Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor: August 31, 2006

The User's Column, August, 2006
Column 313, part 4
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week.

This was late. My apologies. I rarely miss deadlines, and this is the first absolute publication deadline I have missed in decades. It took the combination of being at the beach for a week, returning with blinding headaches, and having to be at the World Science Fiction Convention and meet a full schedule of panels and talks and book signings despite the headaches to do it. With luck this is the last one I'll miss.

Greg Bear, Larry Niven at WorldCon
Larry Niven stands by as Greg Bear gives his acceptance speech for the Heinlein Medal Award at the World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim, August 2006.

One reason I was at Worldcon was to give the Heinlein Medal to Greg Bear. Larry Niven and I, as previous Heinlein Medal recipients, conducted the award ceremony.

Actually there is no real reason why Monday should be deadline day for these columns, but that's the way BYTE did it, so we'll continue the tradition.

On the Road

I drove to the Anaheim World SF Convention, so I could carry as much stuff as I wanted. It's usually easier to travel heavy because that avoids having to sort the stuff that goes in my roll-on. The roll-on, by the way, is from Number Nine, a now defunct company that made great video boards in older times. The roll-on is so well designed that I have had it repaired twice (broken wheels), and once I bought an awl and stitched a tear in the nearly indestructible ballistic nylon fabric (a pocket had been pulled loose by baggage handling machinery). It just keeps on working.

I took Orlando, the IBM T42p Laptop, as the main system for email and writing, and Lisabetta, the HP TabletPC, because she has all my PowerPoint presentations, besides, Lisabetta is cool and fun to show off. Both worked flawlessly.

The Anaheim Marriott has high-speed Internet connection. It was simple enough to connect that via the D-Link Pocket Wireless Router (link). That not only let me connect both Orlando and Lisabetta, but also gave me Network Address Translation (NAT) protection from bad guys. I keep my laptop security software up to date, but you can't be too careful.

Another indispensable item is the Belkin USB 2.0 Port Expander, with its own power supply. That not only gives me more USB ports, but also, since it has its own power supply, lets me use the USB power cord adapter that charges my cell phone whether it's connected to a computer or not.

If you're going to do much work in hotel rooms, I recommend the IOGEAR Laser 1600 Mouse (link). This little gem works on those glass top or bare polished wood table tops that hotels are fond of, and it's very sensitive, so much so that you probably want to turn down the mouse sensitivity speed when using it.

If you do much work on the road, you will definitely want a backup system. Depending on the amount of work you do, and the size of the files you'll store, you may be able to get away with flash drives, but I strongly recommend one of the small USB 2.0 Seagate external drives. I have an older one which holds 100 GB; the newest models have more capacity. These can be powered from a USB port; I usually plug mine into the powered Belkin port expander to cut down on the load on the USB Bus. In between flash drives and my handy little 100 GB drive are the Seagate Pocket Drives (link) which most of us call cookies. I have several of those, too, but as long as I am lugging a carry-on I prefer the speed of the larger drive. My Outlook.pst files and archives run to about 5 GB all told, and the source pages for my web sites are another GB. I've seldom needed the backup files, but it's useful to have them, and I also store Norton Ghost images of my laptops as well as backup copies of critical files.

Another collection of gear for the road
Clockwise from lower right, the Seagate USB 2.0 external drive; DeLorme GPS unit; D-Link Pocket Wireless Router; Belkin USB 2.0 Port Expander; Iogear Laser 1600 Mouse. That's the Kodak 570 in the upper right, and the World of Warcraft ZBOARD Keyboard above. To avoid tail tangles, anything that doesn't have a fitted case travels in a ZipLoc bag.

The final item in my travel kit is the DeLorme Earthmate GPS unit. These come in both Bluetooth and USB connection models. The entire DeLorme street map set stores on Orlando's hard drive, making it pretty simple to find things even without Internet connection. The GPS unit comes in handy when I need driving instructions, or when we're out in the desert looking for Anasazi ruins.

DOS Printing from Windows XP

Back in CP/M S-100 bus days I wrote an accounting program in Compiled Basic. It creates books that look exactly like the books shown in the 1980 textbooks used in Accounting 101 at UCLA, with a Journal as the book of original entry, tied to a Record for explanations. Then the program posts the Journals to Ledgers, using a Chart of Accounts. The whole thing was designed to look precisely like the accounting books that IRS agents were accustomed to, and it has served me well in audits. When I designed it, the books were printed out on a Diablo daisy wheel printer. I later adapted it to work with an HP LaserJet, and it now works with the ancient HP 4000 I have used for years. (Aside: as I have said before, your best bet for a monochrome printer is to buy a really good HP LaserJet. Don't worry about the price. Get a really good one; it will last for so long that the cost per year is negligible.)

My accounting program also prints my checks, and allows me to enter all the line items on my credit card reports, apportioning them to household and business ledger pages as required.

All well and good: but when I converted most of my establishment to Windows NT, I wasn't able to make my accounting program print properly. It really wants a DOS printer, and while the HP Laserjet (which is a networked printer with it's own Ethernet interface, thus not directly attached to any actual computer) has the proper drivers to do DOS printing, after Windows 98 I wasn't able to print. I suppose I should have worked at it until I got printing to work, but I took the lazy man's way: I left one computer running Windows 98 and kept my accounting program on that. Since that computer doesn't go onto the Internet at all, and none of its drives are mapped to any other computer, I suppose there's some additional security in this arrangement. In any event, it worked, and I've been using it ever since.

When we installed XP I tried running my program. It worked fine, but it wouldn't print. Since the Windows 98 system did the job nicely, I didn't have a lot of incentive to figure out why. This week that all changed: the AMD 1.1 GHz system running Windows 98 wouldn't start, but the bills had to be paid.

I had several choices. I could get the AMD system running again - indeed, I'd have to, because the last time I'd done the bills I'd been in a hurry to get to the beach house and committed the nearly unforgiveable sin of not copying the resulting Journal to another machine. That might take time, and the bills had to be paid now. Another alternative would be to run the program on an XP system and then write the checks by hand. Not fun, but less than an hour or so extra work. I could set up Virtual PC and run Windows 98 under that. Finally, I could just bite the bullet and learn how to make Windows XP print from a DOS program.

That latter turned out to be easier than I thought. I noted the problem on my daybook (August 29 View) and within an hour I had mail from readers explaining how it's done. Thanks!

The general solution is to assign LPT1: to //imperator/Jedi_DOS, where Imperator is the server and Jedi_DOS is the LaserJet with DOS drivers. That can be done in a command prompt window. The actual command is [ net use lpt1: \\computername\printername /persistent:yes ], and it probably would do the job nicely. I say probably because just before I tried it, I was told about DOSPRINT (link), a free Windows program that handles the assignments using a GUI interface. It's a bit more complicated than just using the command line, but it's also more versatile. The program is free, and when you unpack the Zip file there is a pdf that explains how to use it.

The whole thing took about ten minutes, and now I can use my accounting program on any XP system on my network. I no longer have any need to keep a Windows 98 machine around except for games, and between Virtual PC and various DOS games emulator programs I don't really need it for that.

Restoration and Backup

Regarding the Windows 98 system: it had one file that I needed badly. Everything else had been backed up, but after I entered the Journals for the first part of August I was in a hurry to get to the beach house, and committed the possibly disastrous error of not copying that file off to one of my regularly backed up systems. Now the machine wouldn't boot up.

The first symptom was that the system would start to boot, I'd see the Windows 98 splash screen, then the video would die. The machine seemed to be in Windows, but I saw no output. I used reset and brought it up in Safe Mode. That seemed to work, but when it went into Windows 98 I got the same result: no video. I decided to do a full shut down. That's a magical incantation that sometimes works. For good measure I moved the On-Off switch on the back of the power supply to Off, then back to On - at which point the system refused to turn on at all. Pressing the front panel On button did nothing at all.

Of course the computer was under another one in a stack, and in an inconvenient place for getting at it, which is why I decided to solve the "print DOS in XP" problem first. That done, I extracted the AMD system and took it to a work bench, opened it, and removed the hard drive to find it is a genuine IBM 37 GB drive with the usual parallel I/O. I was about to go out to Fry's to get a USB external drive enclosure when, on whim, I decided to give the system one more try. Of course it came up instantly. Everything works including the network connection.

I quickly copied the needed Journal file to three other places on the network, and now I have to decide what to do with a perfectly good 1.1 GHz AMD Windows 98 system that seems to be working just fine. I have no idea what was wrong with it, or what fixed it. Possibly jiggling cables. Possibly cleaning out a ton of dog hair and dust. Possibly I wasn't holding my mouth right. In any event it works just fine now.

The only moral of this story is the obvious one about backing up critical files.

Winding Down

Incredibly, we saw no movies at all this month. The DVD of the month is The Last Valley, with Michael Caine and Omar Sharif. It's about the Thirty Years War, and has much of the gritty flavor of that horrible time. It also has a lot about military honor and repentance. Whose house doth burn, must soldier turn.

Another worthwhile DVD is Sylvia, Gwyneth Paltrow's portrayal of Sylvia Plath. Plath figures largely in Inferno II, the current project of Niven and Pournelle. Paltrow is prettier than Plath, but not by that much, and does very well at portraying Plath's alternately dark and bright energy.

Two computer books of the month are Edmond Woychowsky, AJAX: Creating Web Pages with Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, and Joshua Eichorn, Understanding AJAX: Using JavaScript to Create Rich Internet Applications, both from Prentice Hall. The first book starts at a very low level with simple Java scripts, while the second assumes you know a bit about Web development but not necessarily AJAX. I have been working my way through the first of these in hopes of learning how to build something a bit more modern than my FrontPage web site (www.jerrypournelle.com) which Roland says is the equivalent of using triangular sticks to press cuneiform letters into wet clay. (www.ChaosManorReviews.com is built and maintained by Brian Bilbrey who functions as its managing editor, and is slightly more modern, using bits of PHP and CSS to automate a few global features...)

Woychowsky's book also gives a good introduction to the whole subject of web pages and why modern systems are preferable for most applications. All this was "mad scientist stuff" until one day someone said "But it's how Google does it," at which point everyone got interested. If you have much interest in these matters, this is a good book to start with.

We also have two new books from Wiley, PhotoshopCS Accelerated, and Julie Adair King, Digital Photography Before and After Makeovers. Both are profusely illustrated step by step guides, and just reading through them has helped me considerably.

All four of these books will stay on my reference shelf.

The game of the month remains World of Warcraft, which is more addictive than EverQuest ever was. While at the World SF Convention I spent some enjoyable time with Dr. David Friedman, who induced me to try the first dose of WOW. David and his wife play the game together, and their daughter gets into the game as well. They've been of considerable help as my Paladin struggles through the ranks on Feathermoon...