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Computing At Chaos Manor

The User's Column, June, 2006
Column 311
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

[Editor's note: This column was written in week-at-a-time segments, then assembled into the June column.]

The Singularity

May was an interesting month, although interesting may be the wrong word for it. It was certainly anything but dull. In addition to getting the column out, and churning out a couple of chapters of fiction, there were the trips.

Trip one was a drive up to Stanford University for the "Summit conference on the Singularity". Niven and I got a lot of work done on the drive up, and we were able to spend a good bit of time with John McCarthy, founder of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The "Singularity" is the predicted moment at which all the trend curves go vertical, and prediction of trends becomes impossible. Precisely when this will happen - or if it will happen - isn't known. Some make it fairly soon. Others are more reserved.

One mark of "the singularity" will be a "strong" artificial intelligence: an AI capable of modifying itself, realizing that it needs to be smarter, and making itself more intelligent. When that happens, say Singularity enthusiasts, all bets are off. Then there's nano-technology, which raises the specter of a tiny self-replicating robot gone wild so that the entire surface of the Earth and all creatures on it are converted into copies of nano-robots; the Earth will then look from space to be covered with "gray goo." And finally, Roy Kurzweil has written a book called "Dare To Live Long Enough To Live Forever," and he's dead serious. You can find my report on the Singularity Summit on my web site at this link. Comes the Singularity, comrades, and we'll all live forever, if the robots don't kill the lot of us.

I no sooner got back from the Singularity Conference at Stanford than it was time to head for Seattle and WinHEC.

WinHEC 2006

WinHEC, the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, is one of my favorite conferences of the year, and I haven't missed one for nearly a decade. I generally take my son Alex to WinHEC, and once there team up with Peter Glaskowsky, and we usually find there's far more going on than the three of us can cover.

This year, alas, while it was definitely interesting - I will certainly go again next year, and attendance at WinHEC remains a must for product developers - it fell a bit short, particularly in comparison to prior years. To begin with, the plenary sessions, except for Bill Gates's opening keynote, were less technical than in previous years. They were all by Microsoft executives, but instead of Allchin and others of his rank, they were either by marketing rather than technical people, or by those much further down in the pecking order, or both.

There was no question period. For years it has been traditional that Bill Gates didn't take questions, and that's understandable, but no one else in the plenary sessions did either. Nor, alas, was there a press conference or press lunch. The upshot was that there was a decided lack of opportunity to question what we were force-fed. Couple that with far more marketoids than geeks in the main sessions.

In past times, there were non-Microsoft keynotes, presentations by ATI and nVidia, Intel and AMD, all Microsoft partners, but each with an interestingly different viewpoint. Finally, one of the highlights of the old WinHEC was a plenary session of Michael Slater of Microprocessor Report ( ) analyzing the future: what was coming in CPU chips, and why that would be important. Slater left the post of Editor in Chief at Microprocessor Report several years ago. His slot on the WinHEC agenda was taken over by Peter Glaskowsky, a name that most readers will find familiar. Glaskowsky has left Microprocessor Report and only comes to WinHEC as a conference attendee; and WinHEC has not found a replacement, which is unfortunate. WinHEC really needs an impartial look at the future of chip technology, and Microsoft ought right now to be looking for someone to do that session next year.

Was Their Heart In It?

I have never seen Bill Gates so down as when giving the opening WinHEC keynote. The common phrase in the press room was that he had phoned it in. One wonders why. Some speculate that it's the slippage in the Vista shipping date: it's hard to be enthusiastic about a product that's terribly late, and has lost the file system that was once one of its key features.

Even so, it's not as if he didn't have a lot to announce. We all left WinHEC with beta 2 copies of both 32 and 64 bit Windows Vista (much more on those in the rest of the column), and Office 12 now known as Office 2007. We also got the beta 2 of Windows Server Code Name "Longhorn" in both 32 and 64 bit versions. That's a lot of code, and while they are still beta versions, they're pretty stable. The new "Longhorn" Server doesn't look exciting, but that's because servers don't look exciting: its virtual server features will intrigue server enthusiasts. Note that my disks say this is Beta 2 of Longhorn Server, but Longhorn Server 2007 release date has not been announced; it will certainly be long after Vista ships.

FlexGo

And if that weren't enough, Microsoft announced their new FlexGo "pay as you go" plan, under which computers will be sold on the "cell phone" marketing scheme: you pay a nominal fee for the computer itself, then buy use time much as you buy prepaid cell phone minutes. When you've bought enough minutes, the requirement to buy "minutes" on your system goes away and you own it in fee simple. The plan has been tested in Brazil and elsewhere, and seems to work; and it's supported by a number of hardware manufacturers. The result is potentially two billion more customers for Microsoft; that is, there are billions more cell phone users than computer users, world wide.

There has been much speculation about the security of FlexGo. Surely it can be hacked? The consensus at WinHEC was that while it probably can be, it won't be a simple thing to do, and having been done it won't be easy to share the hacking techniques. FlexGo systems won't work without an Internet connection (probably through an Internet café or public library), and the scratch and sniff "minutes" (more likely hours) cards contain nothing more than a number which must be validated by Internet connection to the central data base. Using a stolen number will identify the user and location.

I have my doubts. The hacker community has proven a match for most security schemes. On the other hand, many hardware manufacturers are supporting the FlexGo plan with implementation at the BIOS level.

Hypervisor

And if all that weren't enough, this year's WinHEC had more details about "Windows Hypervisor," a command and control layer that sits between the hardware and the operating systems in much the same way that the OS sits between the hardware and the applications programs. The difference here is that Hypervisor allows you to manage several operating systems, all running at the same time. One might have, for example, several virtual Windows machines, perhaps running identical versions of Windows and perhaps not; one might be 32 bit and running DOS applications, while another virtual system runs Windows Vista 64 which can't run DOS apps. Then you could have, still on the same machine, several virtual instances of Linux; a version of UNIX itself; and perhaps even the Mac OS X.

Running this many virtual machines will require considerable hardware resources, but the good news is that multiple core CPU chips are bringing that era of computer resource plenty closer and closer. The Hypervisor concept and early technology was developed by IBM many years ago. At WinHEC 2006 we saw a demonstration of Windows Server operating in a system with 32 dual core CPU chips: Task Manager on the desktop showed 64 small graphs of CPU and memory usage.

All this seemed exciting enough, at least to me. Perhaps Gates was just off his feed. On the other hand, other Microsoft presentations were equally low key.

An Era of Computing Plenty

Both Intel and AMD are excited enough about their upcoming systems. AMD has stolen several marches on Intel, and is vigorously pursuing every advantage they can get. AMD just about owns the high end gaming markets now.

My sources say that advantage won't last. When the Intel 64-bit dual core Core 2 Duo comes out, they will take back much of the high end games market, and Intel will once again rule the desktops. This is in spite of a major architectural advantage to AMD: on AMD dual and multiple core CPS chips, the individual processors have a direct point to point connection to their share of memory. The processors communicate with each other, and with memory, without resorting to the front side bus. Intel multiple core CPU systems, in contrast, must go out to the bus for that communication.

This hardly matters for dual-processor desktop systems, but it will become important with multi-processor server systems running with an OS that allows an arbitrary number of virtual servers, each given ample resources to meet base loads and able to requisition more resources to meet peak demands.

Core 2 Duo comes in several flavors. The best known is code named Conroe, for desktop systems, and will come out in July. The same product name, Core 2 Duo, will be used in laptops (code name Merom), and servers (code name Woodcrest). Woodcrest ships later this month. Merom is announced for August.

My conclusion - it's more than a guess, at least - is that when the Core 2 Duo products hit the market, Intel will make serious inroads on AMD's new-found desktop market success, but it will be a different story in the server world. This is based on smoke, mirrors, rumors, and a few solid facts from sources I can't reveal who have been astonished by early bench mark tests of Core 2 Duo capabilities.

For desktop systems the presently available chip architecture is more than good enough. Servers are a different matter. The real question here is, when will Intel come out with an improved design that has its own memory access and management inside the multiple-core CPU chip? If anyone knows the answer to that, he's not talking to me, nor, I suspect, to anyone else. Intel has always been very good at keeping secrets.

It won't quite be the era of computer plenty, with Hypervisor being the most important software you own, but come August we'll see a good start. I lust for the new Intel Mac systems, but my conclusion and advice remain the same as last month: wait for the 64-bit Core 2 Duo systems. You'll be glad you did.

I will have a good bit more about what we learned at WinHEC in later installments of the column.

VISTA 64, Beta 2

There was a conference for Vista Reviewers. Alas, it wasn't announced, at least not to either Alex or me or Envisioneering's Richard Doherty, so I have no idea of what went on there.

I came back from WinHEC in Seattle by way of San Jose where I was with Larry Niven a Guest of Honor at Baycon, a regional science fiction convention. Baycon was fun. I got to spend time with Dr. David Friedman, one of my more interesting friends, and Mike Flynn, coauthor with Larry Niven and me of Fallen Angels, the oddest novel I ever worked on. In addition to being a novelist, Mike is a quality control engineer, which is to say, a practicing statistician and probability theorist.

Alas, a couple of weeks before my May trips I picked up some kind of sinus irritation, and it became worrisome enough that I thought I ought to do something. I couldn't see my regular doctor. The result was a prescription for sulfa drugs. I was taking the course when I started for Seattle, but the side effects nearly laid me low, so I stopped taking them. This left me with a pain in my head, my tongue swollen enough to affect my speech, and a decided slowness in thought - all symptoms consistent with a mild stroke. Fortunately I had speeches to make at Baycon, and apparently I didn't sound like an idiot; and I was able to hold my own in conversations with David Friedman, so it's pretty clear my problems came from allergic reactions to sulfa rather than a stroke; but it was still worrying enough that I spent a couple of days with doctors. For those who have always thought I ought to have my head examined I can report that this has been done, complete with X-rays, with the result that I was put on a heavy dose of antibiotics.

If that weren't enough distraction, Sable, our Siberian Husky, developed a mild infection and needed antibiotics (apparently the same ones I get, although I take about double the dose she gets), and much of the week after my return was devoured by locusts, meaning that I didn't get Vista 64 installed until late in the week. I now have it running on two systems, both AMD Athlon 64 machines. One has an AGP video card, the other a screaming nVidia PCI-Express video card. We also have Office 2007 installed under Vista.

There's a lot to report.

It's Still Beta

The first and most important conclusion is that Windows Vista is cool, and has a lot of desirable features; but it's still beta. I know that some Microsoft people have been using Vista on their production desktop systems for weeks now, and a few have been using Office 2007 (formerly Office 12) for production work; but I would not advise any of my readers to try that yet.

It's not that you can't use Vista in its present state to get some real work done; but in my case, at least, we ran into more annoyances than I could put up with if I were trying to do creative writing.

A few problems are more than annoyances. For example, we installed Vista-64 on Satine, an Asus A8N32SLI Deluxe system. Satine - the name comes from Moulon Rouge: Satine is beautiful, fast, and high maintenance - was renamed Sativa during Vista installation so that we wouldn't be confusing Active Directory by having two very different machines with the same name. Once Vista 64 was installed and working, we installed Office 2007; then we went to the Microsoft Update site.

The result wasn't pretty: the system locked up to hardware reset. Apparently Microsoft Update doesn't want to work with Vista, at least not the 64-bit version. I haven't tried it with 32-bit Vista yet.

Another annoyance is hibernation: Vista has provision for hibernation and restore, and that works: but when you invoke hibernation, you get what looks like a scene from Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash on screen. The first time that happened we thought it was due to faulty video drivers, but we had the same result on all systems we have tried. One does wonder if Microsoft's test people have ever tried the hibernation feature?

Toast

Another annoyance is not a bug but a feature: whenever you do anything important in Vista, up comes a message balloon. Microsoft Vista has a new form that pops up out of the system tray; Microsoft engineers call them "toast", a name that seems appropriate for all popup message balloons regardless of just where they appear (and in Vista they can appear any and everywhere). These are messages informing you that you're about to do something, and asking if you really want to do that. Another toast popup will inform you that you must have administrator privileges to accomplish whatever it is you wanted to do.

All this is very deliberate, and for the most part I suppose I see the necessity. On the other hand, it can be carried too far. As an example, if you want to see your firewall settings, you can try to open the Firewall Window. When you do, you will be warned that you need Administrative privileges, and asked if you really want to do that. Now of course that would be appropriate if you were attempting to change the firewall and security settings, but why is it necessary if all you want is to view them?

I am told there is a way I haven't yet found to configure Vista so that many of these annoying messages go away. Alas, when you turn them off, you generally have to turn them all off. Microsoft really needs to assign levels to these message balloons, so that users have some hope of keeping the needed ones while disabling the rest.

Another "feature" is particularly goofy. Once we had Vista 64 running, one of the first programs I wanted to install was Norton Windows Commander, a file manager my fingers have learned down to the cellular level. Norton Commander is installed on every machine I use much. The original Norton Commander came on floppy disks, but Vivian, one of the machines we installed Vista on, doesn't have a floppy drive. Anyway, it's always faster simply to copy the Program Files/Norton Commander folder from a machine that has Commander to the new one.

First thing, then, was to connect to a machine that has Commander. That requires that I give a user name and password. Moreover, it wants those in a particular manner: DOMAIN/username, with the Domain name in all CAPS. OK, I type in CHAOSMANOR/jerry and my password. Up comes toast telling me that it wants DOMAIN/username, with the Domain name in all CAPS. Since I had put it into that format already, I wasn't sure what to do next, so I deleted it all and just told it jerry. This time I got the same message, but it showed VIVIAN/jerry in the user name box. Now I replaced VIVIAN with CHAOSMANOR, and voila! I have no idea why this should be so, but it's consistent.

Now that I was connected to another machine, I tried to copy the folder Program Files/Norton Commander from the distant machine into Vivian's Program Files directory. Naturally up came toast. Did I really want to do this? Yes I did. It takes administrator privileges. OK. I am logged in as a user with administrative privileges, and I know that's defeating the purpose of some of the security measures, but I just don't have time for all the hoohaw. Go ahead and do it, I click. There's a bit of a flash on the screen. Then - nothing. I can't find the new folder in Program Files. Indeed, I can't find the new folder at all. It hadn't copied, although I had told it, as an administrator, to do so. I tried several times in different ways. It would not copy into the Program Files folder no matter what I did.

All right. Create a folder called "DOWNS" on the local desktop. Now copy the Norton Commander folder from the distant machine to that. Lo! that works. It takes about a minute, and it's all there. Now move the Norton Commander folder into the Program Files folder. Up pops toast: the same messages as before. Yes, yes, yes, say I: At which point it does copy the Norton Commander folder from the desktop to the Program Files directory.

Commander needs some ancient runtime DLL files, and won't run without them. They usually lurk in the Windows/System32 folder. I copied them into the "DOWNS" desktop folder, thence into the Window/System32 folder on Vivian. Invoke Commander. It didn't work. Apparently Windows/System32 is not in the default Vista path.

The solution was to move those DLL files into the Norton Commander folder itself. That worked, and the bottom line is that Norton Commander works just fine; and while I can see the necessity for requiring administrator powers to copy files into the Program Files subdirectory, I do believe that once I give it an administrator name and password it ought to actually copy the files, not make me copy them twice; and if it refuses to copy them it ought to tell me so.

Listing Annoyances

One reason publishers send out beta copies is to get feedback on annoyances, and I have been collecting plenty of them; but when I list the annoyances that gives the wrong impression that I don't like Vista.

Actually, I like it quite a lot. It puts some sparkle in the system, and except for some of the annoyances, it's crisp and fast. When it's working properly it's a significant improvement over Windows XP, and I very much like XP. (Note: I am also fond of Mac OS X, and one thing to like about Vista is that it is increasingly Mac-like.)

Alas, Vista doesn't always work properly, and when it doesn't it's hard to determine what is wrong. There are serious interactions with hardware. We had to change video cards on the AGP system we use as a testbed, due to faulty video drivers that acted so badly we couldn't tell if the problem was hardware, software, or a bug in Vista. We had looked in vain for an updated video card driver; finally we changed to a different video card, one for which we found a Vista driver on line. That worked fine, and cured several of the problems we'd had earlier; yet not one of those problems had unambiguously pointed to the video drivers.

So: we are collecting bugs and annoyances to report to Microsoft in hopes they'll be fixed before the release candidate comes out. The bottom line here is that there are lots of reasons to like Vista. The version we have has even more reasons to dislike it. That can change, and I certainly hope that it will.

Buy Serenity on June 23!

I make no secret of being a fan of Joss Whedon's Firefly/Serenity series. Firefly was the TV series, which for some reason I missed until after it had been cancelled. I have since bought all the episodes on DVD and, with perhaps one exception, I very much enjoyed every one of them. The stories take place in a small but dense planetary system colonized by generation ships; there is no faster than light travel, but they do have very efficient interplanetary ships. The atmosphere is that of the old west with spaceships; an odd combination of genres, but one which appealed to me.

Serenity is the movie made after the series was cancelled. It has the series cast and tells much of the story that the TV series was working its way toward, and was my movie of the month.

There is a movement afoot to save Firefly/Serenity by having as many people as possible buy a copy of the movie DVD, or the TV series DVD's, on June 23, 2006, also called "Save Firefly and Serenity Day." For more information see this link. I own both the movie and the TV series, but I'll buy another copy to give as a present.

FlexGo and a New Form of Literacy

The Microsoft FlexGo marketing plan is a scheme under which computers will be sold like cell phones: the computer is delivered for a nominal fee, then paid for by use. This scheme is sponsored by the major players in both hardware and software. The goal is to have as many computers in use as there are cell phones. There are ongoing trials in Brazil, and plans to expand FlexGo to many other low-income countries.

When I first said this, I got mail asking if it were really true that there are far more cell phone users than computer users. The answer, of course, is "yes," but the question elicited a comment by Chaos Manor Associate Eric Pobirs that is worth considering:

"The sales volumes on chips for the cellphone market appear to support the claim. There are third world countries with very high cell phone ownership rate but little consumer PC ownership.

"The thing to remember is that many of these countries had incredibly wretched phone systems. The cost of establishing the lines was far too high and the rate of theft and/or vandalism prohibitive to maintenance costs. Wireless had an overall far lesser infrastructure cost and could be grown by many little companies in a way not practical for wired communications. For much of humanity, the cell phone isn't a whizzy innovation on something that has always been part of their lives. It is the first real telephone they ever had or even saw with their own eyes.

"I'd be willing to bet that for every member of our species that regularly uses a PC-style computer, there are two cell phone users. Possibly more. Illiterates can learn to use a cell phone as easily as our kids remember combos in fighting games. If you look in video games magazines, those combos are strings of symbols, indicating buttons and directional inputs, that would look like phone numbers if depicted as numerals. On the Sony PlayStations, the four main buttons are a square, circle, triangle, and cross/X. Some people thought Sony was nuts for abandoning the use of Western letters, typically A, B, X, and Y, for those buttons but this failed to consider that not everyone uses our alphabet. Around the world there are kids who can see a string of PlayStation controller inputs on a page and accurately and quickly reproduce that on the console. So I'm willing to bet that plenty of folks around the world who couldn't deal with written instructions can master their cellphone on a symbolic level. Likely a new form of literacy grows out of that shared experience.

"Some of the projects promoting computers for the most desperately impoverished include the premise that the users will be illiterate and that must be supported by the system. I feel this is a mistake and that a very inexpensive computer whose primary purpose was to teach literacy would deliver far more beneficial results."

Note Eric's main point: "A new form of literacy." This is an intriguing concept. If my fiction schedule weren't already overloaded, I'd seriously consider a science fiction novel on this theme.

Norton Save and Restore

We installed the Beta 2 edition of 64-bit Vista on Satine, a fast AMD system. Before we did that, we used Norton Save and Restore to make a complete disk image. When we installed Vista we renamed Satine to Sativa so that Active Directory wouldn't get confused, but also to make it easy to determine across the network what system we were talking to.

Installing Norton Backup and Restore on Satine was simple and routine, with no hitches, and using the program to make a disk image on a Seagate 360 GB external disk connected by IEEE—1394 (commonly known as FireWire) was easy and straightforward. Like the latest edition of Norton Ghost, Norton Save and Restore runs as a Windows program, and has the ability to make a disk image even when Windows is running. Norton Save and Restore is very similar to Norton Ghost 10. Both run in Windows XP, and can make full disk images and restoration points while running in Windows.

The difference between Save and Restore and Ghost (they both have the same price) is that Save and Restore also has the capability of making selective backup files, while Ghost can only make a full system backup/restoration point. I must confess I haven't tried this selective feature of Save and Restore.

The Chaos Manor backup system consists of saving all key files - documents and data files, mostly - to a number of places. Then each system has a reasonably current restoration point. By reasonably current, I mean that after installing a major application and using it long enough to be sure that it's going to be around, I make a restoration point image of the C: drive. That, plus backups of data files, means that if I get a disk crash or other system glitch, I can put in a new drive, restore to the previous restoration point, and I won't have to install my applications again. Now it's easy enough to use XCOPY with the /e/s/d/y (from a command window type xcopy /? to see what all the switches mean) to bring all the data files up to date. Recovering from a complete system crash with trashed hard drive takes no more than a couple of hours, and that includes hardware swaps.

For "instant" backup of key data files - such as what I am writing at this moment - I rely on Mirra. Mirra Personal Server is a Linux based network server that reaches into systems to back up selected folders whenever they change. It will even back up outlook.pst while Outlook is running. There's a mild penalty for this: Outlook is already a system resources hog, and when it's trying to bring in new mail while Mirra is making a backup I can experience frustrating 2 to 10 second delays in system response, usually while I'm trying to answer mail. The remedy for that is for Mirra to be given the ability to schedule backup of certain folder, say to once an hour. Seagate has acquired Mirra and is said to have people working on adding that capability. Warts and all, though, Mirra is a superior way to protect creative work during its creation, and remains highly recommended.

Norton Save and Restore is a more conventional solution, and works quite well. It will back up selected files, or make full restoration point backups, to networked drives, removable media, or external drives both USB and FireWire. Restoration to a restoration point with Norton Save and Restore is exactly the same as with Ghost: boot with the Norton disk, tell the system which restoration point you want it to restore to, and stand back. It really is as simple as that, and Norton has worked hard on the interface to make it as foolproof as possible. They warn you often that restoration means wiping out everything that happened since that restoration point was made (which is why you want to make copies of your data files). Once you tell the program that you really, truly, want it to do the restoration, the rest is automatic, and so far it has worked for me five times, each time flawlessly. As I said, I haven't tried the selected files/folders restoration capability, but I make no doubt it will work as advertised.

One caution: although Norton Save and Restore installed painlessly on Satine, installation was a definite pain on Wendy, the Intel-based system I am writing this on. Wendy has accrued a great deal of cruft over the past few months, and doubtlessly contains fragments of supposedly uninstalled programs. It has both Nero and Roxio programs for burning DVD discs, and I suspect that the Roxio process "drag to disc" is evil since it almost always fails to respond on shutdown and has to be closed manually. There are other such processes that don't seem to be working quite right, and one of these days I will simply have to nuke the system from orbit and start over. The problem is that I don't really want to reinstall a number of programs and games that reside here.

A few years ago it was sufficient to have a backup copy of an applications folder (generally found in Program Files), but for the past few years applications publishers have got more and more snarky about insisting that you install from scratch using the original installation disks and giving the proper registration numbers. This means you have to keep all that stuff. Actually, it's worse. I keep all that stuff. That's not the problem. The problem is finding it. I now have more than a dozen enormous Caselogic disc folios, each with fifty or more CD's complete with serial number/registration number written on them with Magic Marker. I also have ten linear feet of key programs in their original boxes, each with the name of the computer these were installed on; and I still can't always find the stuff I need for reinstallation. Sometimes the stuff was downloaded, and the only way to reinstall is to run its setup program. I keep most of those in a directory called WORK with folders for each such program, and that usually works, provided that I remember to put a text file with the program's serial or registration number into the same folder. Of course, I don't always remember...

I am not sure what the remedy to all this is. Norton Ghost, or Norton Save and Restore, will restore Wendy without my having to reinstall applications, but of course they restore to the previous crufted-up state. What I really need is some way to save the registry entries for particular programs; then, presumably, I could back up selected and desired installed programs, complete with registry entries; nuke the machine from orbit; reinstall Windows from scratch; and restore my applications without reinstalling them. This would leave the cruft behind.

Alas, I don't know any way of accomplishing this. Peter Glaskowsky points out that Microsoft does this better than most - but on the Mac, not the PC. Mac Office is installed by dragging a folder from the CD to the Applications folder on the Mac hard drive. The first Office application you run then performs the necessary system setup. If at a later time an application finds something messed up about the installation, it does system setup again.

There are definite rules for Mac OS X, but nothing enforces them, and many applications don't. Those that do survive reinstallation of the OS quite well.

Alas, Microsoft doesn't do that for Windows.

In any event, with a crufted up machine like Wendy, installing Norton Save and Restore is a test of faith. The key to success is faith: the Norton installer really knows what it is doing even when it appears that it has lost all contact with reality. In particular, in my case at least, the installer wanted me to put a blank disk in the DVD read/write drive so that it could test that. I didn't intend to use that drive for backup (there are over 120 GB of files on this drive, so images would take forever to burn on multiple disks), so I told the installer to ignore that test. And I told it. And I told it. After I told it three times, it went about installing the program - but every now and then up would pop the message warning there was no media in the drive and demanding that I do something about it.

There were other odd messages. In every case the remedy was to tell the message to go away, and doggedly continue with the installation. Eventually it was all done. Then, when I told Norton Save and Restore to make a restoration image for Wendy, I was once again warned that there was no media in the drive, and I had to insist several times that I didn't care since I wanted the restoration image put on a FireWire disk. That worked, the image was made, and with some trepidation I booted with the Norton disk and told it to restore. It did so without complaint or flaw, and I'm writing this on a restored Wendy.

Brian Bilbrey, one of the geniuses who operate the Mazin ISP server that my web site lives on, says, "Were I doing what you did with Wendy, I would have restored to some disk that wasn't Wendy's original. That way I could go quickly back to a known working production system."

In other words, swap hard drives. I have several spare Seagate Barracuda drives intended for new machines, so it would have been simple enough: put in a blank hard drive, restore to that, and test to see that all is well. Brian adds, "That's a bit more paranoid, but I work for and with paranoid network security blokes."

On reflection, I probably should have been that paranoid. Of course I sent copies of every important document and file on Wendy to my "box of drives" storage system before I installed Norton Save and Restore; but in fact there was no need, and all went smoothly.

Both Norton Ghost and Norton Save and Restore have worked well at Chaos Manor, and both are recommended.

A Note on Restoring Programs

Chaos Manor Associate Dan Spisak had this comment on program restoration.

"As for migrating programs from one Windows install to another, this used to be easier before the introduction of the registry. Some programs are tolerant of their registry entries missing and recreate them (Photoshop does this, I recall). However, the problem stems from the fact that OO (Object Oriented) programming methodologies were drunk heavily at Microsoft and this helped created DLL hell in multiples. Now when a program installs, it dumps files not only in its own directory, but in %SYSTEMROOT%\SYSTEM32 and in %SYSTEMROOT%\Program Files\Common Files; not to mention dumping a boatload of basically opaque nonsensical entries into the registry file along with God knows what in %SYSTEMROOT%\Documents and Settings\%USERNAME%\Application Data.

"Of course those file paths almost all change under Vista. Lord help anyone scripting for a corporate environment.

"Did I mention that this was all a lot more likely to work when we still used INI files? Of course if programs were told to be self contained within their own directory it would help immensely too."

I sure miss INI files.

Linux and Windows

I remember the introduction of Windows 95. It was a big press event, with lots of hoopla, and the Microsoft people, both management and worker bees, were excited. Part of the demonstration was an enormous Easter Egg that surprised everyone including most of the Microsoft people. Someone said "Wow! He must have been fooling with the registry." Everyone nodded sagely, except me, because I didn't have the foggiest notion of what "the registry" was. It turned out that most of the sage nodders didn't either, but that's beside the point.

If you are interested in just what the registry is, you can find a good bit on the subject at the University of Victoria Help Desk (link). There's also an introductory exposition at this page. Both of these are worth your attention if you're curious.

The Registry, and the object-oriented Dynamic Link Libraries (link), are at the heart of the way Windows works. For Windows enthusiasts this is a Good Thing. For Windows detractors they are fundamental flaws.

Bob Thompson says,

"I much prefer the way Linux works. All of your configuration data and user data is in your home directory, in subdirectories like .evolution and .mozilla. Your home directory is typically quite small and easy to backup. Mine easily fits on one DVD, and many people's would fit on one CD. If you need to rebuild a machine starting with a bare drive, you can simply fire up the Linux install, install any applications you need that aren't installed by default, and then restore your home directory. You're back to where you were with no fuss or bother.

"Windows is so problematic because it uses the registry and DLLs, both of which were and are horrible ideas."

For good or ill, the registry is here to stay. Its advantages are that when it works, it works invisibly, and quite well. The disadvantage is that when it's broken, it can be a real pain to fix, and even when it's working well it makes recovering from a problem, or rebuilding a machine, a real pain. Those who have to work a lot fixing problems in Windows had better be prepared to spend time studying the matter.

Linux is certainly "simpler" for those willing to take the trouble to learn it in detail. Bob Thompson insists that he finds Linux suitable for Aunt Minnie, and the world is ready for Linux to take over on the desktop. That hasn't been my experience. Linux is very like UNIX, and I said in 1982 that UNIX was "the guru and wizard full employment act." Since then Linux has made great strides in being accessible to the general user, but whether it's ready for Aunt Minnie isn't at all clear to me.

All this is part of a larger story that necessarily includes the Open Source vs. proprietary software question; and it may all be moot when we have an era of computer plenty and Hypervisor with virtual machines becomes common. My guess is that within a few years you'll be able to run everything you like on a single machine. But then I've said that before.

Smartdraw

It started with a search for a good way to draw a calendar to paste into my log book.

I keep hoping I will find a PDA that I like enough to carry. I thought I had found one in the Compaq iPAQ pocket computer, and for a while I did carry it, but somehow I stopped doing it. The iPAQ hasn't yet found its way into the peach crate of predecessor PDA's (including many flavors of Palm Pilot and a whole bunch of others) I no longer carry, because I still have hopes that I will find a system that lets me carry it, a telephone, and my log book wherever I go; but so far I haven't.

My log book is a Boorum and Pease hard cover composition book. I don't know its stock number: so many people have paid Google to be listed early in a search on Boorum and Pease that I got discouraged. When I finally got to the actual website I couldn't find the exact book I carry, which has 120 numbered pages with "College" ruling and a plain linen hard cover, and I suspect it isn't made any more. No matter. I bought three dozen of them some years ago, and I still have a dozen left. Log books have one property that PDA's lack: you can use Scotch tape to put in business cards, printouts of airline tickets, printouts of invoices and purchase receipts, and other such paperwork, where it remains filed in chronological order. Notes are also filed in chronological order.

In other words, I find that for actual use, a log book beats the daylights out of a PDA. It's easier to carry than a TabletPC with OneNote (which is what I really wish I had with me about half the time) and far easier to write on than the standard PDA. It also never runs out of battery power. The iPAQ was handy for taking voice notes, and there are times when I miss it, but I haven't devised a carrying system I am comfortable with. The log requires a brief case or shoulder bag, but in a pinch I can just carry it in my hand, so long as I am careful never to set it down except directly in front of me for use.

Moreover, I can keep a list of names and phone numbers in a FileMaker file and print that out in a size convenient to paste into my log book. Another FileMaker file keeps user names and hints at passwords (as well as the actual passwords) and the user name and hint can be printed out and taped into my log.

The one thing I was lacking was a good calendar for the log. What I needed was a way to print a month calendar that would exactly fit the page size of the book. That turned out to be harder to find than I thought, until I discovered SmartDraw.

SmartDraw is a general purpose drawing program that comes with literally dozens of templates. There's a calendar template that comes in many forms. You can get a month with completely blank days, or with some dates marked (Queen's Birthday in New Zealand, Pentecost, Queen's Birthday in Australia, Flag Day, St. Jean Baptiste Day for Quebec, etc., were all marked on mine). The marked version also has the phases of the Moon. Calendars can be resized, fonts changed, events typed in, and when you're done, the whole thing printed out in a size exactly right for taping into my log.

I could download the program and try it, which I did, and found the calendar system alone was enough to cause me to buy the program. I opted to send them money through Paypal to have the program complete with serial numbers mailed to me on disks. That took about two weeks.

The other templates are very useful. There are US map templates, again outlines, with rivers, with states with and without names, etc. Family trees, organization charts, hyperlinks, each with a wizard, each with customizable markers, and all available for drawing.

I bought this program because I got tired of making calendars for my log books, and this does it very well indeed; but I can see that I'll get a lot of use out of it for other stuff including playing about with maps. The BURNING CITY series of novels Niven and I are working on takes place in the Southwest about 14,000 years ago, just after Atlantis sank, and I often need to sketch maps as guides to the professional artists Simon and Schuster hires to do the published maps. I've been using Corel's drawing program for that, and it has certainly been good enough, but I use it so seldom I forget how it works in between uses; SmartDraw won't do anything like as good a finished product, but it is intuitive.

Gates Retires!

I noted earlier that Bill Gates didn't seem his usual enthusiastic self at WinHEC this year. His keynote speech was not just low key, but pretty flat.

Now we know why. Gates is giving up his position as Chief Software Architect at Microsoft. He'll continue to be Chairman of the Board, but it's pretty clear his interests are moving beyond Microsoft to something else. It will be interesting to see where he goes now.

Bill Gates pretty well changed the world. When the Microcomputer Revolution began, the conventional wisdom was that small computers would be useful for many, but they wouldn't make any fundamental changes. The IBM vision of the future was perhaps ten thousand computers - the really far out visionaries thought there might one day be a hundred thousand; no one thought a million - all running software leased from IBM. There might be "entry level" personal computers which would serve to teach people how to work with real computers, and of course could serve for data entry, but they wouldn't affect the real computer world. Gates had a different vision. His was "a computer on every desk, and in every home." He thought these little machines would change every aspect of modern life, and it couldn't happen soon enough.

Without Gates the revolution would have happened, but it wouldn't have happened as fast. Now it's done, and there's no going back. It will be interesting to see what Gates will do next.

He has said that he doesn't want to be the richest man in the world, and he'll give away about 90% of his wealth. Everyone has suggestions for what he can do with that money, so it won't do any harm if I add mine.

First, the human race sorely needs Bell Labs again. I don't know how to do that. It won't be enough to set up a large foundation with a big endowment and set some bright people to work. That's been tried before, usually with indifferent results. The unique feature of Bell Labs was that activity there was focused, sort of, on communications. It wasn't all blue sky and dreaming. Inventions and discoveries were produced, and many had practical value. The transistor changed the world. There were also scientific principles. Bell Labs was not just a national treasure, it was a principal asset of the human race. I don't know how it's like might be built again, but if anyone could do it, I'd bet on Bill Gates.

Walt Disney wanted EPCOT to be a genuine scientific research community; an experimental prototype community of tomorrow. It was to be his legacy to the human race. His successors did not honor his wishes, and instead of a self-supporting research community we got EPCOT, just another theme park.

Bill Gates has both the finances and the understanding of how to get bright people to work hard, and the legal resources to see that his wishes are carried out. If anyone can create Microsoft Laboratories, or Gates Laboratories on the model of the old Bell Labs, it is Bill Gates. Perhaps he'll try.

Another suggestion: give me ten billion dollars and marching orders to put a permanent colony on the Moon. It could be done, and in my lifetime. Of course I am not claiming that I could do any such thing by myself, only that I've been in the space game a long time. I have thought long and hard about how to do these things, and the people who can make it happen would be willing to work for me. Whoever does it, a Lunar Colony would change the world, and whoever gets the human race permanently into space will be remembered long after Columbus and Isabella the Great have been long forgotten. Ninety percent of the resources available to the human race aren't on the Earth at all. Access to space is access to energy and material resources enough to end poverty forever; and a permanent Lunar Colony would be a sufficient step to get us into space forever.

Alex suggest that Gates should hire the ten brightest people he can find and set them loose working in his basement.

Whatever he does, we can all wish him well. DOS and Windows have their faults, but the Microsoft policy of shipping things as soon as possible, relying on hardware advances to make them work well, made the computer revolution happen much faster than it would had the world followed the older notion of never shipping a product before its time. Waiting until it was right and bug free would have guaranteed that the hardware would always be far ahead of the software. I could have done without some of the bugs - I can still do without some of the bugs - but perfect is always the enemy of good enough; and when you're starting a revolution, good enough is what you need.

Office 2007 Beta 2

I kept Microsoft Office 2007 Beta 2 (formerly known as Office 12) running on Sativa for two weeks. Sativa is a fast AMD based system running 64-bit Windows Vista Beta 2. That turned out to be a mistake. You shouldn't evaluate a beta application by running it on a beta operating system. Duh. The end result was that I have reverted Sative back to being Satine, a Windows XP system, and with that came a return to Office 2003. A story goes with this.

One of Microsoft's most commendable policies is that once a product is stable enough, it will be used internally on production machines. I understand that most of those on the Microsoft campus are now running Office 2007, and while reports are mixed, overall everyone is happy enough with it. Clearly, Office 2007 is usable. The question is, will those addicted to Office - I've been an Office user since 1989 when Niven and I reluctantly converted from Symantec's Q&A when Symantec didn't migrate that program to Windows - will those accustomed to Office 2003 find reason to convert to Office 2007? The Microsoft worker bees had no choice. The rest of us do.

Most people will not want to retrofit existing machines with Vista; certainly few will want to do that until Vista has been out for a while. Most people will start Vista when they buy a new machine with Vista preinstalled. Over time older machines capable of running Vista may be retrofitted, but it will be a slow process.

Office 2007 is a different story. Older editions of Office will run just fine on Vista. So will Open Office, which has about half the features of Office 2003 and is free.

With that in mind, I set out on a new project. I used Norton Save and Restore to make disk images of both Anastasia, my AMD Dual Processor communications machine (which runs Outlook 2003), and Wendy, my other main machine on which I run Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and other Office 2003 components. The notion was to install Office 2007 on both machines and do actual work with it. This seems a fair test. It's also one that takes time.

Before I did that, I did the Satine/Sativa experiment: that is, I used Norton Save and Restore to make an image restoration point on Satine, a very fast and very capable Windows XP system, and converted her to Sativa, a Vista 64 machine. I then installed Office 2007 and moved Sativa to my main work station, where I tried to write this column using Office 2007.

That did not last long at all. Indeed, I never got past Word.

Office 2007 loaded my Word 2003 documents without problems. When it put them on the screen, they were ugly, ugly, ugly. I mucked about with video settings for hours. I made sure that ClearType was turned on, because my first thought on seeing that ugly text was that it looked like what I saw before the invention of ClearType. It didn't help.

By ugly text, I mean that the letters were a bit ragged, the serifs in the Georgia font I prefer looked distorted, and in general, it was just not pleasant to look at. Attempts to fix this met with no success.

Meanwhile, Word 2007 is really different. The old tool bars are gone. Most of the icons we're used to are gone. The controls for the text are organized in an entirely new way, and each time you try to do something, the menus change. I am told that after time you get used to this, which reminds me of Mark Twain's quip that you can get used to hanging if you hang long enough. I suppose that is unfair; but the fact is that I found little incentive to learn new writing habits because I never found any feature of Word 2007 that I liked better than what I have in Word 2003. And there was that ugly text, which I really didn't want to look at.

The result was that I got out the Norton Save and Restore disk and told Norton to turn Sativa back into Satine. That took an hour, but it all went flawlessly. I am now writing this on Satine in Word 2003. The text looks beautiful again, so clearly there was no problem with the hardware.

Office 2007 is supposed to have a number of new features. I don't know what they are. What I do know is that changing to Office 2007 is going to be painful, and absent powerful incentives to do that, I don't want to go through the experience.

Now clearly Microsoft had reasons for changing everything in Word. I can even recite some of those reasons. Word, like Topsy, just growed, and when new features were added they were put into different places in different menus. The choices in placing the controls for the new features were not always done in an optimum manner. The result is a hodgepodge of features we can't find if we don't use them often. The idea here was evidently to do away with all that and organize everything in a logical manner.

Perhaps they have done that. I wouldn't know. The problem is that I got used to the hodgepodge.

Find the Feature

It's often said that most users never find or try more than about 30% of the features in Word. What isn't often said is that it's not the same 30% for each user. Moreover, some features are used very seldom, but when they are needed, they're needed badly.

And that's the biggest problem with Word: you know it will do something, but you can't quite remember how to make that happen. Given the profusion of menus and tabs it can take an hour to figure out how to employ some obscure feature you don't use often.

It shouldn't take that long, and it wouldn't if the Microsoft Help files were not so hopelessly useless. Unless you know the precise terminology Microsoft employs - for example, to make the on-screen type appear larger or smaller without changing the font size, you employ the feature known as zoom - you will never find it in Help.

This need not be so. The key to making Help files useful is indexing. Lots of indexing. Lots of cross indexing. Help indices ought to be multiply redundant, but they never are. This is probably a hold-over from the days when memory and disk space were precious, and Microsoft, stung by charges of "bloatware", tried to make Office as small and efficient as possible. It was compounded by the silly practices taught in engineering technical writing classes, where redundancy is considered a cardinal sin. The result is useless indices.

The remedy to the profusion of features tucked away in odd places in Microsoft Word is not a complete reorganization, but far more redundant indices. Instead of making the user figure out that the feature is "zoom", there ought to be index entries for "make the text bigger", "change text size", etc. If I ask Help how to change text size it tells me how to change the font size; but there isn't even a hint that "zoom" will do it too.

If I seem a bit hung up on "zoom" it's because, on encountering the ugly text in Word 2007 under Vista, I thought to change the "zoom" to see what that would do. Alas, the "zoom" window (it's that small un-named box that says 130% or whatever you have chosen) doesn't exist in Word 2007. Or if it does exist I can't find it. And Help was no help. I even went to a Word 2003 machine and tried to find out the name of the zoom window. Eventually I did, by following toolbar options to standard and looking at all the choices I had there; zoom was one of them and it was a fair inference that this was what I wanted. Looking in Word 2003 Help for "Zoom" did in fact get me the right instructions. Alas, in Word 2007, there is no Help entry for "Zoom" so I never did find out how to change the text size.

Word 2007 ships at year's end. It requires you to relearn just about everything. If Microsoft expects to sell this product to Word users, they'll need to do a much better job of letting us know just what it is that makes it worth changing to. They will also have to make the indices to the Help files a great deal more redundant. If they haven't done both those jobs, this is going to be a major flop.

I'm installing Office 2007 on an XP machine (having first made a restoration point with Norton Backup and Restore) and I'll try to give it a fair shot. If I don't seem enthusiastic, I'm not, but I do a lot of silly things so you don't have to.

Exabyte's VXA: Big-system backup features, midsize price

Back in 1999, a small Colorado company called Ecrix (From the French verb écrire, to write) rolled out an 8mm tape backup product using their own "Packet writing" technology which had, they said, superior tape reliability, particularly for restore. Despite the technical claims, they never had particular success. They disappeared from view, and were eventually bought by Exabyte.

Exabyte has now brought out a series of backup drives based on Ecrix's packet writing technology. Alex recently recommended one of his clients buy their VXA-320 PacketLoader drive (link). Here's his report.

"The client needed some serious capacity and a tape library. They also needed to minimize manual operations; I don't exactly trust their staff to change tapes or check on the status of backups. I didn't really like the price of LTO, SuperDLT or DAT changers, I don't trust AIT to stay on the market forever, and they have budget constraints, so I recommended the Exabyte VXA-320 PacketLoader drive.

"So far, it's my new favorite backup drive. Listing at $2,700, this 1U high (1.75") 19-inch rack-mountable unit holds a single VXA tape drive, ten tapes, and a barcode reader. If the $2,700 price is too high, the VXA-172 drive gives you exactly the same features, but tapes are limited to 160Gbytes each. The -172 can be upgraded, later, by software, to 320 GB/Tape capacity. Clever. They also have single-tape and 7-tape desktop changers; Fujitsu Siemens and IBM also ship VXA drives so they seem to be catching on. The tapes themselves, $29 each, look very much like 8mm backup tapes from 1998, so I'm not really worried about media availability.

"About the only hardware problem was, as usual, cabling. SCSI cables—particularly 68-pin LVD SCSI cables, which is what the VXA needs—are getting hard to find. Fry's, the big electronics/computer retailer out here, carries not a one in stock. I was in a hurry, and didn't want to wait any longer to get tape backup going for them. So I had to revive an old and honorable skill, pin straightening, to resurrect the one 6-foot cable they did have. Remember: When straightening tiny pins, employ strong light, infinite patience, a very thin prying tool and thick doors to hold in the curses. Then use the SCSI connector to ensure the pins are really straight.

The client's Dell PowerEdge 2850 servers had all been purchased without the ‘SCSI external connector' kit, so I bought an LSI Logic dual-channel Ultra-320 PCI-X SCSI host adapter to connect the drive. The PE2850s (and most other Dell servers of this class) use LSI internal controllers, so unsurprisingly I didn't need any additional drivers.

"Once the hardware was installed, the hard bits were over. Windows Server 2003 R2 recognizes the tape drive itself, with the help of Exabyte's driver disk, though it saw the tape changer as an ‘unknown media changer' even with drivers. Dantz's Retrospect backup software (Now from EMC, http://www.emcinsignia.com/) has been the favorite for Macintosh backups for at least fifteen years, but the Windows version is truly enterprise-class these days too. Retro immediately recognized the library, and the changer, without any further reboots.

"More: Retro also read the barcodes on each tape (you apply them to the back of the tapes, just like in a real data center) and gave them the same software ID as the barcode. Cleaning tapes get a ‘CLN' barcode to distinguish them, and are recognized as such.

"About the only confusing feature of the VXA-320 is loading the tapes. The front-panel controls are reasonably obvious. Choose an empty slot from the panel, and when it's ready to slurp up a tape the door opens. You then put the tape in backwards, front toward you, the door closes, and the unit reads the tape barcode. The tape drive itself must be all the way in the back, with the carousel in the front.

"Speed: Over 500 Mbytes a minute, sustained, for local backups. Copying Retrospect backup snapshots from disk to tape can be faster than 1.2 GBytes a minute. Verification speeds (I always run a full verify; I'm paranoid) are 400-550 Mbytes a minute. Capacity: I've yet to fill up the first tape, so I'm guessing their numbers don't lie. Reliability: So far, great. The VXA drives and changers work, obviously, with Retrospect, but they're also on the compatibility list for CA BriteStor and Symantec/Veritas Backup Exec.

"I'd recommend Retrospect for server and workstation backups, too. While its backup philosophy is somewhat unlike that of BriteStor or Backup Exec, the program seems far more reliable than either. It also will back up whether or no the target system has enough free space to run Volume Shadow Services, which means you can back up chock-a-block full servers. Even built-in lowly Microsoft Backup won't do that.

"Retro also supports disk-to-disk-to-tape (DDT) backups, by first backing up to a hard drive, then transferring the current snapshots to tape. This is a little clumsy, but you don't have to buy $5,000 worth of software to support DDT backups on a single server, either.

"Now, the client is happy, because they don't have to think about backups. (I need to train them to, but right now they don't have to.) I'm happy, because their data aren't at risk. And their users will be happy if they accidentally delete files. VXA PacketLoaders and Retrospect are both Recommended by me."

Office 2007

Having dumped Office 2007 along with Vista on the theory that testing two betas is only a good idea if everything is working properly, I installed Office 2007 on Satine, which is to say, on the Vista machine but with Windows XP entirely restored. Once again, Norton Save and Restore worked flawlessly.

The first thing to note is that if Office 2003 is present, Office 2007 doesn't eliminate it: the Start Menu lists both versions. This was a pleasant surprise; I had nowhere been asked whether I wanted it this way. On the other hand, I hadn't been told that the installer wanted to dump the old version of Office.

Installation was smooth and without incidents. Microsoft Word 2007 opened properly, and I loaded this column - well, the three parts I had already written - without incident. The title bar read "2006 June.doc (Compatibility Mode) - Microsoft Word". I presumed that meant that it saved in Word 2003 format, and this turned out to be correct.

The text was ugly. My problem with the text aesthetics of Office 2007 under Vista hadn't been due to Vista.

Ugly fonts in Office 2007
(view larger) A document in Word 2007 in the default view (Print Preview). It's not obvious given the text size here, but it's ugly.

By this time I had discovered the location of the "Zoom" control: it's down in the lower right corner of the screen. There are click controls and a slider that work quite well. The clicker zooms in 10% increments. Clicking on the Text Percent number opens a control window in which you can type arbitrary zoom percents, control page width, and so forth - and it gives you a preview of what it will look like in the zoom number you have selected. Very nice indeed. This turns out to be very logical and very easy to get used to once discovered.

Zooming in the text made it look a little better, but not as good as it looks in Word 2003. While I was down there in the lower right corner I found other tools including view changes. I changed the view from the default Print Layout to Draft. In Draft the text looks just fine. I am not sure I understand why this is. I have found that if I fool around with views and zoom I can make the text look good enough that I can stand to work on it in both ‘draft' and ‘Print Layout' views, but there are some bugs in ‘Print Layout': sometimes a whole page of text seems to vanish. It's not gone, but I have had to shift back and forth between views to get it to reappear. There are other odd glitches in Print Layout, enough so that it's easier to edit in draft view. On the other hand, if you have footnotes, editing in Print Layout is worthwhile because it puts the footnotes at the bottom of the page where they belong.

Slightly less ugly fonts in Draft view
(view larger) The same text in Draft View. At this resolution it may not be obvious but in full size the difference it's clear that the text in Draft view looks much better than it does in Print Layout.

When I first started writing with small computers, text appearance was pretty well fixed. Electric Pencil and CP/M used an S-100 VDM video board that gave 16 lines of 64 characters per line, and I cannot say the text was handsome. The joys of electronic editing overcame the text appearance.

Over time, video boards improved, text editors improved, and I got used to having well-formed letters in a handsome font. The ugly text on the Word 2007 screen was an unpleasant surprise.

Once I discovered that in Draft View the text wasn't ugly, I changed to that and started work on this document; Today's installment of the June column has been written entirely in Word 2007. It hasn't been an unpleasant experience.

The final sentence of that paragraph seems awkward, but I leave it because of its history. When I began this it read "It hasn't entirely been an unpleasant experience." As I continued to work with Word 2007 that became progressively softer, and indeed, as I continue to work with Word 2007 I am finding it quite pleasant. I have also been editing Another Step Farther Out, a collection of science fact essays I wrote over the years, and I actually prefer Word 2007 for doing that.

I can no longer say that Word 2003 users generally won't want to change over, once Office 2007 is no longer in beta and the obvious bugs are fixed. In fact, I'm pretty sure most Word users will want Word 2007. I didn't start off with that conclusion, but it's being forced on me as I continue to work with this.

Most of the new layout makes a lot of sense, and once you get used to it, can be quite intuitive. For example, when you highlight a block of text, a small tool bar pops up right near the text, and from that you can select Bold, Italic, and so forth; no more going to the top for the ribbon.

Those tools also appear in a ribbon, sometimes. Sometimes they aren't there. I expect that I'll learn why they appear and disappear at some point. You can also get that tool set by right clicking on highlighted text, which actually makes more sense than having it appear automatically. I don't know if you can turn off the automatic popup feature, but I'd be surprised if you can't - and I'll bet that if that feature isn't there, it will appear soon enough in a bug fix or service pack. Some writers really find it distracting for their text editor to do things they didn't tell it to do, and the right-click for tool menu option seems quite intuitive.

The "Home" view, with artifacts.
(view full size) The usual or "home" view. Note the odd lines at the bottom: these are an artifact that I presume will be removed in the release version.
The "Insert" view - everything changes
(view full size) The Insert view. Note that nearly everything has changed.

When you change menu items, the whole tool bar setup changes. Here's what it looks like when you change to "Insert":

Most tool buttons are explained by live tooltips, and those are actually informative. Help still doesn't work very well, and needs a lot more redundancy, but the new logical layout makes it less likely that you'll need Help.

Word 2007 displays the word count of your document down in the lower left corner. You don't have to do anything to get it; the count is automatic. If you highlight a chunk of text it shows both total document word count and the word count of the highlighted section, again automatically. You don't need to push any buttons. I mildly miss Tony Pietsch's system for word counts in my old CP/M Write: in that you simply issued a command and it gave you the number of words and paragraphs before the cursor, after the cursor, and total for the document; but having said that I will say that the Word 2007 method works and it's very easy to get used to.

The old "Pournelle" feature in Word, in which you could with a single check in the general tools tab convert from black on white to white letters on a blue background is no longer in Word 2007 as such. Instead there's a more general display control section. If you want white on blue you can get that, and if you want purple letters on a green background you can have that as well. It's pretty easy to do, too.

I keep discovering new features all the time. Many of them have been in Word for a long time, but I never made use of them because they were too hard to find or learn to use. I can't make that complaint about Word 2007. I am now making use of features that have been in Word for years but I never knew about.

All in all I agree with those reviewers who find that Word 2007 is more intuitive than Word 2003 and predecessors; and so far I have had far less trouble learning the new system than I thought I would. Moreover, Microsoft has wisely left the keyboard commands alone. In general, all your old macros will work, and if you're in the habit of using key commands (Control-S for save, Control-B for Bold, etc.) they all work as you expect.

You won't have to change to Office 2007 when it gets out of beta, but you may well want to. I know I will.

Outlook 2007

I haven't been able to get Outlook 2007 working properly, but I am sure that's my misunderstanding.

I run Outlook 2003 on Alexis, a dual-core AMD system. The machine is splendid, but even on that fast a system, Outlook is a resource hog. Still, it does work. Add Mirra, the Linux-based personal backup server that actually knows how to make incremental copies of Outlook.pst files even when they are in use, and the AMD can hesitate every now and then; but so would anything else. The glitches are annoying but not so much so that I have given up on Outlook, which works pretty well for me otherwise. I keep trying alternatives, but I come back to Outlook each time.

When I go on trips, I open a command window and use xcopy to copy the folder where Outlook keeps its .pst files to the corresponding folder on the machine I am taking with me. Needless to say, I have to shut down Outlook before I can do this. The Mirra knows how to backup an open pst file, but Windows doesn't know how to copy it.

When I get back to the office after a road trip I copy that folder - it is buried about 5 layers down within the "Documents and Settings" folder - back to Alexis.

I treated Satine as if she were a laptop, and copied the Outlook files into that folder. Then I opened Outlook 2007. When I did I got a mail client dialogue that didn't make sense so I told the system to install without that on the theory that I'd be able to do it later. That turned out to be a disastrous error: now when I open Outlook 2007, I get a window telling me to open Outlook and set it as my mail client. At this point Outlook 2007 stops responding. Closing that Window gets a message that Outlook 2007 has created a grievous error and has to be shut down. Attempting to shut it down gets the error message. Since I must open Outlook to fix the problem, and I can't open Outlook until the problem is fixed, it is pretty clear that I am not going to get anything done until I uninstall Outlook 2007 and then reinstall it.

Alas, I am down at the beach. Satine is a LAN Party computer, which is to say that despite her great power she is luggable: the Antec Super LAN Boy case comes with straps, and it's easy to carry this mid-tower around. She's also beautiful, and very quiet, and I can strongly recommend the Antec case. (See the April, 2005 column for more details.) It's hard to believe I've had Satine for more than a year. She works extremely well, and survives being lugged to the beach and back without complaint. Unfortunately, I did not bring the Office 2007 Installation Disk with me, so there is no hope of reinstalling Outlook 2007, so I can't tell you much about the program. One does suppose that the installer will be fixed before the program is released.

PowerPoint 2007

It certainly works, looks good, and will open PowerPoint 2003 presentations. As with Word 2007 it opens 2003 files in what it calls "Compatibility Mode" and saves them in a format that you can open with the older version of Office.

I have no idea what new features are in PowerPoint 2007. I am not a frequent PowerPoint user, although I do use it for some of my presentations, such as "Inventing the Future" and "How to Get to Space". I am getting the slides from my 1980's lecture, "Survival with Style," turned into electronic images so that I can incorporate them into my "Inventing the Future" lecture, and I will present that at the World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim this August. I see no reason why I won't be doing that in PowerPoint 2007.

No FrontPage

Office 2007 has no version of Microsoft FrontPage. The Microsoft FrontPage web site sends you to "The future of FrontPage" where they announce two new programs, Microsoft Office SharePoint Designer 2007, and Microsoft Expression Web Designer 2007. Neither of these was included in the Office Beta 2 I received. The Microsoft web site tells us that the new web creation programs come out, FrontPage will no longer be offered. It doesn't say anything about support for FrontPage, but the program is still on sale, and I have not needed FrontPage support for years. In the early days I was working with the product manager and finding a new problem every few days; but that was years ago and FrontPage has been stable and solid for some time, which is why I use it.

My experience with FrontPage has generally been positive, but my web site - www.jerrypournelle.com - is fairly simple, text oriented, and is usually described as quaint, although it enjoys more readers than many of those who give it that description. Experts tell me that FrontPage generates horrible html code. I can only say that I probably wouldn't have a web site if I had to work with HTML code and a text editor, and I find the FrontPage WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) web design system easy to work with.

I tried DreamWeaver several times and found FrontPage easier to use for what I wanted to accomplish, but that was all years ago. I make no doubt that DreamWeaver would have been good enough had I got used to it. I've sometimes experimented with other web page creation tools, but none have seemed superior to FrontPage for what I do. In a word, I have found FrontPage good enough on Windows systems.

My associates have different views, and I've been told often that I need to go to a dynamic data-base driven web site using more modern tools. I will probably be doing that sometime in future. The new Microsoft web tools promise to have those features, though, so the first thing I will try will probably be Expression Web Designer 2007 when I can get a copy.

World of Warcraft

I have long been an off-and-on Everquest addict, having played Everquest I for a long time, then switching to Everquest II. I still have Everquest II accounts, but I haven't looked at them for months.

At Baycon, the Bay Area Science Fiction Convention over Memorial Day weekend I was one of the Guests of Honor. I much enjoyed the convention for many reasons, but one major reason was that I got to spend some time with an old friend, Dr. David Friedman, and his family. At dinner I discovered that David, his wife, and daughter all play World of Warcraft. WOW is one major on-line game I never tried, so at their urging I bought a copy.

It is fully as addicting as Everquest or Guild Wars. The graphics are amazingly good. The interface is easy to learn and reasonably intuitive. Character races and classes are similar to those you'll find in other Massively Multiplayer On-line Role Playing games, but with enough differences to make them interesting.

Like most of these MMORPG's the early stages of character development are quite interesting. There are tons of quests, and a number of incentives for you to do some exploring. More experienced and more powerful players have been quite helpful. The game is very easy to get into, with directed quests and tool tips. Those with EQ experience will find it easy enough, but so will those new to on-line gaming.

I won't go so far as to say that WOW is the only on-line game one ought to be playing, but it's certainly a good one.

One caution: you can't play this game on dial-up. I've tried, repeatedly, on a machine that plays it just fine with high speed connection; and it just doesn't work. Ah, well. Everquest II works on dialup, although updating after a major revision can take hours.

Otter Case

I first saw the Otter Case at CES. It's a hard plastic, waterproof case with an ingenious system for suspending nearly any size laptop with it. When you snap the case shut it is not only waterproof, but it floats.

When I say the case will hold nearly any size laptop, I mean that I have successfully fitted it for Lisabetta, my TabletPC; and Orlando, a large IBM ThinkPad. The suspension system uses an ingenious arrangement of padding blocks that are fixed in place by Velcro. There's enough Velcro surface area that impacts are extremely unlikely to allow the suspension points to shift. To change the computer size you pry the Velcro blocks off one at a time. This is all easily done, and works very well.

You can stand on this case. At CES one of the product managers jumped up and down on one. The case is nearly indestructible, and thanks to the mounting system, your computer inside is very likely to survive just about any impact; indeed, I suspect that any crash that would destroy the computer would also kill you if you were in the same vehicle.

The Otter case is heavy. That kind of rugged construction isn't going to be light weight. On the other hand, if you worry about your computer, this will ease your mind something wonderful.

The Otter site has a number of other waterproof items, including iPod cases, waterproof headsets, and cases for electronics items of every size.

Winding Down

The movie of the month is Cars, the Pixar/Disney film. It's not as well done as Toy Story, but then what is? Fair warning: the first few minutes are not very exciting; indeed the pace was so slow that we thought of walking out of a theater full of restless kids there for opening weekend. Fortunately we stayed, and we're glad we did. If you have liked any of the previous Pixar films you'll like this one.

The game of the month is World of Warcraft. It may well be the best of the MMORPG genre.

The first book of the month is Eric Sink on the Business of Software; foreword by Joel Spolsky. (Apress ISBN 1-59059-623-4) If you have ever thought of starting your own software company, or you are in management in such a company, you will want to read this book. Eric Sink is a programmer who has become an owner/manager, and his stories are drawn from experience. Should a software company hire "real management" or promote programmers? Can programmers manage "a real business"? What do you need to attract venture capital, and why is it not always a good idea? And so forth. Highly recommended.

The second book of the month is Bruce Frey, Statistics Hacks, O'Reilly ISBN0-596-10164-3. Many of the O'Reilly "Hacks" series are misnamed, and this is certainly one of them. It's divided into 75 "hacks" distributed through six chapters, and the requirement that the book be organized this way isn't always helpful; nor is it obvious that, for example, Hack 75: Seek out New Life and New Civilizations, a short essay on using linguistic statistics (etoin shrdlu) to look at the Drake Equation (itself derived from Fermi's famous after-dinner question, "Where are they?") is a "hack" in any meaningful sense of the word.

Indeed, most of the "hacks" are like that: short essays about a reasonable subject, but they aren't "hacks" as most of us use the term. A hack, to professional programmers, is a quick and dirty solution to a problem. The term derives from people who would make furniture with an axe; it works, but elegant it ain't. In the days before disk storage and memory plenty, when saving a few bytes could be important, there were some famous hackers who could make a computer program do more with fewer resources than anyone expected. One of the better known hackers who could bum code was Bill Gates. Dan Bricklin was another. The problem with using hacks, as both Bricklin and Gates will tell you, is that it sometimes makes it impossible for anyone else to work on the code because the hacks make it incomprehensible. Hacks, kludges, and other workarounds are far less important now than they were when memory was scarce and disk space expensive. Fortunately, Statistics Hacks, although organized into "hacks", doesn't really teach hacking at all.

Instead, it's a pretty good introduction to statistics and statistical inference, written in a breezy style that's far more readable than most introductory textbooks. Moreover, Frey does try to present some of the assumptions that underlie statistical inference and predictions, and does that better than most statistical texts.

Understanding statistics and the nature of statistical inferences is important. Those required to take "stat" courses offered by any department other than mathematics are well advised to get this book, since most department statistics courses, such as "ed stat" and the courses taught in the psychology department, present cookbook techniques with little reasoning on when and whether these techniques should be applied. Frey's Statistics Hacks is no substitute for the calculus of probability and Fisher's Foundation of Statistics, but very few users of statistical techniques get to the point of reading Fisher. I won't say Frey is the next best thing, but it's pretty good. Recommended.

The third book of the month is Windows XP Visual Encyclopedia, by Kate Chase and Jim Boyce, Wiley, ISBN 0-471-75686-5. Buy this book for Aunt Minnie, or for Bart the secretarial intern, and it will save you a lot of time. It's well organized and everything is illustrated with screen shots; it certainly lives up to the term "visual". Old hands won't learn much, but for those who don't use Windows all the time this is as good a handbook as I have seen.