week after the grace period had expired, too late to fish it out of purgatory without penalty. The lady on the phone was perfectly nice, but there was no way I could renew for the original $17 price. My options were: (1) Pay $85 to GoDaddy to, essentially, buy it back from them or (2) wait until the auction for the domain happened, hope no one overbid me, and then maybe get it back, a mere 45 days after expiration. Since GoDaddy had automatically grabbed the domain name for themselves, I couldn't just transfer it to a different registrar, at least not quickly and certainly. I paid.

"Now, you can look at this as a cheap lesson in laziness, or a great money-making opportunity for registrars. I suspect GoDaddy's greenmail price was lower than another registrars would have been.

"The lessons are: (1) make sure you renew in time, or better yet, automatically renew (if you care about the domain); (2) make sure your registrar has a working e-mail address in their records. And, despite their reputation, GoDaddy, like every other registrar, is in the business to make money, and that includes off boneheads like me."

I call it a bonehead tax, and I can't really blame GoDaddy for collecting it. The moral of this story should be obvious.

Serious Magic's Ovation: A First Look

Serious Magic (link) grew out of the wreckage of Play, Inc., the originators of the Trinity digital video-editing/switching system. Serious is best known for Visual Communicator, a software package for creating video presentations by mere mortals—think canned webcasting with TV-news-style graphics.

Serious has now released "Ovation for PowerPoint", designed to breathe life into boring PowerPoint presentations, adding motion graphics plus better text and text animation to them. This isn't a new idea; Chaos Manor has seen half a dozen "PowerPoint improvers" in the last decade, but none proved successful in the marketplace. Serious may have changed that. This is a first look at the program by Alex.

"In short: Ovation imports PowerPoint presentations and shows them with 3D graphics and backgrounds. There's more, as I'll discuss, but it deserves attention for those two alone.

"Ovation comes with sample chapters from "Beyond Bullet Points: Using Microsoft PowerPoint to Create Presentations That Inform, Motivate and Inspire", by Cliff Atkinson (Microsoft Press). This chapbook asks an essential question: "What's the intended message of your presentation?"—often the most important, and overlooked, part of a slide show. While not "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information", Edward Tufte's masterpiece, it's good and targeted reading. For instance, Atkinson asks whether your slide titles are themselves informative or descriptive; without you in the room, would your audience gain any information from reading them? Too often, the answer is no—including in my own presentations.

"Ovation itself loads as a separate application, and also embeds a new button in your PowerPoint, called "Save and Go to Ovation", by which you export your PowerPoint presentation to same. But: before I explore that, a few PowerPoint annoyances.

"I use Microsoft Word as my main editing and outline tool, writing the presentation text in outline form. I then use Word's "Send to PowerPoint" feature (File | Send to | Send to Microsoft PowerPoint) to push the results into PowerPoint. This is less distracting for me than composing within PowerPoint, where I'm much more tempted to fiddle with the slide layout than get any actual work done. If I need to correct the presentation, I do it in Word, and re-export. This yields a completely graphic-free presentation in PowerPoint, since only text is exported, but that again allows me to concentrate on the words.

"The actual send isn't difficult, but I had forgotten how brain-dead the transfer to PowerPoint is. You must use the Heading formats (Heading1, Heading2, etc.) as outline levels within Word, or the send will yield one PowerPoint slide with all your text in a big blob. So: Within Word, use outline mode, and religiously view in Outline mode, ere you must fiddle with the format of every slug. Ahem.

"Once sent to PowerPoint, then click "Save and Go to Ovation", which imports your text, taking about 5 seconds per slide. Choose a PowerLook, Ovation's term for the preloaded 3D looks they offer. The program's power is immediately apparent: Text is more professional, the built-in text animations are smoother, background graphics are 3D, animated, and smooth. Click a different PowerLook and it loads, in about 5 seconds. Serious Magic designed the program to work well on an ATI Radeon 7000 or newer—about 3 years back. I have yet to see a glitch on the Radeon X600 in my H-P Pavilion zd8000 using Ovation, at resolutions up to 1450 by 900, which cannot be said for PowerPoint 2003.

"Ovation's other major innovation is the "Present" tab, the equivalent of PowerPoint's "Slide Show" button. This is a full-fledged two-screen presentation manager. Not a new concept; PowerPoint has allowed dual-monitor presentations since at least '97. In fact, I may be one of the few beings on the planet who used the two-computers-connected-by-a-serial-cable PowerPoint presentation mode, formerly the only way to have a different view for the presenter and the audience.

"PowerPoint 2003 of course supports dual-monitor mode, where the show notes and the slide chooser are visible to the presenter, and the presentation shows to the audience on your external monitor. Ovation takes this a step further, letting you time yourself in rehearsals, then use that time as your guide, with red/green progress bars for each slide, and an overall count-up or count-down timer—all without affecting the presentation screen.

"Ovation's presentation controls are most direct from PowerPoint: Space bar to go forward, backspace to reverse. The "B" key switches between a black slide and your presentation, "W" between a white slide and presentation, as does PowerPoint (I didn't know this until I used Ovation). Type the slide number and the program goes there, so "1" goes to the first slide and "99" to the last, unless you have a huge slide deck.

"If you find a slide you'd like to edit, or fiddle with the slide order, go back to PowerPoint and edit there (or if you're me, go back to Word and re-export to PowerPoint). Alternatively, right-click the slide and choose "Edit in PowerPoint". Ovation isn't a complete standalone presentation package, though there are hints Version 2.0 might be.

"Ovation feels like, and is, a solid 1.0 product. There have been and will continue to be free-to-download maintenance updates, and I seem to be the first person to ever complain about the program crashing and leaving itself in a state where the only way to restart Ovation was to restart my computer. After discussion with Serious, I probably should have closed PowerPoint itself, since the PowerPoint-to-Ovation converter was probably the culprit. They're looking into this.

"Ovation doesn't yet directly support slide header/footer or master slide items, commonly used to caption the overall presentation. You can customize the presentation's look (Options tab | Customize Look) by inserting backgrounds, foregrounds and logos. However, to fully control the look, you must render your background or foreground as a graphic (even if it's text). I used Photoshop's text tool and saved an 8-bit RGB .JPG file. For best results, save at the target resolution and aspect ratio. If you don't know either, for instance you don't know what display device the customer has, that could be an issue. Logos are a bit simpler, since they are automatically scaled by Ovation, but they can only appear in the upper right corner. If you have a circular logo, make sure the background is all white, and use the "mask" checkbox, and Ovation will properly impose it (which PowerPoint doesn't do properly).

"Ovation also doesn't import custom text or graphics animations, and I'm sure there are a dozen other obscure PowerPoint features cherished by the masses which are simply not imported. Still, Ovation's presentation engine, the quality of its text, and the great-looking 3D backgrounds are immediately superior to PowerPoint's. If those latter features are worthwhile to you, check it out. At $99, it's a cheap experiment, and it might keep the chairman of the board awake during your next presentation."

Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

If you ever liked role playing Dungeons games, you will like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. It differs from my oldest favorites (most of which no one else remembers) Wizard's Crown, Darklands, and the more recent Baldur's Gate, in that you control only one character. You don't start with a group, and you don't add newcomers to your party. Once in a while you may have help from non-player characters, but you have no control over them, and for the most part they're a pain because you have to keep them alive and they aren't very smart. This is very much a solo game, and there is no multi-player version. You're not going to use this in a LAN party.

Given that, it's excellent.

It takes skill, and those skills have to be learned. It's not enough to run up to a bandit, or a monster, or even a rat, and just bash at it. You have to hit it, and if you have a shield you have to use that. You can also block with your sword, and if you're using a two-handed sword that's the only blocking you can do. Meanwhile, you can cast spells, and you'd better be familiar with what spells you know and how good you are with them. Learning spell combinations, and what to use against which enemy, takes a lot of work. That's part of the fun.

The game starts by assigning you a mission, which seems both critical and urgent. It's certainly critical, in that the primary game path does in fact determine the future of the world, but it's not really urgent. That's just as well. If you pursue the main quest, the first part is not only simple, but useful: first, you'll get better armor and weapons, but that's probably going to happen if you pay any attention at all to the conversation with the Abbot. Second, hang around the monastery and talk to everyone until you get a horse. Eventually someone will offer one to you. That part isn't obvious.

Learn horse riding early. When you run, you use the mouse to point yourself, and the w, a, s, d keys move you (a and d strafe or slide). When you ride, the a and d keys turn your horse, and the mouse doesn't. It only turns your head so you can look around, but you'll be riding in a straight line. It took me a while learn that. There are two views, a first person view and an over-the-shoulder third person view. I can't fight in third person view, and first person is more fun and realistic anyway, but I can't ride unless I switch to third person. You can't fight from horseback, so that's not a problem. Switch to first when you dismount to fight.

Exploring roads by horse (you dismount to look through ruins, or investigate shrines, or visit inns and lonely farms) is fun, but it has one disadvantage: running builds up some abilities, and that helps advancement, and you won't get the buildup from riding. The remedy to that is to run around exploring. Your horse will wait patiently by the side of the road.

And once you get that horse, do go exploring, and don't be in a big hurry to go on the primary quest. Build yourself up. Make some money. Get more powerful spells. Fight in the arena and both make money and earn experience. Cast spells. Like the wonderful old Dungeon Master games for the Atari, you get better at what you do in this game. Cast fireballs at anything inanimate or even into a cave to light your way; the more you cast the better at it you get. Same for all other spells.

Learn to enchant your weapons, and how to renew the enchantment. And one of the first things you'll want is a "feather" spell that temporarily allows you to carry more junk than your strength enables. Use that, collect everything, and teleport to a place where you can sell it before the spell wears off. That alone will save you a lot of time. Eventually money will be easier to come by, but at first it's hard to get.

Explore the world. It's an astonishingly rich world, with hundreds of quests, some rewarding, some trivial, but mostly interesting.

When you've done all that, start saving the world. You'll enjoy that, too, and the world will still be there when you've finished all your Mage's Guild quests and Fighter's Guild contracts, and yes, you can belong to both guilds. In my case I built a character I call a Paladin (this is not one of the made-up classes for some reason). This is primarily a fighter wearing heavy armor, but with the ability to heal and cast fireballs and do some illusions. He's as much at home in a conclave of mages as in drinking bouts with other warriors, and that armor and a big weapon sure come in handy in fights with wizards. If you can get at an enemy wizard it's amazing what a few whacks with a longsword will do, and shields are useful against fireballs...

I asked Pete Hines, one of the game developers, for a quote on what they were proudest of. He said, "I think we're mostly proud of the whole thing. The fact that we created this big, vibrant world where you can go and do whatever you want and have your experiences be completely different than someone else who's also playing the game. It can't be overstated how hard it is to do something on this scale, to this level of detail, with this much freedom, and have it all work and be really fun. It's a terrific accomplishment."

I agree. Recommended.

Hired Girl

Robert Heinlein's novel The Door Into Summer made a number of technological predictions. One of them was a series of household robots. The first one was called Hired Girl, and it cleaned floors. Although Heinlein thought of it as a very simple robot, we still don't have anything quite like it.

There are automated vacuum cleaners, and friends who have tried them are enthusiastic. I don't have one of those, but I do have iRobot's Scooba, that I picked up from Brookstone.

iRobot's Scooba
iRobot's Scooba at work.

Scooba mops floors. I was quite skeptical about it before I tried it. In our case, the kitchen and breakfast room are connected, and the breakfast room table isn't easily removed: Scooba would have to clean around the table legs. I did stack the chairs.

To use Scooba, you charge the battery, fill the tanks with cleaning liquid, set it in the middle of the kitchen floor, and turn it on. Then you get out of the way. An hour later, your floor is clean.

It's not entirely dry, or at least mine wasn't, but it only took a couple of minutes with a Swiffer mop to get it dry. Actually, I just used the mop to clear a path so we could get to the coffee, and let the rest of the floor dry on its own. Then I emptied the dirty water tank, rinsed it all out, and put it away. It took me about five minutes to set up Scooba, and less time to clean it and put it away; and the floor was clean. Not just clean by my standards: Roberta agrees.

It's not Heinlein's Hired Girl, but if you hate mopping floors and you like robots, you'll like this. It really does work.

Let There Be Light

Pantographic lights for product photos
One way to get light for product illustrations. If you look closely you'll see the two pantographic light arms with fluorescent bulbs. It's a good rig, but the color balance is off a bit. The Lowel Ego light system on the left isn't turned on yet.
Pantographic lights and Lowel Ego in action
The goose neck fluorescents in action, with the Lowel Ego turned on. The color is considerably better.

Most of my product photographs are done here at Chaos Manor, and I have learned from experience what all professional photographers know: the lighting is more important than the camera. You can take good pictures in good light with a mediocre camera, but if the light's no good, the best camera in the world will take better pictures than a bad one, but its best won't be very good.

My first attempt to solve this was a pair of pantographic lights with fluorescent bulbs. This worked pretty well, and most of the column photos from the past couple of months were done with that rig.

Then Alex brought over his Lowel Ego light system (link). This has two high temperature (white light) fluorescents in a diffusion enclosure, and a reflector. The box has a mount on the bottom so that it can be attached to a tripod. Alternatively you can set it on a table, and use the diffusing reflector on the other side. I'll continue to experiment with the system because it does give better color balance.

My next move will be to get at least one of the Lowel Ego lights and a tripod. Actually, I'll need three tripods, two for the lights and a third for a video camera: the goal is to set up for video Podcasting. Stay tuned...

Belkin Pre-N Followup

There is still no official "N" WiFi standard. We long ago installed the Belkin "Pre-N" wireless router , and as we reported, our wireless "cloud" is much larger, and our throughput is better with the Belkin Pre-N than with any non-N wireless we have tried. If we take the trouble to insert the Belkin Pre-N wireless card in a laptop, we get even wider coverage, but with the built-in WiFi in all the laptops we have tried so far, including the HP Tablet PC and the IBM PowerBook, the reception is superb.

The last I heard, the official "N" standard will be released sometime this year, and there's no guarantee that Belkin or any other "Pre-N" will work with it when it comes out; but it sure works now, and the increase in coverage and connectivity even with the older WiFi systems has made it very much worth using here.

Still recommended.

Belkin Battery Pack

If you're an iPod fanatic and just can't stand the notion of being without iPod power, Belkin makes a handsome battery backup unit. Fill it with 4 AA batteries - either expendable or rechargeable - and you'll have 15 to 20 hours of iPod playing time. I confess I haven't tested this to depletion: after ten hours I had to go out, and didn't look at it again for a day or so. I can testify that it works for at least ten hours, but runs out of juice before 24 hours have gone by. Belkin says 15 to 20, and I have no reason to doubt it. It will sure last as long as most airline trips.

There's a power level indicator, a secure on/off switch, and a non-marring system for attaching it to your iPod. It works.

Belkin TuneDok for iPod

Belkin's TuneDok for iPod
The Belkin TuneDok serving as a viewing stand. Usually the mount attaches in the other direction and rides in a cupholder.

The one I have is black, but it comes in white as well. If you're desperate to have your iPod with you at all times, but you're worried about where to put it in your car, the Belkin TuneDok is a good solution - provided, of course, that you have a spare cupholder. The TuneDok comes with a couple of different sized adapters, and it can double as a desk stand.

My preference for a desk stand is the Brookstone unit with stereo speakers I reviewed a couple of months ago. I use that all the time. But for carrying your iPod in a car, the Belkin TuneDok looks good to me.

Books

We get a lot more books than I can fit into my "Book of the Month" section. Some are worth ignoring, but many are quite good.

Phishing Exposed, by Lance James, from Secure Science Corporation (Syngress) is highly technical. As Dan Spisak says, this isn't one of the "for Dummies" series; but if you need to deal with phishing in any of its manifestations, this is must reading. Examples, anecdotes, methods; how to detect phishing scams and what to do about them; how to harvest email addresses; it's all here. If you're interested in phishing and willing to put some time into reading, this is a good place to go. I'd also recommend it to novelists who want to write about modern scams: there are many examples.

While we're on the subject of writing fiction, there are a lot of books on how to write, but not many I'll recommend. I do recommend Dwight Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer, which is still in print, and William C. Knott, The Craft of Fiction, which I think is not.

If you want to be ready for Longhorn - well, it's called Vista now - you'll need to know Monad, the new MSH Command Shell and Language. Monad, an O'Reilly book by Andy Oakley, will get you started. The book includes instructions on how to download and install the Monad shell. Like all O'Reilly books it's well edited. If you're an administrator or developer who'll be concerned with Vista, you'll need to know Monad. This is a way to get a head start.

The O'Reilly Pogue Press "Missing Manual" series is generally excellent, and J. D. Biersdorfer's iPod & iTunes is no exception. If you suspect there's more to the iPod than just a music player, you're right, and this book will tell you about it.

In Our Hands

It's not a computer book, but it may be important. Charles Murray's In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State (American Enterprise Institute) presents a plan to scrap all existing welfare and income transfer programs - Social Security, Medicare, and all forms of welfare - and replace them with a single program to pay every American citizen age 21 and older $10,000 a year for life.

It sounds nuts, but I have known Murray for years, and he's anything but a nut. He's a libertarian sociologist, which is a pretty rare bird; and unlike most sociologists I know, he's well grounded in the mathematics required to do economic and statistical analysis. Moreover, he has made the worst-case most conservative assumptions you can make for his economic predictions. With all that, his plan initially costs more than we pay at present, but somewhere around 2015 begins to cost less. That assumes quite predictable increases in the cost of our present system.

Many of my associates have what look like obvious questions about Murray's plan. If you're interested in such matters I urge you to read his book, not a summary that repeats his arguments: whether the summary is done by one of Murray's sympathizers (I count him as a friend; we have been in a discussion group for years) or one of his enemies, it is unlikely to be as carefully done as Murray himself writes. Unlike most sociologists, Murray knows both his mathematical/statistical tools and his economics, and he covers the questions well.

Murray says that the chances of our adopting his plan are quite slim; but since we are going to have to replace what we are doing, we may as well consider something that seems preferable.

His examples are well chosen, he writes interestingly, and he deals with all the questions you probably have. If we are fortunate, this book will expand our policy horizons and cause new debates. We can quibble about when the system we employ now will bankrupt us, but it does seem inevitable that it will. As Herb Stein was fond of saying, if something cannot go on for forever, it will stop. Our present welfare system cannot possibly go on forever.

Followup on cameras

I've been using the Kodak EasyShare 570 Dual Lens pocket camera since CES last January. It works quite well, with this caution: like all cameras that have no viewfinder, it's hard to use outdoors under some bright sun conditions. Usually that's not really a problem but I have sometimes found myself using a hat, or a bandanna, to shade the screen and even then having to squint. On the other hand, the best camera in the world isn't much use if you don't have it with you. The EasyShare 570 fits nicely in a breast pocket - in fact both the EasyShare 570 and my little Nokia cell phone will both fit in the pocket of my polo shirt, which means I have it with me most of the time.

It's easy to carry, it gets good pictures, and the dual lens system works well for both closeup and distance. Still recommended.

I'm still learning to use the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ30. This is a big "official" camera. It takes great pictures on automatic. It does even better if you know what you're doing with manual adjustments. I've had a few lessons from George Margolin, and I'm going to set aside a couple of hours a week to learn more. The fact that I'm putting scarce free time into learning it should tell you I like it a lot.

Winding Down

The game of the month is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which we discussed earlier. In my judgment, it's the best role-playing game around.

The Movie of the Month is Ice Age 2: Meltdown. It's a children's movie, I guess, but Roberta and I enjoyed it greatly. It's fun, easy to watch, and just the right thing to see if you've been working too hard.

The book of the month is Charles Murray's In Our Hands.

The Computer book of the month is Google: The Missing Manual (2nd Edition, O'Reilly). I thought I knew how to use Google, but it turns out I didn't. This book tells about advanced search techniques, and the Google Answers research service, which I had never heard of. Did you know that Google bought Urchin, one of the premium web-tracking services, and reduced their $500/month price tag to zero? It's now called Google Analytics, and it will analyze your web site, track your visitors, and summarize their habits.

There's lots more in the Google Missing Manual. I've found it one of the most useful books I've run across this year, and I can't think how anyone who bothers to read this column could fail to find something useful, worth more than the price of the book. Highly recommended.