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Computing At Chaos Manor:
November 13, 2006

The User's Column, November, 2006
Column 316, part 2
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 that Microsoft Vista and Microsoft Office 2007 have gone golden. I've tried both, and I like both, but neither of them is likely to change your life. You'll get Vista when it comes out on new machines, and my advice is to wait for it. It won't be easy getting an upgrade copy anyway, and it's always best to let the name box makers fight with the early integration problems. I like Vista, and Release Candidate 2 has been stable on a dual processor Pentium D for a couple of weeks so I wouldn't really hesitate to install it on my two main machines; but I'm still using Windows XP on both main machines, and I expect to keep using them for at least the first quarter of 2007.

On that score, XP is good enough for anything you do, and you can look for bargains in XP systems in December. Those machines will be useful for the usual life cycle of computers. I don't expect any really interesting software that actually requires Vista for at least a year.

Similarly, Office 2007 is an improvement over Office 2003 or Office XP, but it's not so improved that you need be in any hurry to get it. The thing about Office 2007, and particularly Word 2007 is that when you do get used to it - and that takes some time - you'll like it a lot, and the older user interface seems a bit annoying.

August Dvorak, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, did many studies which he believed proved that it's very easy to learn the Dvorak key layout, and everyone who used the Dvorak keyboard would type considerably faster than those who used a QWERTY. Alas, it's nearly impossible to go back and forth between them; and it's very hard to arrange your life so that you'll never encounter a standard keyboard and have to use it, which is why the Dvorak keyboard layout never caught on. Office 2007 has more marketing push behind it and will have a different fate; but it will take time, and Office 2003 is quite good enough for most everything we do until we have to make a change to the new interface.

Keyboards

Incidentally, I am told that Dvorak's claims of superior performance for his keyboard "have been thoroughly debunked as unscientific." August Dvorak had been a submarine skipper in World War II and thus was the supervisor on the University of Washington campus of studies funded by the Navy Electronics Lab. NEL paid for some of my graduate studies program, and while I didn't participate directly in his keyboard research - I was working on Paul Horst's multiple regression equation systems for solving the Classification and Assignment problem by predicting performance in college and other education programs - I did spend some time with him, and his description of his research was convincing to me. I knew several secretaries and grad students who participated in the experiments; they said they missed having a Dvorak keyboard. Lester Del Rey used a Dvorak keyboard with some further macro modifications, and swore by it; he was the only professional writer I know who employed it. Other friends made a serious effort to learn the Dvorak keyboard but found no significant improvement of their typing speed. It hardly matters now, since the Dvorak Keyboard is pretty well dead.

Actually, I sometimes regret learning to be a touch typist. I am quite fast, but not a lot faster than a number of two-finger bangers, and since small computers have made it no longer necessary to do clean final draft copies of manuscripts while also making it easier to correct mistakes, typing speed is seldom the limiting factor in my writing. I can type about as fast as I can think of the words to say. Meanwhile, pocket computers have tiny keyboards. It's impossible to do touch typing on them. Some users develop "two-thumb" typing techniques.

And I still recall the night in a Moscow bar when Tom Bethel and I both pulled out our Atari Portfolio pocket computers. Tom, a two-finger typist, proceeded to bang out his column right there. I, being a fast touch typist, had a lot more trouble writing using the otherwise nifty Portfolio. He was through long before I was.

I have become fond of the Microsoft Wireless Internet Keyboard, the one with the curved key layout similar to the IBM Selectric (still the best keyboard ever invented for writers). Niven, on the other hand, prefers the full Microsoft Ergonomic.

Monk's Cell workstation
The monk's cell work area with the Microsoft Wireless Internet Keyboard. The books holding the monitor up were chosen as the right size and unlikely to be needed. [View larger]
Monk's Cell workstation
Where Larry Niven works when he's over here. Note the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic keyboard. Larry likes this humpback model.[View larger]

New Systems

The new Apple MacBook Pro systems employing the Intel Core 2 Duo chips continue to gather glowing reports. That will almost certainly be the next new system at Chaos Manor. See this week's mailbag for reports on those.

Zune

Zune, Microsoft's answer to iPod, comes out this week. I don't have one. I wouldn't mind playing with it but I find I don't use my iPod much, so I'm not sure I'd use the Zune either. One use for the iPod is that with the proper Griffin iPod attachment an iPod is a very acceptable gizmo to carry for dictating notes. It's small, lightweight, has good quality, and generally Just Works. I haven't tried using it for broadcast quality recordings, but when I feed the output into my old Dragon Naturally Speaking trained Windows 98 machine, it works quite well; the quality is certainly better than the gizmo that came with the Dragon program was. The other thing I use an iPod for is to listen to recorded lectures and talking books, and it's fine for those. I make no doubt that Zune will do those jobs just as well, and the only real question is, will Zune be as cool as iPod?

I have mixed reports on that. I expect more data after Zune gets wider distribution.

On Digital Voice Recorders

Bob Thompson says

When I wanted a small digital voice recorder, many of my readers recommended just getting an MP3 player and using the DVR function on it. The problem I had after playing with Barbara's Creative Labs MuVo MP3 player is that it was designed as an MP3 player rather than a DVR. I ended up buying an Olympus WS-100 DVR, which is a pure DVR. The MP3 player is very clumsy to use for voice recordings, while the WS-100 is trivially easy to use. It has all the buttons needed to record, play, rewind, etc. right at my fingertips, while the MP3 player requires delving through multi-layer menus to get anything done.

I have had an earlier model Olympus Digital Voice Recorder since they first came out, and I found I didn't use it much. After I got Bob's note I dug mine out from the peach crate full of small electronics I don't use any more.

My old one uses a non-standard output jack instead of USB and I've lost the cable that came with it, so I won't be carrying it, but using it again reminded me just how smooth the interface was. The Olympus WS-100 not only uses USB connection, but has a means for plugging it directly into the PC without a cable. The WS-100 records in WMA (Windows Media Audio) which if recorded with a good microphone is good enough for the kind of podcasts I am likely to do (Bob Thompson confirms this).

If I were starting from scratch for a note-taking system I'd get the Olympus WS-100. It has a good form factor and easy to use controls, and much longer battery life than the one I originally tested. For what I do, I have generally found the iPod plus Griffin micro good enough, but the interface is awkward compared to my old Olympus or the Olympus WS-100. I am now thinking seriously of getting one. It only has 64 mb of memory, but that's 4 hours of high quality and 27 hours of long-play, more than I'll use up. Many years ago I used to carry a mini-tape recorder for jotting voice notes. It was too heavy and the batteries didn't last long enough. The WS-100 doesn't have that problem, and I know that WMA is more than good enough to feed into Dragon Naturally Speaking.

Peter Glaskowsky notes

My Treo 650, with a third-party application called mVoice, is almost perfect for this purpose. mVoice can set up the side button to start a new recording (toggle on/off or record-until-released), it can record to the SD card, there's a keyboard to name the files, and it can play back privately through the earpiece or loudly through the speakerphone. The microphone is pretty good, too. And I don't have to carry anything else.

I don't use a Treo and have no real need for one, so a small special purpose device for taking notes is probably better for me. As with cameras, the note-taking device you have with you is the one you'll use.

The Backup Game

It all started with the best intentions: I wanted to be sure I had a good backup restoration point for Alexis, the AMD Dual Athlon 64 X2 4400+ system that has, until yesterday, performed splendidly as my communications system. For reasons I cannot now fathom, when I built Alexis I did not put in a second hard disk drive for storing backup data. I sure wish I had.

Instead I relied on external disk drives connected either by USB 2.0 or Firewire. That seemed to work for months, but for reasons I don't recall I disconnected the external drive last August. Since the system is primarily for communications, the two files of great importance are Outlook.pst (and its various archives), and the CHAOSMANOR web site. Both of those are on automatic backup through Mirra, the Linux based network backup system I've reviewed in previous columns. Since the most important files were backed up, I neglected entire system backups. Big mistake.

The Infamous Delayed Write Error

Alas, the last time I made a recovery image of Alexis, it was in early August. After I disconnected the external drive, there were no more automatic backups made. Windows Live OneCare became increasingly unhappy about that, so I decided to do something about the situation. I got out a Seagate external USB/Firewire drive, hooked it up with the Firewire connection, saw that the connection was made, and told Norton Save and Restore to make a recovery point.

It looked as if all was going well, but about half an hour into the operation I got an error message. Insufficient space on Drive C - the drive I was backing up! - to do the work. I canceled the operation. As soon as I did I realized something was wrong.

The next message was the infamous Delayed Write Failed error message that Microsoft operating systems are fond of sending you just when you are in panic mode to begin with. This time I got two. Delayed Write Error on Drive I:, which was the Seagate External Drive; and Delayed Write Error on Drive C:, which was a potential disaster.

I looked at Drive C: and far from being too full, it was nearly empty. A great number of files had vanished. Moreover, My Computer showed that Drive I: had also vanished. Not only was it gone, but attempts to "stop" it with the "stop device" button in the tray, then plug it back in, failed. The system wouldn't recognize the drive whether connected by Firewire or USB 2.0. The drive had vanished.

The last time that happened I found that resetting the system cured the problem, so I did a shut down - restart leaving the external drive plugged into the Firewire report. The system wouldn't boot. Drive read error. This was getting scary.

I unplugged the Firewire connection and tried again. This time the system came up, but I got a message that a registry file had been corrupted and was recovered from backup. The recovery, it said, was successful.

It wasn't really successful. That is, the computer seemed to be working, but it wasn't the same.

The differences were subtle. For one thing, the tray was very wrong. The quicklaunch items had vanished, and over on the other side the Windows Desktop Search launcher was gone. The START button and the whole Start Tool Bar was grey; they're supposed to be green and blue respectively. There were other differences, subtle ones that I wasn't sure of, just that things looked funny, but that, of course could just be an impression.

When I opened Outlook, all the settings were different. I was no longer getting preview messages in plaintext. Buttons were in disarray. All the files seemed intact, but the passwords were gone from the user accounts.

I had forgotten how to set previews to plaintext, and it took a while to figure it out. For the record that is Tools | Options | Preferences | Email Options button and click on Read all Standard Mail in Plaintext. I set that. I rearranged the buttons. I opened the email accounts and put in the passwords, being careful to click on the save password boxes. Then I sent Outlook out to send and receive mail.

It worked perfectly. Everything looked a little screwy. The tray remained grey, not blue, and I sure did miss having the Windows Desktop Search where it belonged - it had been working really wonderfully well before the crash - but I could live with the situation, or thought I could.

Outlook Amnesia

Then I found out that Outlook couldn't remember passwords. Every time it went out to get mail, and every time it tried to send mail, it demanded passwords for each of my mail accounts. If there was mail to send it demanded them twice. And this happened no matter whether I clicked the "save password" boxes or not.

That I couldn't live with. My communications machine has two critical tasks: to deal with the mail as invisibly as possible; and to run FrontPage so that I can keep up my web site. Both those tasks must be done on the same machine, because a good bit of the http://www.jerrypournelle.com web site consists of mail and answers, and it's pretty well impossible to do that unless both mail and FrontPage are on the same machine; and that machine has to be fast, because piggy old Outlook really eats up a machine's resources when it goes out and looks for mail. I really hate it when I'm working on an essay for the web page and Outlook eats so many resources that the word processor in FrontPage hangs up for seconds. Alexis is so fast that it rarely glitches. I wanted that back; but I wasn't prepared to type in the passwords every time Outlook wanted to send or receive mail.

Repair Attempts

My last restoration point was 90 days ago. This was pretty stupid. All my data files were backed up - indeed we hadn't lost any of them to begin with. The real problem was the registry. Like an idiot I hadn't backed up the registry files since the last time I created a recovery point. That won't ever happen again. Registry backup procedures are covered in the O'Reilly book WINDOWS XP In A Nutshell (David A. Karp, Tim O'Reilly & Troy Mott). It was pretty clear that the real problem here was an incomplete registry file recovery; the question was, how to repair it?

The first attempt was to repair Outlook. The simplest way was to insert the Office 2003 disks and do a repair installation of Office. I did that. It claimed to be successful, but when it was done, Outlook still did not remember passwords.

Maybe the problem was Windows itself? I tried doing a Repair installation of Windows XP. It claimed that this was successful, but in fact it wasn't: that is, everything appeared to work fine, but when it was all over, the tray was grey not blue and Outlook still did not remember passwords. I was back where I started.

I tried uninstalling Office and reinstalling it. That produced the first really frightening experience: when I went to update Office, the Office Update Active X program wouldn't install due to rejected unrecognized certificates. Now that was scary. It was time to nuke this system, scrub it down, and start over.

Norton Save and Restore Fails

I had what I thought was a restoration point on a Seagate External Drive (the one that I'd unsuccessfully tried to save a new restoration point on), and the XP Repair installation had restored Alexis' ability to read external drives over USB 2.0; a ninety day old installation wouldn't be bad, because I had copies of all the data files, and it would sure be simpler than reinstalling all the dozens of utilities and such I had on the computer. I connected the External Drive, and it was readable; it appeared to have the restoration data on it. Before I tried that, though, I shut down the system and installed a second Seagate Barracuda 7200 rpm 160 GB drive. Now I'd have a place to put backups in future. Then I brought the system up; everything worked. MY Computer showed the External Drive complete with the restoration data.

Looking at the guts of Alexis
Looking into Alexis: The Antec case makes it simple to install a number of internal drives. Note that the power supply is on the bottom, with its own fan compartment. [View larger]

I used Disk Management to format the new hard drive and label it X:; then I copied the restoration points from the External Drive to the X: drive just in case. Then I ran Norton System Save and Restore. It told me I'd have to boot with the Norton recovery disk. I did that, it found the restoration point, began automatic recovery - and part way through said it couldn't continue.

This was disconcerting. I have used Norton Save and Restore many times, and it has always worked. Not this time. I have no idea why.

Nuke It from Orbit

At that point enough was enough. I copied all of my critical data files, and the entire Program Files folder, from the C: drive to the new X: internal drive, got out my Windows XP SP2 installation disk, and told it to reformat the C: drive and install Windows XP. Even with XP SP2 this will take a while to update, and I have no idea how I will restore Microsoft One Care Live since I don't recall getting a user name and password; I may have to buy that again. I have installation disks for nearly everything else.

I'm timing how long it takes to restore the system including downloading updates and reinstalling all the programs. I have all the data including user name and passwords for most web sites I visit and, except for Microsoft One-Care Live, all the on-line software I've bought, and I have all my installation disks. I figure the whole thing will take about four hours, after which I'll have a faster running machine: Windows does get gunked up as time goes by, and nuke, scrub, and reinstall is the surest way to restore it.

Bottom Line

There are several morals to this story.

The first one is obvious: when your OneCare or Norton System Works or other security program warns you that it has been a long time since you did a full backup and recorded a new restoration point, pay attention. In my case all my data and program files were backed up, so I was lulled into a false sense of security. I never lost any data, and indeed all the programs seemed to work - but Outlook wouldn't remember passwords, and nothing I could do would induce it to do that. What I really needed was to restore from a recovery point, preferably one made yesterday.

The second moral isn't quite so obvious: it's where you should put your restoration points. You can't restore the C: drive from a restoration point saved on the C: drive. You can restore it from an External Drive, but to do that you'll have to make the copy on an External - and in my case it was a failed attempt to do that that caused all my problems. Better, I think, would be to install a second hard drive and put the restoration points on that. That's not practical for laptops, but it only took me fifteen minutes to put a second drive into Alexis, and another fifteen minutes or so to format that drive and give it the X: drive label. Second drives good enough to be used for backup and restoration points are getting pretty cheap, and really good ones don't cost that much more. If you're running a desktop system, don't wait: go get an extra hard drive, install it, and copy a backup point to it. Do that today. It's cheap insurance.

The third moral to this story is, make backup copies of the registry, and know where those backup files are kept. Many backup programs make registry backup files, but they don't make much of a point of telling you where they can be found; and I guarantee you that it's much harder to find those files after a crash than it would be to make them and put them where you can find them before you have a problem.

Alas, making and using registry backup files (and patches and merges and so forth) is a lot more complex than I can describe just now. I may have to do a column on fooling with the registry - another of the silly things I do so you won't have to - but this isn't that column. Before you go fooling with the registry, read the relevant section in Windows XP in a Nutshell. I expect there are other good sources of such information but that's the one I can recommend.

The final moral of the story is this: no matter how much attention you pay to backups, you can get bitten. If you've been smart you won't lose anything but time. If you haven't been, you can lose work and data.

To RAID or Not to RAID

I used to be a big fan of RAID 1: a pair of drives set to mirror each other. Over time I have had second thoughts. I've had a good bit of trouble with RAID installations. A mirrored RAID pair is great when you have a catastrophic hardware failure of a disk drive, but with good drives that hardly ever happens. More likely you'll have a software glitch like mine, and when that happens having a spare copy of the mucked up operating system disk won't do you a lot of good.

What you need is a series of restoration points stored on an internal hard drive, plus good backups of all your data files. At least that's the conclusion I have come to. Of course I am now talking about the kind of installation I have, several networked small computers used in a small office/home office environment. In my case I don't so much need to be prepared for the failure of a hard drive; I need to be protected from darned fool things I do without thinking - and from the mysterious Microsoft "Delayed Write Error".