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Computing At Chaos Manor:
December 12, 2006

The User's Column, December, 2006
Column 317, part 2
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week.

Some Advice on New Systems

A writer friend recently settled a plagiarism suit for a significant if not great sum, and as he put it, spending the money on good equipment before the end of the year is like getting a 40% discount. (Depending on your accounting system, that may not be true: you have to depreciate new electronics rather than write them off as expenses in the year you buy them; but that's not my concern.) He asked for advice on what might be a good system to invest in. He has written mostly non-fiction, short articles and a few books, but he also has fiction in print and is working on more, particularly historicals.

I gave the matter some thought and decided this was worth a part of the column. Here is what I am writing to him. It tends to be rambling because it was composed as a letter:

First off, were I you I'd go "desktop replacement" laptop. Let your wife have your current machinery. Network that to the new system (easy to do with any kind of router and you are mad to connect to high speed internet without a router).

Peter Glaskowsky comments

It would be useful to explain what you mean by desktop replacement, because it has a different meaning in the industry, particularly in magazine reviews. Conventionally, a "desktop replacement" ("DTR") notebook uses desktop-type components in a large laptop case. The processor will be a 50W or 65W variety with only limited power management, the chipset will be the less expensive desktop variety, and the graphics chip will also come from the vendor's desktop product line. The LCD is usually big and bright, which is good for the eyes but bad for power efficiency. Some DTR notebooks even use a 3.5" hard drive, or used to; maybe this practice has ended by now.

These machines end up weighing 9 to 12 pounds and often get less than an hour of battery life.

Systems like the MacBook Pro are conventionally known as "thin & light" notebooks-- under six pounds, with CPUs, chipsets, and GPUs selected from the vendors' mobile product lines. This gives them good battery life, which is important if the user intends to spend significant time using them away from home.

Alex has a true "desktop replacement," and agrees heartily with Peter's description. It's his only computer, and he does a lot of work with Photoshop and large data bases, so he needs the extra power even at the cost of weight and short battery life.

For what you do and the way you do things, I'd get an Intel-based Apple laptop, one of the new MacBook Pro with Core 2 Duo systems. That's what I mean by "desktop replacement": something that will do everything you want done. It's what I am getting.

A MacBook Pro will run Windows if you really need Windows, but I suspect you'll simply be happier with a Mac for much of your work. With a Mac, everything is either very simple or impossible, so you won't spend time fussing with the system.

There is a program called Parallels. Get that and you will be able to run your Windows Office as an application inside your Mac until you decide to get Office for Mac.

If you are after a Windows only laptop, get an IBM. The ThinkPad line was sold to Lenovo, but IBM continues to pay attention to the products. ThinkPads are really well built and you won't need much if anything in the way of technical support, although in fact their support is good. I have an older T42p and I still think of it as "the new laptop" because it works so well. Whatever their latest model is will be fine; if there are sales look into those. Anything from the T42p on will be more than good enough for your work. Marty Winston comments, "I just got a new Z61t ThinkPad and I love it - Core2Duo 2GB CPU, a little wider but no deeper than the earlier ThinkPads."

The HP TabletPC is also good; I use mine with Microsoft OneNote and it's wonderful. Of course you can use OneNote without a tablet, but OneNote and a TabletPC make a wonderful combination for research, particularly in coffee shops with wireless connection.

The TabletPC you can buy today will be faster than the one I have, but I often carry my older and much slower TabletPC as the only machine when I go on the road. Do get it with as much memory as possible, either in the original configuration or add Kingston memory yourself. It was not difficult at all with my Compaq HP 1100. You do have to open up the machine and be careful to seat the memory properly, but it's all pretty obvious. Your wife can do it if you're a bit nervous. Alex notes,

Ground yourself, don't let the animals in the room while you do it, make sure you buy the correct RAM for the job. Use Crucial or Kingston's sites to find the appropriate choices for upgrade. You may need to remove memory to install more.

Then get a good Seagate portable "paperback" USB external drive. They make a small one for about a hundred bucks that holds upwards of 120 GB. (The latest are up to 160 GB.) It's very easy to carry, about the size of a smaller hardbound book or a big paperback, and you can back up everything. It powers off a USB port, or it can take external power, and It Just Works. (I can recommend those for Christmas presents, too.)

Many people are going for a laptop as their only system, with a keyboard and monitor at home for convenience and only on the road using the laptop keyboard and screen. Actually I am working that way on my fiction: I take the IBM T42p upstairs to the monk's cell and connect it to a Microsoft Wireless 6000 keyboard and mouse, and a ViewSonic 19" 1280 x 1024 monitor. I keep a spare laptop power supply up there so I don't have to carry that back and forth. If all I did was fiction that would be more than good enough for me; I don't but could do all my email and web stuff on the IBM also. I know because that's what I often do on the road.

The new Lenovo models of the IBM ThinkPad laptops are great. They are made in China, of course, and that's a factor in any decision, but most good stuff is made in China now. I fear for the US ability to produce things since we are getting out of practice. (The Japanese keep a production line going in Japan for almost everything they make. They experiment with productivity improvements in that facility. They sell its output, of course, but that production line also serves as a model in case they lose the overseas plants to politics or riots or labor unions or whatever. No bad plan but the US doesn't do that. I sure wish we did.)

So overall I would say for you:

Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro (Apple laptop) with Parallels which will let you run Windows XP and thus all your Windows software.


IBM (Lenovo) ThinkPad Laptop and get a good one.

Whatever you get, get the Seagate 160 GB USB external drive for backup both on the road and at home.

If you go for a Windows only system, get Norton Ghost or Norton Backup and Restore to make exact copies of your system: that way if something like a nasty virus or hardware failure requires you to nuke the system and start over, it is VERY EASY to do. It's also useful if you need to put in a larger drive in your laptop; I did mine that way and it took under an hour with no problems at all. If you get a MacBook Pro, the backup software that comes with it will do fine; you don't need a third party program.

If you stay with Windows and Microsoft Office, with Outlook as your mail system, get the InBoxer spam filter Outlook plug-in. I review that below.

Apple makes really nice but pricey monitors. My HP wide screen monitor is gorgeous and works well and has speakers built in, and cost about half what the comparable Mac monitor costs. I haven't had any trouble at all with my HP since I bought it a couple of years ago. A ViewSonic 19" LCD is also more than good enough for writing both fiction and non-fiction. But Marty Winston, who tracks developments in both HDTV and monitors, tells me that "the most interesting new monitor out there is a 24" Westinghouse wide-screen that doubles as both a computer monitor and an HDTV monitor (not a client)". I haven't seen that yet but I'll have a look. The point is that having a really good monitor and keyboard for home use is perhaps not essential, but it sure makes using a laptop as the "only" machine a lot easier.

If you want a black and white printer get any decent HP Laser printer. They may cost more than other models, but an HP LaserJet printer will last forever.

After you choose your laptop, get a good external keyboard of the kind you like. I favor the latest Microsoft Wireless with the sculpted slightly curved rows of keys, at about $100 for wireless keyboard and mouse, but Logitech makes good ones too; go try some out and see if you like the keyboard feel and layout.

And if you are feeling experimental, the HP TabletPC is quite good, and using a tablet with wireless connection and OneNote can change your life. You will want a good external keyboard, mouse, and screen for that, too. You can use the tablet with hand writing entry while it is connected to a big monitor and external keyboard and I do that for research; it lets me mark up downloaded stuff. It's a different way of working and may take getting used to, and Tablet systems are almost always slower than non-tablet laptops, but machines are getting so fast now that you probably won't notice the difference anyway.

Whatever you get, buy a copy of Microsoft OneNote. Being software you can write that off in the year of purchase. OneNote will change the way you do research. It's wonderful.

WACOM Pen for TabletPC

I have been using my HP 1100 TabletPC for several years now, and as I said above, it's extremely useful. A good TabletPC with Microsoft OneNote can change the way you do research. It also allows you to do PowerPoint presentations that you can mark up, either before or as you give the talk. This has all the advantages of the ViewGraph system many of us used in the Dark Ages.

If you do use a TabletPC, you will want a WACOM Pen for it (link). Not all TabletPC's use the Wacom Penabled system, but the best ones do and those are the only ones I recommend.

The WACOM/Cross stylus looks good, feels good, and has an "eraser" on the top. It makes using a TabletPC a lot more fun. If you get a tablet, get one of these. Recommended.

InBoxer and Spam

I get a lot of spam. Much of it is killed off by Spam Assassin which is run by my ISP, so I never see it; but even so, an awful lot of it gets to me.

Outlook's Junk Mail filter doesn't get much of it.

I have for a couple of years now used an Outlook plugin called InBoxer and it's nothing short of amazing. InBoxer builds its own rules using Bayesian analysis. Sometimes they get scrambled; when that happens, it's not all that hard to rebuild the rules and data base by deleting some files and pointing InBoxer to a list of known spam, and a list of known good mail. That can take a quarter to half an hour, after which InBoxer is very good indeed at picking out spam. I've only had to do that once in several years of using InBoxer on three different machines.

Every now and then the spammers come up with a new development. The latest is realistic subjects and sender names, with random selections from literature as the body of the mail. The payload is an attachment. I have no idea what the attachment does because I have never opened one, so I have no idea why someone is going to all that trouble to put things in my mailbox. InBoxer has been learning to deal with those, but it takes time.

The interesting thing is that in thousands of mails that InBoxer has blocked, I think I have found perhaps five false positives. If you do see blocked mail that ought not to have been, you can tell InBoxer to keep it; and if you like, you can whitelist the sender. One problem I have that many don't: I really need to collect press releases, and many of them are indistinguishable from spam. I have taught InBoxer how to do that, largely by example; I don't know what rules InBoxer developed. And of course I can whitelist some PR people like Marty Winston who never send me timewasting junk.

On a typical day I will get 500 emails, all of which have survived Spam Assassin at my ISP. InBoxer will block about 200 of those. It will also set aside between 5 and 30 for my review. Usually it's closer to 5 than 30, but when spammers come up with a clever new approach the number will rise until InBoxer has seen enough of the new kind of spam to figure out how to recognize it. When the new "simple subject, random text file body" spams began I would get about 25 of those in the Review box each day, but now it's fewer than ten.

If you use Outlook you really ought to try InBoxer. It's easy to use and quite effective. Indeed, InBoxer is so good that it's one reason I use Outlook. It really saves me a lot of time in dealing with spam. Recommended.

Tuning Firefox

By now most of you with Windows XP systems will have Internet Explorer 7.0. It works quite well. Not quite well enough for me to abandon Firefox 2.0, but since there are some things you can only do if you have genuine Microsoft Internet Explorer, I'll leave it on my various machines.

Firefox has this problem: there's no instruction manual. Working with Firefox requires that you tune in to the music of the spheres, or at least the major arcana of the Internet. That's fine if you're me, since I can ask questions in plain English on my web site and have expert answers within half an hour. It's a bit tougher if you are relying on Google or Ask Sam or Microsoft Search or whatever and your question is at all complicated.

The great power of Firefox is customization with Firefox addons and extensions; but, alas, few of those are well documented. Since these free extensions are generally written by volunteers who do the hard work of coding, and who have the usual attitude of programmers toward documentation, the answer to complaints about lack of documentation is usually met by cries of "You want documentation, write it yourself." With some justice, of course.

I was reminded of all this when Firefox suddenly changed behavior on one of my machines. When you open a new window in Firefox it doesn't close the old one; it creates a new tab. If you have a lot of memory on your machine you can accumulate a lot of open tabs. Dozens, in my case. These used to be displayed on three lines of twenty tabs per line. That works well for me. Then, one day, the three lines vanished, to be replaced by some horizontal scroll arrows. That was horribly inconvenient. I have no idea why the display changed.

I did find out how to fix it.

One of the best Extensions for Firefox is Tab Mix Plus. I won't describe all the things it does; just take if from me, if you use Firefox, you will want Tab Mix Plus. Once you install that, there will be a "Tab Mix Plus Options" menu item on the Tools button on the toolbar. Open that and there will be a ton of options, all worth study, one of which swaps display between three lines and a horizontal scroll.

I never did find the setting that tells Firefox how many items to put in each row. One day I will.

You can spend a lot of time tuning Firefox.

Microsoft Wireless Comfort Keyboard and Mouse 1.0a

I have been using the Microsoft wireless comfort keyboard - it has a sculpted key layout but no hump as in the "ergonomic" models - in the monk's cell to write fiction, and when Roberta decided it was time to come down to the beach house, I brought it with me. I still don't use it in the main office, where I am still using Ortek keyboards, but I may well just buy a couple more of these Microsoft comfort keyboards and standardize on them. I like many of the features, including the built-in Zoom, Volume Control, media player controls, and other specialty buttons; and I very much like the overly large delete key (the insert key has been moved up to share Print Screen and SysRq, which is a Good Thing because now I never inadvertently hit Insert and start overwriting text).

When I first used these, the battery life in both keyboard and mouse seemed wretchedly short. Bob Thompson reported the same problem. After a couple of days during which I had to recharge the batteries daily - I use Ray-O-Vac 15 minute rechargeable batteries and charger, and I swear by those - I didn't have to charge them again for weeks.

I use the Microsoft Wireless keyboard and mouse every day for several hours, and while I have settled in on a schedule of recharging the batteries every first Monday of the month, I suspect I could do it even less often.

Front view of the beach house workstation
My beach house writing post. Microsoft Wireless Comfort Keyboard and Mouse, ViewSonic 17" LCD monitor (it will be replaced by a ViewSonic 19"). That's Lisabetta, the HP 1100 TabletPC over on the table at the left, and the IBM T42p ThinkPad that's running this place. We're connected to a D-Link Wireless router and cable modem. Over on the right is the Ray-O-Vac 15 Minute battery charger; next to it is the wireless keyboard and mouse receiver. The picture was taken with the Kodak Dual Lens Easy Share V570.[View larger]

One note. Every now and then, when I first start up, I get a message about "weak signal" from either the keyboard or mouse. I sometimes move the little receiver unit (it connects to the computer with USB cable), but often I just ignore the message. Since I am using this on a laptop, it wouldn't be any great tragedy if I did have a keyboard or mouse failure, but in fact that has never happened. The message goes away and never comes back.

As to why I haven't converted to this system everywhere: First, I haven't despaired of finding a good "clicky keyboard" (see the excellent presentation at this link) with collapsing spring keys in a layout like the Microsoft Comfort Keyboard. The Comfort Keyboard has a good feel to it, but it's not quite as good as my Ortek keyboards. Alas, the Ortek keyboards come with PS/2 connection only; and while the Belkin PS/2 to USB converter connectors work to allow connection to a laptop, it's one more thing to carry around and worry about. I keep hoping Microsoft will make a real collapsing spring keyboard in the Comfort layout. I'd convert to those like a shot.

My other reason is that I am about to acquire an Intel-based Mac, and I want to see if I can get used to Apple keyboards. We'll see about that another time. For the moment, then, I use the Microsoft Wireless Comfort Keyboard and mouse on the road and up in the monk's cell, and I like it a lot. Recommended.

Olympus WS-100

I mentioned in a previous column (November Part Two) that I was thinking of getting an Olympus WS-100 digital voice recorder. I have since bought one (through Amazon; buy it through the www.jerrypournelle.com web site link to Amazon, in the left hand column, and I make a couple of bucks) and since then I have never been without it. It goes on hikes and walks, to the stores, and in general everywhere I go.

The five folders for organizing notes turn out to be useful. I save the first folder for "To Do" stuff, and dictate my shopping lists into it. The second is for Inferno, and the third for Mamelukes (two novels I am working on), and the third and fourth for more general observations and notes. It really works, and with an external microphone the recording quality is great.

Bob Thompson, who has been using his WS-100 longer than I have, notes

I've found that the built-in microphone works very well. I can't imagine needing an external microphone for any type of voice recording, including capturing stuff for a podcast. It's true that the built-in speaker is tiny and tinny, but when I play back the recorded files on my desktop system I'm always surprised by just how good the sound quality is from that built-in microphone.

Olympus WS-100 and friends
The Olympus WS-100 with other tools of my trade. Reference works, HP 1100 TabletPC with OneNote opened, Wacom stylus, and reference works. And yes, I do need two different translations of Dante plus the original Italian. [View larger]

I will admit I had been judging the recording quality by what it sounds like when it comes through the speaker. I have just tried the WS-100 recording a choir event and then listening on good amplifying headphones, and Bob is right. It's broadcast quality.

One note: as we were driving down here I had a thought to record. I pushed the Record button on the WS-100 and it said "See You" and turned off leaving the screen blank. That scared me. I use a Ray-O-Vac rechargeable AAA battery (it only takes one) and I thought the battery needed charging; but then it did it with a fully charged battery. Panic set in. Eventually I calmed down and noted that the tiny on/off switch on the back was turned to off. It turns that switch to off when you open it to expose the USB port. Also the HOLD switch was on "Hold". In my usual operations I never use either of those switches, because the WS-100 is quite good about going to sleep if you're not using it, and all you have to do to wake it up is to press any control, such as the "Folder" button, or just "Record". I use the "Off" switch only if I'm not going to be using it for a long while, and that almost never happens. Once I turned it on and took it off Hold, all worked precisely as always.

It's very easy to learn to operate the WS-100 by feel. You can't tell which folder you're in if it's dark, but that's not really all that important. When it's recording there's a tiny red light, not bright enough to affect dark adaptation, so you know it's on, and that's all you really need to know in the dark anyway.

There's no removable memory, but the built-in 64 megabytes is good enough for 4 hours at high (broadcast) quality, or 27 hours at a lower voice quality. I have yet to accumulate more than an hour's notes anyway.

This would make a terrific Christmas present for someone who has to keep notes and is often in places where it's inconvenient to write them down. I carry mine everywhere now. Highly recommended.