Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor: October 2, 2006

The User's Column, October, 2006
Column 315, part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

As I had both hoped and expected, the Zero Day exploit turned out not to be a major threat. This doesn't mean it can be ignored. Microsoft sent out an early patch last Tuesday, and those who have automatic updates in place will already have it; those who do not should go to Microsoft Updates and find it. The threat remains real enough.

I doubt that it needs saying to this readership, but it does no harm to repeat this: if you are running Microsoft Windows of any flavor, or Internet Explorer of any flavor, it is vital that you keep those up to date with all the security patches. Failure to do so subjects you to the very real risk that your computer will join the army of zombie machines subject to the command of the bad guys. There are quite literally millions of zombie computers. They send out spam, do coordinated denial of service attacks, and send out worms and viruses. The owners of those computers generally are entirely unaware.

General Protection and DU Meter

All computers should be kept up to date with the latest security patches. In addition, all should have some anti-virus and anti-spyware protections.

Those ought to include a good router properly configured. A good way to learn whether your router is properly configured is to visit Shields Up at Steve Gibson's Gibson Research and let Gibson test your shields.

As to anti-virus and anti-spyware protection, in the past I relied on Norton, but the latest Norton products have become unwieldy to say the least, and I have more or less given up on them. Some of my correspondents recommend Grisoft as an alternative. I don't care for its interface and busybody attitude, but that's possibly just me. I know of no serious claim that Grisoft's free program isn't effective. In my own case I use Microsoft Windows Live OneCare along with automatic updates. I've been doing that for about a year, and so far I have no reason to regret doing so. I periodically run "strong" spyware and virus detection programs, and so far none of those have detected anything other than cookies that Microsoft Live OneCare hasn't told me about. OneCare warns me about installations and downloads, but doesn't get in the way when I tell it, yes, that's all right, allow that.

If you infer that I am being careful to report without recommendation, you are correct. I have no reason to believe that OneCare isn't working properly and won't work properly in future, and if any company on Earth has both the incentive to find Windows vulnerabilities and the personnel to do that with it has to be Microsoft; but even so, I hesitate to say "Use OneCare and you'll be all right." I can only continue to report that my first line of defense is a well configured router - I carry a small D-Link router on the road, and Chaos Manor is protected by a D-Link gaming router - and my second line is Microsoft OneCare, and so far this has worked very well.

Satine, the machine I am writing this on, is my writing machine and is also the system I use for a lot of web search activity. All the links in this column came from web activities using Firefox. I will also bring in material for storage in OneNote, and check out suggestions from correspondents. Some of those latter can be rather odd, as for example this Not-Safe-For-Work link. Regarding that site, visit it at your own risk, and do understand that I have not advised you to do so. The point here is that while I don't go out of my way to go to risky places, sometimes I get taken to them; so in addition to my router and Microsoft OneCare, I have a third line of defense.

That would be DU Meter. This program puts up a small semi-transparent window that shows precisely what is being uploaded and downloaded from my machines. I keep DU Meter on all my main machines. If DU Meter shows me upload and download activity I haven't asked for, I get nervous.

So far I haven't seen anything to worry about. I was alarmed by what looked like unexplained activity on Alexis, the communications machine, until I realized that this is Mirra, the Linux-based automatic backupsystem. If I turn Mirra off, the meter is quiet; with Mirra on there's a continuous trickle of activity.

DU Meter isn't expensive, and it's well worth having.

Vista Once More

I'm writing this in Word 2003 on Satine. Last week Satine, you may recall, was transmogrified into Roxanne; that is, I installed Release Candidate One of Vista, thus turning Satine into another machine I named Roxanne. I did this as an incremental installation, thus preserving all my applications and files. The installation moved Windows XP systems files to a new folder called, appropriately, OldWindows.

I wrote last week's column in word 2007 running under Vista on Roxanne. Shortly after I sent the column off for posting, Vista blew up. I told you last week that:

When I tried to change the sleep settings, I switched Control Panel from the new incomprehensible arrangement to "Classic". That sent Windows Explorer into neverland, and I had to invoke Task Manager to get rid of it. I'm a bit nervous about trying again.

I can live with it, but I do not think Vista Release Candidate 1 is ready for prime time. Fortunately nothing else crashed, but when Windows Explorer crashes while doing simple tasks, it's never a good sign.

The blowup came when I tried once again to go into Control Panel and make some changes. This time, Control Panel was in "Classic" view, but it wasn't accessible: any time I clicked on a Control Panel icon, I got a "beep", but nothing else happened. The rest of Vista was working, but that window was dead. I used Task Manager to close the Control Panel Window. Then I tried the usual remedy to persistent Windows products problems: Control-Alt-Delete, restart. Vista shut down all right.

It wouldn't come back up. I got a blue screen of death with the invitation to use the installation DVD to attempt a "repair."

Attempts to repair took quite a while, but they all failed. One repair effort involved a half hour memory test; since the memory in this system is Kingston Premium, I was quite certain that wasn't the problem, and it wasn't: the memory test worked just fine. It was just that Vista couldn't be repaired by the "repair" utility. Finally I attempted to reload Vista in its entirety, but that blew up too, so there was nothing for it but to boot up with the Norton Save and Restore disk and let that find my previous restoration point.

Restoration took about an hour, but when it was done, Roxanne was gone and Satine was running XP just fine. I've been using her ever since without problems. Vista ran for about twenty-nine hours before crashing. The same hardware with XP doesn't ever crash.

Missing Vista

I confess I liked Vista quite a lot while it was running. I liked the Gadgets, and the animations. The search utility worked well. There was a lot to like about Vista. I do a lot of silly things so you don't have to, and I was seriously tempted to try Vista again.

This time I asked for discussion among my advisors. One question was, given that 64-bit is the wave of the future, is there any point in worrying about 32-bit Vista at all? The discussion was interesting. First, Robert Bruce Thompson, who as a Linux user doesn't miss Vista at all

I don't know that there's much to say about Vista at this point. It's a late alpha masquerading as a release candidate. They're still adding and removing features, for heaven's sake. By any sane definition, that's still an alpha.

As to your question about the need for 32-bit Vista, Microsoft can't ignore the hundreds of millions of 32-bit systems out there, even though not 1% of them can run Vista in anything but degraded mode, where it's little different from XP.

I see that Microsoft claimed the other day that Vista will have 20% penetration at the end of one year, which is twice what XP had. Most other observers say they'll be lucky to get to 10%. My own opinion is that Vista will have the slowest uptake of any Microsoft OS. There's nothing compelling about it, particularly for businesses, and implementing it effectively requires buying all new hardware.

Incidentally, Ron Morse posted a fascinating link on one of my messageboards the other day, entitled "Why I spent $400 on a video card to run Linux". The link, entitled "You think Vista has eye candy?" is worth checking out.

YouTube video link.

The indicated link shows what Linux can already do with high powered video boards. It then asks why bother with Vista when you have Linux?

Captain Morse adds

I really did spend $400 on a video card (ATI X1950XTX) for a machine that runs Linux 99.6% of the time, and my purchase decision was based in large part out of interest in the technology (XGL/Compiz) behind the Youtube demo referenced.

However, now that I have the card I find any number of apparently reliable reports that people get good results on machines equipped with nVidia 6600 series video cards. nVidia 6600 series video cards can be had for considerably less than my temporarily top of the video card heap (but glorious and nearly silent) ATI card.

Everything I originally wrote was true but apparently somewhat unnecessary. While I paid $400 for a video card to run Linux, I don't necessarily think anyone else should.

On the other hand, my machine is now ready for Vista even if I'm not.

Ron Morse

Then Peter Glaskowsky pointed out that 64-bit Vista needs drivers, and many devices won't have 64-bit compatible drivers yet. Vista 64 needs more memory - not a problem here - but there are probably applications that will never be happy with the 64-bit version. In a word, it's still experimental, and I would probably have less trouble with 32-bit than 64-bit; get 32-bit running stably and then think about experimenting with the 64-bit version. That seemed like a good idea.

Next I heard from Brian Bilbrey, who does most of the work in keeping Chaos Manor Reviews and the Mailbag going.

My thoughts:

If I were installing the current Vista build, leaving aside debates over RC vs. Beta vs. Alpha, I would NOT update against a currently installed XP. You can have Vista trying to make use of drivers for which no Vista provision ever was made. You could have toolbars, antivirus and antispyware that try to run in the new Vista security context, only they weren't designed for that. Testing this Vista-whatever build, think clean slate and only clean slate.

Before starting, I would go to the sites for the Motherboard and Video Card at least, and look for drivers that explicitly support the build of Vista that you're experimenting with. Get those, unpack and put on CD, or whatever the site instructs, by way of preparation.

Pull out the XP disk from the system.

Put in a clean (or wipeable) disk. Remember, clean slate.

If you've got an Asus motherboard, you can go into the BIOS and disable all the nvidia special RAID features. The drivers for that aren't going to be stable, I bet. I don't have YOUR bios in front of me, but the last two Asus/nVidia/AMD motherboards I configured allowed me to have the motherboard either use nVidia RAID, or use the disks in some "legacy" mode, if I recall correctly. Do that.

Install Vista, allow it to own the disk.

That's my best advice, that's what I'd do.

I wouldn't expect a Vista overlay on XP to work properly until actual GOLD release, if then. Possibly not until SP1, when they've updated against enough real-world customer systems and gotten the feedback about what broke.

If this doesn't work again... well, for next week, you can put Vista aside and give Linux its 4 weeks in the sun.


Brian is, of course, correct. I had hoped that installing Vista as Upgrade to Windows XP would work, but I was prepared for it to fail: I had made a recovery point backup before I started.

This time I will have to start fresh, and it's probably simpler to remove the current XP hard drive and put in a new Seagate Barracuda; that will certainly make reinstalling XP a lot simpler.

I also have a good Dual Core Pentium D system (Wendy) that is a candidate for Vista; but once again, I probably ought to start fresh.

Either way it means I must cruise the net and gather drivers for the motherboard chip sets, the video and audio devices, and possibly for the Plextor DVD read/write drives. Once I have all those I'll have to burn them onto a CD. It's not complex work, but it's going to take considerable time, and I'm late already.

It's also time to set up a Linux machine.

As I concluded last week, Vista isn't really ready for prime time on older machines. I make no doubt that it will run well on new machines with the proper hardware. It's certainly not anything to put on production machines, and even for experimental machines upgrading from XP is probably not a great idea.

I still miss some of its features, though.

On Dual Processors

A reader asked me to comment on dual processors and recommend a system. My only possible comment would be, what do you want it for? If I had to answer that off the top of my head, my personal answer would be to get a good Intel Core 2 Duo Mac and get Parallels.

The question did generate some discussion. Peter Glaskowsky said

Dual-core processors seem to be a generally better deal than single-core processors, even given the fact that a single-core chip could run a little faster. The second core doesn't stay busy unless you're running multimedia-intensive software, but it keeps background apps from interrupting what you're doing in the main window.

What's interesting to think about is how far this principle extends. Most programs that can keep two cores busy can also occupy four-- but those other two will be much less useful in day-to-day operations. This suggests that dual-core and quad-core processors will coexist in the market, with customers buying one or the other depending on their software and budget. (Quad-core and more will be a natural fit for servers, of course.)

By the time it becomes possible to consider eight-core or 16-core processors for mainstream computers, the marginal utility of these extra cores will be very low unless we get new software that can use them effectively. If it stops being commercially advantageous to just slap more cores on a chip, processor vendors will have to resume making the individual cores more capable, which is much more difficult.

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Bob Thompson adds

You make an excellent point here. Even disregarding the actual disefficiencies of scale that occur as cores are added, ordinary users are unlikely to see much if any perceptible benefit from more than two cores.

But that second core really does come in useful for running OS and background processes, so that in effect the user always has a dedicated core for the foreground task. From a typical user's perspective, the difference between single- and dual-core is like the difference between the old days when I built dual PIII systems. No matter how fast it is, the single-CPU system bogs down noticeably as more tasks are added; the dual-core/CPU system doesn't. That's what's going to matter to average users, even those who don't think of themselves as using multitasking.

And Eric Pobirs concluded

Agreed. It will take much time and work to make mainstream apps more like the workstation and server apps that make good use of greater than two processors. But dual processors are an easy win with just run of the mill stuff.

Having dual processors is a boost for nearly all users under modern operating systems that have so much happening in the background. The apps may not be optimized for it but the OS just tends to be more responsive under load. There were many situations where my old dual Celeron 533 system would run great while a much faster single P-III box would go through periods of unresponsiveness with a similar set of tasks running. Having a processor free to keep things running while another is completely tied up is a fine thing.

This is all very much in line with my own experiences, so much so that for the past several years I have insisted that my communications machines have dual processors. Pure speed isn't as important. Nothing will keep piggy old Outlook from slowing your system to a crawl, especially if you have an automatic backup system like Mirra running, but dual processor systems make it a lot less painful. Fortunately, it won't be long before just about every machine you can buy will have dual processors. We're still waiting for software to take full advantage of our new computing power, but as multiple processors become common we can be sure there will be clever programmers making use of them.

DeLorme Street Atlas USA 2007

The 2007 version of DeLorme Street Atlas is out. I haven't tried this with my Compaq iPaq pocket computer, but I have used the 2006 version on my IBM laptop in connection with the DeLorme Earthmate GPS receiver, and that works very well indeed.

Laptop computers aren't terribly convenient for real time navigation, but they do work: voice guide directions, just like the built-in GPS guidance systems. You can also load the maps onto Windows Mobile or Palm OS PDA, or static maps can be put on your iPod.

Obviously the most convenient automobile navigation systems are those built in by the manufacturer, but that wasn't available when I bought my Explorer. The DeLorme maps are pretty good. They even have many of the dirt roads out in the Mojave north of Edwards AFB, where we used to take the Boy Scouts out for an overnight rifle practice camp. The map doesn't get down to detail the bush where we found the tarantula every year, but it does show the dirt road to get you there.

There are a lot of map and navigation systems out there, and there's no way I can look at all of them, but I can certainly say that the DeLorme system is more than good enough. Recommended.

Coming Up

Clearly I have to set up a system for Vista, which means cruising around to collect drivers and burning them onto a CD. It looks like it may be easier to install Xandros Linux. We'll see.