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Computing At Chaos Manor: October 16, 2006

The User's Column, October, 2006
Column 315, part 3
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week.

Welcome Back, Ma!

The Justice Department has approved the merger of AT&T and BellSouth. Ma Bell and the Baby Bells are pretty well back together now; but this time it's different. Ma Bell isn't the only telephone game in town. Now we have the Internet, DSL, Cable TV, fiber all over the place, cell phones, wireless, etc. The FCC has yet to approve, and that approval may contain restrictions.

One of those restrictions might be AT&T acceptance of "net neutrality," which is supposed to protect consumers. The question of net neutrality is complicated: most people who argue for or against it have no idea what it actually means, and more importantly, what would be required to enforce compliance with net neutrality. The question stimulated an enormous discussion among the Chaos Manor Associates. First out of the box was Eric Pobirs, who said of net neutrality legislation,

"It's an unavoidable requirement, just as the conditions placed upon AT&T back in the 1930s were necessary. If anything, those past requirements proved inadequate because so few people had the slightest glimmering of how big a part of our lives and economy this would become. Despite all of the great work coming out of Bell Labs, very little was reaching the consumer.

I'm pretty intensely against hamfisted government interference in business but until and unless at least 80% of US homes can be guaranteed at least three competing vendors for their triad of services (data, voice, and video, although they're really just all data nowadays) it seems there is no other way to assure quality delivery of a vital service.

Three vendors is the best most can hope for now. Telco, Cable, and Satellite is pretty much it. The cable companies are just a few mergers away from forming a single entity that handles most of the country's population centers, and satellite is hardly better. If there were a lot of choices for most consumers it would be a non-issue. The market would provide all of the needed incentives and penalties. If WiMax and other wireless broadband services become effective for consumers in other than rural areas where it is the only game in town, then that might up the competition ante a little.

Just a little. (My sister's family is moving next year to a location where terrestrial wireless is the only option. She's getting a big price break for letting the ISP mount a repeater tower on her property, so she'll be getting 10+ megabit service for what the folks on the outer reaches are paying for 1 megabit service.)

My big concern is that any legislation will be ill conceived or stuffed with extraneous special interest nonsense. The seeming inevitability of that makes me reluctant to back any legislation until a real world need can be demonstrated.

-- Eric

The problem is that legislation will be framed by Senators and Members of Congress, who don't have the foggiest notion of how the Internet works - recall Senator Stevens who talked about clogged tubes - and their wonky staffers who are worse because they don't understand the technology either but think they do.

I could see one viable position: regulation may be a good idea, but having Congress do it will be awful, because it will be a battle of the lobbyists with little representation of actual public interest even though there will be plenty of "friends of the people" "united for social responsibility" and such. Those groups have their own agendas, and they may not be yours. Who will represent the views of the user community? When Titans battle, a lot of normal sized people get hurt no matter the outcome.

I also remember Ma Bell as it really was. Eric says little of the technology reached the public. All I know is that Bell system phones had dial tone, and most others including damned near every overseas phone I tried did not -- you could wait several minutes in hopes. And long distance worked in the US. I recall once in Paris needing to reach someone on the other side of the city and finally manually routing the call through a Univac office in Marseilles. It was not an uncommon experience.

Ma Bell really did have a service mentality and beat it into their employees. I said all this, and Eric commented:

I didn't mean to suggest that Ma Bell failed to established high standards for telephone services, just that they failed to do much beyond that. While it helped that semiconductor technology was advancing at a rapid pace, it says a lot that the range of services and choices expanded so much after the breakup.

Remember when nearly every telephone came from a few pages in the AT&T catalogue? Remember the attempted surcharges for using an analog modem on your phone line? Telephone stuff could be so dull and gray in days before the breakup, because if Ma Bell didn't want to do it, nobody could. Compare that to the Internet where a platform was created upon which anyone could build. Bell Labs produced tons of important stuff but AT&T was lousy at making into actual products those things which could have brought so many of these services to us far sooner, albeit at slow speeds. Although, who knows how much sooner fast modems might have appeared if the market conditions encouraging R&D had existed sooner?

By itself, AT&T was too comfortable with business as usual. It brought in tons of money very consistently, so who wanted to go out on a limb with new services that might change the status quo?

A company getting too comfortable is never a good thing. It happened to Xerox, too. They gave up on trying to make reliable copiers and instead made one of the world's leading service organizations. They got so comfortable with that arrangement they were completely unprepared when Canon produced mechanism that allowed HP and others to make machines that ran for years without major servicing. Xerox employees created the laser printer but another company made it a major product.

It was a similar reason that made people distressed during the years when Apple couldn't get its act together. It didn't matter if you wanted Apple products. It was the existence of a real alternative and competitor that made Microsoft have to sweat a bit. Viable competing businesses do far more to make Microsoft work harder than government interference. For MacOS to take 10% of the market would be far more beneficial for the average non-Apple user than anything wrought by lawyers.

This is a good statement of the benefits of deregulation. It doesn't note the loss of Bell Labs, once the advanced planning department of the human race; that loss is incalculable, and we will now get Ma Bell back without Bell Labs. We must weigh all those benefits against that loss. The regulated public utility model worked reasonably well and gave us Bell Labs; deregulation and breakup changed all that.

Deregulation produced all those benefits. What will resuming regulation do for us? It certainly will not give us back Bell Labs. It is supposed to enforce some kind of consumer equality on the net; is there a law or regulation that can do that? Moreover, regulation requiring "net neutrality" will mean active measures to assure compliance. What will those measures cost, both in economic and social terms? The costs could be high. The cure may be far worse than the disease.

We all want certain results; the question is, can new legislation giving government new power secure them. When I suggested that the cure is worse than the disease, John Dvorak said "You just wait until your Google access is 24 kilobits, and then you'll see."

These are complex issues, and before we can discuss them we need to have a common understanding of some of the technical issues. I don't have room for both the technical basics lesson and the discussion of issues, so I leave this until next week and after. The issue isn't going away.

Configure Your Router!

Everywhere I go, when I start up my laptop - usually Lisabetta the TabletPC, but sometimes the IBM ThinkPad - when I search for wireless connectivity I will find, in addition to the T-Mobile Hot Spot I am looking for, one or more networks named "Linksys". Sometimes they have the name of another router provider. Often they have lots of signal - and just about every one of them is wide open.

I could log onto those nets without problems, since I know the default user name and password for most routers. I don't do it, because that would be illegal. It could also be dangerous. I imagine there are some bad guys out there who have figured out that they can use an apparently wide open Internet connection as a honey trap for suckers: log on to this unsecured net and you get free Internet access, but I get access to your computer. Not good.

The moral of this story is obvious. Yes, buy a router; don't connect to the Internet without one. But when you get your wireless router, read the flipping manual and configure it. Turn on WPA encryption, come up with a password, and after that your connection will be automatic.

The New Sony Reader

I eagerly await a really good electronic reader, and when Sony announced theirs (link) I was excited. My first thought was to go buy the Sony reader, and that was reinforced by Peter Glaskowsky's report:

I bought a Sony Reader, the new PRS500 model.

There are many reviews of this gizmo already out there, so I won't rehash the obvious. There are some interesting technical issues not addressed in the published reviews, though.

It's a nice size-- just about ideal for a device of this type, though I think it has more buttons than it really needs and therefore could have been smaller for the same screen size. It's very thin and light, which is wonderful. The back is not flat, however, so if you put the unit down on a flat surface, pushing the buttons makes the whole thing rock from side to side. That's just bad design.

The screen is very high in resolution (800x600) but provides only medium contrast under any but ideal lighting conditions. (There's no backlight, so the lighting conditions really are critical.) The dark color is pretty dark, but the "white" background is a light gray, overall about as reflective as the matte-finish aluminum on my PowerBook. Text is normally displayed as dark letters on a light background. There are two levels of gray between "white" and "black," which allows some amount of text antialiasing, but it isn't very effective.

Under a microscope, the background grayness is apparently caused by little flaws with the display itself. The display is from E Ink, and consists of millions of little spheres that contain a mix of white and black particles. The particles are moved into view by an electrostatic charge-- a positive charge for white, a negative charge for black. It looks like many of the particles are stuck in position, making some spheres white, black, or partway between. Under the microscope, it's easy to see dots all over the place that just never change.

Apparently the spheres that do move aren't entirely reliable, so Sony and E Ink do something interesting: When the user clicks to change pages, the screen goes through a multi-step process: The new page is displayed in "inverse video", then the old page is displayed in "inverse video" as well, then the new page is displayed normally. I interpret this to mean that many of the balls have to be whacked a few times to get rid of any vestiges of the old page before the new one is displayed.

If the machine is turned off while displaying a page, it goes black, then shows the inverse of the page, then goes white... And there's STILL a slight afterimage of the old page. If the text is large enough, the old page can still be read as slightly lighter characters on the usual light background.

So having the display flash a couple of times before each new page comes up is distracting, but apparently necessary. On top of that, there's a delay before the page even begins to change. Hit a button and it usually takes a second or so for the display to show anything is happening.

Even longer delays are associated with more complex PDF files. I have some monstrous PDFs of engineering textbooks-- 1,500 pages in 15 MB-- and a single page turn can take a minute or more! But a typical novel in PDF form has the usual more reasonable delay of about a second.

PDFs are difficult to read unless formatted specifically for the reader. There's only a rudimentary zoom feature, plus the ability to switch into landscape mode which helps a little. Fine print formatted for letter paper probably won't be very legible. Some of those engineering textbooks are totally illegible no matter what I do. So the best deal is to use TXT and RTF files when possible.

The Reader even supports .DOC files, which are translated into some compatible format. Finally, there's a proprietary Sony format used for the books sold through Sony's online e-book store.

The Reader has a built-in MP3/AAC player which is actually kinda useful. It's nice to listen to music while reading. Unfortunately you have to navigate back through the menus to pause playback or skip a song, and with the usual delays, this is very inconvenient. The Reader has real buttons for audio volume control, at least.

The audio quality is quite good. I understand that battery life is not so good when playing music, but I don't think Sony has published a spec for that and I haven't tested it.

The Reader has a non-removable lithium-ion battery. It charges through USB, so there's no need to carry around the AC adapter.

The Reader's built-in software is reasonably well optimized for reading books. The top menu has a Resume Reading button that takes you right back to the page you left in the last book you were reading. In fact, each book has a Resume Reading button. The Reader tracks the last-read page independently for every book, and there's also a decent Bookmarks function available.

But other than that, the software is pretty bad. The Windows XP-only app for managing the reader looks very much like Apple's iTunes version 1.0, but it doesn't work nearly that well. This software must be used to transfer books to the Reader. It would have been better if users could just mount the Reader on the desktop like a USB flash drive. That would be easier, and it would give a least a minimal degree of cross-platform compatibility for Mac and Linux.

The Reader has 64M of internal memory plus a card slot that can take either a full-size Memory Stick or an SD card (or MS Pro Duo or micro-SD with adapters)-- I'm happy Sony gave us the choice.

With a flash card, the Reader can hold hundreds or thousands of books. Unfortunately, the software provides no means to organize them. Books on the internal memory can be organized into Collections, but flash cards don't support the Collections feature. What were they thinking??

Other inconveniences: There's no search function in the Reader, though the Windows app can do that. Text files come in with their original filenames, and there's no way to change them. PDF files come in with their original filenames from the machine of the person who created them, regardless of what you may have renamed them, and again there's no way to change that. These problems mean you may get a long - and - incomprehensible list of book titles. Not good.

Once you're reading a book that's properly formatted, however, the unit is quite pleasant to use. I'm getting used to the flashing and the delays. It's a MUCH nicer platform for reading books than the Treo 650, Nokia 770, or a Tablet PC. It's small, but large enough for a reasonable screen; light, but heavy enough for stability; the buttons are too small but at least they're conveniently located; it has a handsome leatherette cover, and enough battery life for a week or two without a recharge-- all good things. It comes with one cover, but that isn't apparent on the website, so I ordered one and ended up with two.

Bottom line, I like it. It's a classic early-adopter gizmo, but practical enough to use-- the first usable ebook reader I've seen. In a few years, I bet the descendants of this thing will be good enough for the mass market.

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That bottom line was almost enough to get me to order one; indeed, I had the order page on line and was reaching for my credit card when Roberta called me to dinner and I had a chance to think about it. As luck would have it, the next day's Wall Street Journal had a review by Walter Mossberg.

His review began with praise, but ended with a listing of limits. The lack of capability with PDF files is real and severe. There is no capability for taking notes, marking passages, do text search, or look up words in a built-in dictionary. You can make some bookmarks, but not with notes.

Tablet PC's have not become as popular as I thought they would, but I still love mine. I have carried my TabletPC as my only computer on a dozen trips now, and I will continue to carry it; I don't really need something else to lug around, even if it would let me read books more conveniently and have much greater battery life. Rather reluctantly I closed the web page on which I had been ordering the new Sony Reader. If I didn't have a TabletPC I'd probably buy this Sony Reader, but as it is I'll wait for the improved version.

Microsoft Activation and Windows Genuine Advantage

It began with Bob Thompson:

Microsoft has gotten much stricter with XP about how they define a computer, and it appears that Vista is getting stricter still. If this article (link) is correct, you'll be able to replace a failed motherboard just once, after which you'll have to buy a new Vista license if you have another hardware failure that Microsoft deems to be significant enough.

Robert Bruce Thompson

That triggered a firestorm.

This could be a big problem for Microsoft-- if its enemies succeed in making people believe it's a big problem.

Of course, in the absence of a propaganda campaign, it won't be a big problem by itself. How many people ever transfer a Windows license even once? Home users almost never do. Even professional users rarely do it more than once.

And the license merely guarantees the right to transfer Vista to one more machine. Plenty of people have found that Microsoft's human operators are willing to bypass the usual XP activation restrictions on new machines if the customer claims there's been some serious problem with the old one. It's likely that Microsoft is prepared to be flexible with Vista, too.

I'm pretty sure the license is written this way to support the stronger restrictions baked into the Vista version of WGA. If Vista phones home and learns that the product key has been used before, it'll give the previously announced warning message to the customer. Pirates will give up at that point. Legit customers will call Microsoft. Then we'll see how Microsoft responds. If Microsoft gets all hard-nosed with its customers, the market will punish it appropriately.

Let's just put down the torches and pitchforks until we see what we're dealing with, okay?

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But Brian said,

You see, Peter, I think that we're dealing with a rapacious competitor that thinks it has the "market" over a barrel, and will do anything to keep the stock price up. They've increased restrictions on use, built DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) into the software, and made some prettier eye candy (Aero). Oh, and increased the price. That appears to be the sum extent of the "improvement" that Vista offers over XP. I don't need torches and pitchforks.

I won't buy Vista.

I'm likely, on my next upgrade cycle, to just sell or give away the hard drive that has XP Pro OEM on it, along with the motherboard. That should make for no activation problems for the recipient.

I think Vista is a terrible thing, and Microsoft takes advantage of the fact that most people simply don't know that they have a choice. Even worse, you're willing to tell them that one of the choices they have "sucks", in your opinion. Okay. Your prerogative.

It's possible that by making their new OS un-pirateable, they're simply going to drive some large foreign markets directly into Linux or something else. A large uptake could make for very interesting times.

I'll certainly continue to advise anyone who asks NOT to buy Vista, nor to buy a computer that runs Vista. Most people don't care, and that's a damned shame.


None of which settles the matter. It does appear that Microsoft will have a far more restrictive license agreement for Vista, and upgrading your hardware (particularly changing your motherboard) may require considerably more hoohaw including telephoning Microsoft. This is a bit of a change, although those who bought Windows XP as a package deal with a computer do not in fact have a license to transfer it to another machine; Microsoft has been letting them do it. Those who paid full price for Windows have always had transfer rights. Usually they haven't had problems doing it, but Eric, who builds and tears down machines quite often, says he's had to telephone Microsoft a couple of times, but always got a new activation. I note that Dvorak has had the same experience.

Vista apparently will be a bit more restrictive. On the other hand, if the new licensing terms and procedures generate a lot more technical support problems, Microsoft will have to rethink: it doesn't take many phone calls to eat up all the profit from an individual user; while cutting back on technical support while multiplying problems builds ill will.

This is a new era. There really are alternatives to Microsoft Windows, both for businesses and home users, for Aunt Minnie as well as geeks. Linux and Apple are quite capable of absorbing a large number of Microsoft defectors. Microsoft is concerned that more than half of the Microsoft software being run in former USSR and much of Asia is pirated, and hopes to find ways to change that. Microsoft has every right to do that: but there is great danger that in making life difficult for pirates they will make life too difficult for users.

No one has to upgrade to Vista, at least not for years. I recently downloaded Release Candidate 2 from the Microsoft Developers Network. It's more stable than RC/1, and seems to install as an upgrade over Windows XP so I didn't have to reinstall any applications. I haven't been using it for all that long, but I like it. It's cool. But I sure don't have to have it. I could work with XP for years. After all, there are companies out there that still use NT, and today I heard Leo LaPorte commiserating with a young lady who was stuck with Windows ME. (Now there's someone who really does need an upgrade!)

It's very easy for Microsoft to see the glitter of all that Asian and Russian gold they're not getting - but how much of it is real? This argument about copy protection and piracy protection has been going on since the early days of the computer revolution: how many stolen copies of a program would have been paid for if it were a lot more difficult to steal them? Versus, of course, how many potential buyers will turn to something else rather than put up with too many anti-theft hassles? Remember the silly ads about Don Gall, and how you ought to be happy to use a dongle? There are still a few dongle protected programs, but not many. Make something hard enough to use and users will seek an alternative.

Until recently there haven't been many alternative operating systems, but them days is gone. Asian and Russian gold may glitter, but the revenue from the United States and Europe is solid and in hard currency - and isn't anything like as assured as Microsoft seems to think.

Speeding Up Outlook

I can tell you from experience, don't try to do Skype VOIP conversations with Outlook running in the background, no matter how fast your machine. I have a very fast AMD Athlon 64 X2 that serves as my communications machine, and I put Skype on it. That wasn't satisfactory: when Outlook decided to go bring in new mail, I got interruptions in both transmission and reception on Skype.

I solved that by putting Skype on a different machine. You won't all have that option.

One way to speed up Outlook is to start a new PST file. It makes piggy old Outlook bring in the mail much faster. Of course the new PST file won't have much in it, so you will need to import from the older PST; but that's not hard.

Reinstall Outlook; let it start a new PST file; then use File / Import and bring in the useful parts of the old PST file. You can bring it all in or just parts. Outlook has a "compact file" command (File / Data File Management, "Settings" button), and it should be used fairly often, but it doesn't have the performance effect that making a new PST and importing to it will have.

A second way to speed up Outlook is to keep the INBOX root folder relatively small. Use sub folders and rules; a small Inbox makes Outlook a great deal snappier.

As to Skype, it's always subject to degradation by high net traffic, or by Windows deciding it's time to do some Windows housekeeping that eats a lot of cycles. Peter Glaskowsky says that Skype can't possibly deliver the kind of user experience that is required for a mass-market product. The only way to make VOIP work well is to have dedicated hardware and VOIP-aware networks, which is how Cisco, Avaya, and the cable companies manage it.

All of which seems true enough, but I will note that today we used Skype to do the TWIT podcast, and there were participants from LA, the Bay Area, and England. It sounded pretty good to me.