Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor: October 30, 2006

The User's Column, October, 2006
Column 315, part 5
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week.

The big news last week was the release of new Apple MacBook Pro laptops with the Intel Core 2 Duo processor. Peter Glaskowsky ordered one the instant they came out, so we'll have full reports soon enough. First looks indicate that this is the Mac to order: with Parallels you can run Windows XP or Vista, except that anything requiring Direct X won't work; for those you'll have to use BootCamp and boot up directly in Windows.

On The Road

Richard and Herrin wed
Roberta took this one with the Kodak EasyShare V570 pocket camera.[View larger]
Richard and Herrin wed
I took this one with the Panasonic Lumix FZ-30.[View larger]
Richard and Herrin wed
Cutting the cake.[View larger]

The week was joyous but hectic. We went up to Santa Barbara for a wedding: my youngest son Richard Pournelle and Herrin Hopper were married last Friday afternoon. I took all my cameras and we proved, as usual, that the camera you have with you is the one that gets the pictures.

A better camera doesn't assure a better picture, although I did get a number of good pictures with the Panasonic Lumix. Richard and Herrin had a professional photographer who took hundreds of pictures, so mine weren't all that important anyway.

I've never claimed to be a good photographer: I've sold pictures to some quality markets, including National Geographic (way back in the days of K2 film) but the pictures were a way to help sell words. Digital cameras make it possible to take a lot of pictures, and if you take enough, one or two may be pretty good.

Staying Connected

Our motel in Santa Barbara had wireless connection in the lobby, along with free coffee twenty four hours a day. They also had tables and chairs. This meant that I could work on stuff in the room, carry the IBM laptop to the lobby, and upload to the site and download mail. I confess I didn't do a lot of that because we had other things to do, but it did work quite well.

I can also report that the DeLorme Street Atlas USA and the accompanying GPS receiver worked. We didn't really need them, but the maps give great details including most of the names of restaurants and other business establishments. I don't have built in travel aids in my car. They're certainly more convenient than carrying a laptop with DeLorme and a GPS, but not as much so as you might think; the only real problem is finding a convenient place for the laptop. The spoken travel directions are quite good.

Vista RC2

Vista Release Candidate 2 installed as an XP upgrade - that is, without scrubbing down the hard drive - has remained stable. I now have a good feeling about what you'll be able to buy next January when Microsoft starts selling Vista for upgrading older machines. Fair warning, though: if you install Vista on a machine that was already choked up with junk, Vista won't improve it.

Over time Windows seems to grow fungi and other unwanted stuff. The system slows down. When you plug in a USB drive it takes forever for the system to respond. It takes longer for DVD's and CDROM's to eject after you punch the button. Restarts take longer and longer. Switching between programs takes appreciable time.

The remedy is to use your Plextor DVD writer to make copies of everything important on your computer, find all of your installation disks, and devote an afternoon to scrubbing your system down to bare metal and reinstalling first Windows XP, then all your applications. The result will be a very fast system that runs like new.

I installed Vista RC2 on a fairly crufty system as a test of stability; so far it has done well. This afternoon I used Vista, Nero, and Roxio to write just about everything on that machine to DVD's; that includes about thirty gigabytes of photographs, most of them things I'll never want to look at again. In doing that I made a discovery: I've been a Nero enthusiast for a decade, and I have had little good to say for Roxio for about as long; but today I found that Roxio DVD Creator is at least as fast and as easy to use as Nero. That came as a surprise.

Now that I've saved all the important files from the XP-turned-Vista system, I'll now reinstall Vista and let it reformat the drive. That should improve performance. More on this another time.

As to why you'd want Vista rather than XP, it entirely depends on what you do. If you spend most of your time in Microsoft Office, Windows XP with the Windows Desktop Search program installed will do everything Vista would do, so far as I know. Vista is cool, and I like the gadgets and gizmos, but I can live without them.

There have been a number of articles warning that if you buy new equipment in the next few months, you shou"d be sure to get "Vista Capable"; actually, since elementary vanilla Home Vista isn't all that much more fun than Windows XP, you probab"y want a "Premium Vista Capable" machine. What that translates to is the ability to run Direct X 9, at least 128 megabytes of graphics memory (what I used to call video RAM), and a gigabyte of main system memory. You might be able to buy a new machine that's too slow for Vista, but you'll have to work at it; any dual processor system will be good enough, and any new machine you buy ought to have at least dual cores. Software capable of using the extra processor power is rolling out, and it's very much worth having that hardware.

I've been making do with what we have here at Chaos Manor because what we have is good enough. All of my main machines have dual processors, and they're all good enough for any software I'm likely to use. The one thing I need that I don't have is the latest version of Dragon Naturally Speaking: I really do want to learn to dictate. On the other hand, I'm told that the systems I have are more than good enough for that, too.

Of course no system is fast enough to run Outlook and never slow to a crawl. I've had the solution to that problem for years: I have two main machines, both with dual processors. One runs Outlook and functions as the communications machine. It's also the system I use for research, accumulating my web findings into OneNote. The other machine also has OneNote, and serves as my main writing machine. It also plays games and I use it for Skype. I keep hoping I can consolidate everything into one machine, but so far that hasn't worked.

Winding Down

The Movie of the Month is Keeping Mum, with Maggie Smith as a homicidal Mary Poppins. If that makes no sense, I apologize, but it's the best summary I could come up with. This is one of the funniest movies I have seen in years, but it probably won't be everyone's cup of tea.

The game of the month is Donohoe Digital Tournament Poker, No Limit Texas Hold'Em. There's nothing all that special about the game, but the graphics are acceptable, the options are complete, and the AI is pretty good. I have been a pretty good poker player in my day, but I never played Texas Hold'Em. I was curious about the game, and this seemed as easy a way to learn it as any.

The computer book of the month is Christopher Hallinan, Embedded Linux Primer, from Prentice Hall. This is a genuine primer for programmers who find they have to learn about using Linux on practical applications. It's complete, it's practical, and if you think you're going to be working on embedded Linux, you will need this book.

The first book of the month is Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, Houghton Mifflin. Science in these United States (and throughout the Western world for that matter) is in some trouble: the peer review process as a means for allocating both publication and funding resources is subject to herd behavior. O"ce there is a "consensus theory" it's very hard to publish experimental results that cast doubt on the consensus, and even harder to get funding for experiments designed to test the theory. Smolin looks into how String Theory has become a "consensus" that may assure stagnation. This book won't be everyone's cup of tea, and there's some hard slogging in places, but it's well worth the effort to read and understand it.

The second book of the month is Bad Astronomy by Philip Plait (Wiley). This book covers a lot of things you know for sure, but which aren't so. One is the Moon Illusion: why does the full Moon appear to be so much larger at the horizon than when overhead. This phenomenon has been known since Classical times. Aristotle mentions it. (Hint: whatever you believe, it's probably not true.) Another chapter covers tides, and another deals with the speculation that we didn't go to the Moon after all. It's well written for a lay audience.