Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor: July 31, 2006

The User's Column, July, 2006
Column 312, part 5
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

(Continued from last week.)

The hot weather continued all last week, making it impossible for me to do any real work with hardware without turning on the central air conditioner. Given the power shortages and the urgent requests to keep power consumption to a minimum, I didn't want to do that.

In addition, Larry Niven and I have been working hard on our next book, and that took up time that I might otherwise have given to Chaos Manor Reviews. My apologies. I accept some obligation to subscribers to keep this place reasonably current, but I also have to remember that I am a fiction writer who writes about computer technology, rather than a journalist who writes fiction.

The End of E3?

Big computer shows have become both expensive and ineffective for the exhibitors. COMDEX and PC EXPO were once required shows: if you didn't exhibit at one or both of those, your company was believed to be in trouble. Appearance at COMDEX was just about mandatory for computer journalists and columnists. Best of COMDEX awards were decided by the BYTE editorial staff, and in the glory days we had as many as a score of editors attending the show. I continue to remember those awards discussions, which often went on all night, as a vital and valuable part of my education in computer technology.

COMDEX continued to grow, then suddenly it stumbled. First to go was Spring COMDEX, along with most of the overseas COMDEX shows. Fall COMDEX staggered on for a while, even growing slightly, then its fall into oblivion was rapid.

During that era Jonathan Seybold began to hold conferences on matters digital, on the theory that Hollywood, the computer industry, digital sound engineers, and many others were all talking about the same things, but they were not talking to each other. His conferences held at the Beverly Hilton were excellent, combining real discussions among engineers, producers, directors, chip designers, and sales people. At one of those I learned that Shelley Duvall was (1) my neighbor, and (2) not a ditz despite the act she put on. The Seybold digital conferences were superseded by E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, which became the biggest and flashiest show of the lot.

Last Spring, E3 filled most of the Los Angeles Convention Center. Attendance was down from 2005, which probably should have been a warning, but the show is so frenetic and absorbing that few noticed. If you never went to an E3 I am not sure I can describe it to you. The noise is deafening, as each exhibitor tries to outdo the others. There are thousands of screens with the latest and greatest gaming hardware and software, and lines of people hoping to take a turn playing the new games. There are enormous movie screens. Everyone has the volume on every game and demonstration turned up, to the point that it's often physically painful to be on the show floor - and there is generally more than one exhibit hall like this.

In 2005 I did a quick walk-through of the show floor, spending perhaps an hour out there, before deciding that the scene I was watching was more appropriate to the next INFERNO novel by Niven and Pournelle than to the real world. I retired to the press conference shows and parties without much regret.

This year I didn't go to the show floor at all. The show managers had decided that there were entirely too many freeloaders posing as press and getting onto the show floor for free - a not unreasonable assumption - and put into place requirements for tear sheets, editorial letters, masthead mentions, and various other credentials that were tedious to accumulate; none I couldn't manage, but tiresome enough that I didn't bother. I gather that many other journalists made the same decision. As a result, the press coverage of E3 was way down - and, I am told, they didn't really cut back on the number of freeloaders whose ingenuity and determination were sufficient to overcome the management's obstacles. As a result there was no shortage of people with press badges, but I gather there was a great shortage of reporters with actual readers.

That may be speculation on my part; I'm not unbiased. After all, I never got a press badge despite my having been registered for E3 for every show since it began. I did go to the PEPCOM press event in which a small number of exhibitors put on a mini-show for invited press only, but otherwise I neither saw E3 nor wrote about it.

Apparently that happened fairly often. Next Generation is reporting that E3 is finished (link). The reason given is that the larger exhibitors, on whom the show depends, have decided that the expense is too high and the media exposure too small; it just isn't worth it to the big boys.

Without the big anchors there's not much point in continuing.

Assuming any of this is true - certainly no one willing to talk knows for sure - it's not astonishing that E3 will be scaled back, or even disappear. Big shows are getting terribly expensive. Of course I would have thought that E3, which is built on hype, would last longer than the others. E3 is a fun get together, and I have always enjoyed going to the parties and press events. We can hope the rumors are wrong.

By coincidence I was discussing this at lunch with the Bungie people. Bungie, you may recall, wrote Mac games, then came out with MYTH, which I think made my Game of the Year. Later they developed Halo, and this lunch was arranged by our publisher so that Larry Niven could meet them. Bungie, as you have probably heard, was bought by Microsoft, and the Bungie developer team came down to E3 this year on Microsoft's nickel, but they'd hoped to meet with me and Niven to show us some work they were doing. Of course neither Niven nor I got to E3 this year.

At lunch we did discuss the possibility of developing some games from works by me, Larry Niven, Niven and Pournelle, Niven, Pournelle, and Barnes, etc. We also figured we'd meet at E3 next year if not sooner.

An Era of Computing Plenty

Intel formally launched the Core 2 Duo series and ended Pentium in an event that everyone wrote about, so I don't have to.

Immediately AMD, which just bought the ATI graphics chip manufacturer, began to cut prices, in anticipation of official confirmations of the leaked and rumored bench mark performance of Core 2 Duo systems.

It seems clear to me that we are entering an era of computational plenty: anyone with a need for a lot of CPU power will be able to get it. On the other hand, there's not much software out there - graphics editing excepted - that needs all that computing power. For most of us, the machines we have can do more than we demand of them. That got me to speculating: what is it that we'd like our systems to do next? How will we make use of all the new affordable computing power?

I discussed this with my neighbor Will who teaches computer graphics at Cal Arts and does a lot of freelance work for the movies. He uses a dual processor G5 Apple, and as far as he's concerned his machine is pretty well good enough. When Apple comes out with an Intel Core 2 Duo replacement for the G5 he'll look at it, but he won't be buying the first one that comes out because he doesn't need it.

Will is quick to add that he doesn't do editing of huge video files. On the other hand, he will often have 60 and more layers in a drawing, and still have his machine doing email, word processing, and other mundane tasks on three screens. When Intel Core 2 Duo Macs have been out long enough for the prices to drop he'll seriously look into one, but not until then.

In other words, Will, who does art work for the big studios, doesn't really think of much he'd like that he doesn't have.

I'm almost in the same boat. I have often wished that someone would make a new edition of the Dragon continuous speech software so that I could dictate notes into my iPod, then run them through a program that would transcribe them without my having to work hard at editing. That would mean enough CPU power and memory to have a very large dictionary attuned just to me, and thus need powerful hardware; whether more powerful than we already have, I don't know. Apparently there's a new version out I haven't seen that's getting good reviews, so it may be we won't need new hardware for that.

I would also like to see far better Optical Character Reader software. What we have isn't all that accurate, doesn't learn the idiosyncrasies of a particular text or font, and can't be used on a lot of older books printed on yellowing paper; for now it's still cheaper to send those books overseas to be hand entered three times and compare the entries to get a clean final output. The alternative is to send it to Laura Sampson, who does it all on one pass and corrects grammatical and typographical errors that were in the original text, but she's usually got more work than she can handle. Either way is easier than trying to use OCR and then hand-correct it myself. I've got some older works that I'd very much like to get into Word if it could be done cheaply with, say, the boys next door doing the work.

There must be other things we would like our computers to do but which take more CPU power than our present systems have. If I get enough mail on the subject I'll put it in the mail bag for one week next month.


I suppose one use for faster systems would be for my communications machine: every day I find that when Outlook 2003 is bringing in lots of mail and putting it through the complex system of filters and rules I have to employ, Mirra will often decide it's time to back up Outlook.pst.

Mirra is a Linux-based network storage backup system that does real time backup of selected files. Unlike many of those, Mirra has the ability to copy the outlook.pst file while that file is open. This means that my .pst files are always backed up, which is good, but it also slows the machine to a halt while it's doing that.

The remedy would be a way to tell Mirra to back up certain files hourly, rather than every time they change. Mirra was bought out by Seagate, and I keep expecting to get an update to the software that allows that or implements something even more ingenious; but so far, nothing. I keep waiting. Do understand, Mirra works well enough that I leave it turned on. It is, for instance, backing up what I am writing now even as I write it. It's a good program, but I do wish I could tame it a bit.

Update Your Plextor

The other day I decided to burn off copies of gigabytes worth of photographs onto DVD's, and thus lighten the burden on my networked storage backup systems. I could, of course, go through those photographs and pick out the good ones, and delete the rest, but I never seem to have time, so I end up with several copies of every digital photograph I ever took; and that's a lot of photographs.

When I began to burn the DVD's I noticed that Windows was a bit confused about the Plextor DVD/CDROM burner, and things were not going well. I'd never upgraded the firmware in any of my Plextor drives. I have many, since they send me a copy of the latest and greatest as they come out, but none of the old ones ever wears out. On a hunch I went to the Plextor web site to see if there were new firmware drivers.

There were, for nearly every model of Plextor burner I own. The other day I took a few minutes off to go from machine to machine, get to the Plextor downloads web site, and find the latest driver for whatever Plextor burner was in that machine. None of this took very long; I was done with all eight of them in under half an hour.

I confess I haven't tested all the older (and slower) burners I updated, but I can say that all the later ones work perfectly. DVD and CDROM burning is faster, and the software (whether Nero or Roxio) works better. I continue to recommend Plextor CDROM and DVD burners as the right way to do that work: they just work, and you won't regret getting the genuine article because Plextor drives last just about forever.

Winding Down

The movie of the month was Monster House from Sony. The digital imagery is done so well that you soon forget that the human children in the movie are actually digital images: so when the house comes alive, you might for a moment think, wow, that's a great special effect, forgetting that you've been watching effects all along.

We saw the movie in a theater full of children of all ages, and while some of the scenes were pretty scary, I heard no sounds of distress from the kids. They're probably inured to this sort of thing anyway. Monster House isn't going to change your life, but it's a fun movie.

We saw a number of movies this month - it's one way to retreat from the heat wave. Pirates of the Caribbean is as good as we expected it to be, which is very good indeed. Monster House was a worth while amusement. The sleeper was My Super Ex-Girlfriend. I admit to being an Uma Thurman fan, so when Roberta suggested we go to this I was more than willing, but I hadn't heard of it and had no idea what to expect. Clearly it's a nerd fantasy: a guy is nice to a girl on a subway, they go on a date, she likes him, and then he discovers that she's a super-heroine with powers pretty close to those of Superman. (Close enough, in fact, that if this picture had been made back in the days when Captain Marvel was being sued out of existence it would have been closed down.)

The problems come when the low key bright guy discovers that he's in love with the girl in his office, not with Uma Thurmon, and has to tell her. To say she doesn't take it well is a gross understatement. It's all very silly, but the special effects are good, Uma Thurman is lovely as usual, and it all worked for me.

The book of the month is quite old: C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, which is probably out of print by now. It's an amusing little fantasy intended to teach a lesson, and is one of the books that inspired the Niven and Pournelle Inferno two decades ago. I'm reading it again - it can be read in under two hours - in preparation for the next work we're doing.

The computer book of the month is Point and Click OpenOffice.org! (Prentice Hall), which comes with two CDROMs: Open Office 2.0 for Windows and Linux, the Windows versions of the Firefox Web Browser, and Thunderbird e-mail software. There are instructions on how to get started, and plenty of tips on software that works with Open Office to let you do things that O-O doesn't do on its own. O-O is mostly compatible with Microsoft Office, and many O-O users, including Bob Thompson, tell me that it's quite compatible with highly complex style sheets and templates. If you want to give Open Office a try, this is a very good way to do it.

The game of the month remains World of Warcraft, to the extent that I did any gaming at all. It has been a busy month.