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Computing At Chaos Manor:
January 2, 2007

The User's Column, January, 2007
Column 318, part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

It is a new year, and the traditional time for pundits to pretend they know what was significant in the previous year, and what will be significant in the year to come. It's also traditional to trumpet all our successful predictions made last year, and ignore all the ones that didn't work out so well.

This is also my traditional year-end column, in which I comment on trends in technology and the industry, speculate on the future, give my Chaos Manor User's Choice Awards, and present the annual Chaos Manor Orchids and Onions Parade.

Awards are nominated by my readers and associates as well as by myself. Winners are chosen by me. Note that I make no attempt to present my Users Choice winners as "best", since I have long since given up trying to test and use every brand and product in the industry. On the other hand, I can generally get anything I seriously want, I never use anything that isn't "Good Enough," and I don't recommend anything I am not using.

On Equipment and Bribes

On that score, one of the recent news items was that Microsoft sent a group of selected bloggers Ferrari laptops pre-loaded with Vista. These are screaming machines, fairly expensive, and Microsoft (Edelman for Microsoft, actually) sent them as gifts: the recipients could keep them, sell them on eBay, or give them away as gifts. This has raised a number of eyebrows.

I didn't get one of those, but I certainly would have accepted it if offered. My wife is using an ancient Compaq Armada which they sent before the HP merger as a replacement for another Armada that was destroyed in my Death Valley Adventure (see this link and this link for details). The old Compaq still works, but it's getting very long in the tooth, and Roberta could use a new laptop; perhaps she could have the Ferrari, or perhaps I'd like it so much she'd have to be satisfied with the ThinkPad t42p that serves me so well. Or she can use one of the other laptops that lurk here.

My point is that despite all the muttering I hear about bribes, this is no big deal. I have always disclosed the source of the machines I use (I bought the t42p, and I built the system I am writing this on, but most of the parts I built if from were sent as review items by AMD, nVidia, and Antec). My policy has always been that I buy enough equipment to get my work done, but not more. The fact remains that I have far more computer equipment than I need, I can get almost anything I really want, and the notion of bribing me with computer equipment is ludicrous. If I like something I write about it. If I don't I generally never mention it at all, and it quietly goes off to someone I particularly dislike; but in fact that seldom happens because I don't accept anything I haven't heard good reports on.

Over the years we have had early copies of new items. I recall we had one of the best early 80386 systems - a Cheetah, installed here by Ron Satori who designed it and Larry Aldridge of PC Power and Cooling who sent the case and power supply. It was so advanced that Microsoft sent a team down to install a new beta of Windows, because my Cheetah was faster than their development machines. It took them a couple of days, and they learned a lot from it. This wasn't a unique story.

I suppose there are people who can be bribed by offers of equipment, but it's not as easy as you think. The Microsoft Ferrari incident generated a discussion among my advisors, with a couple of interesting comments.

The bunch trying to make a scandal of this mostly have no idea of the sheer volume of material that has appeared at Jerry's door over the years but has never bought a positive mention for a bad product. If it sucks the best they can hope for is that it won't be spoken of at all. Unless it sucks in a really interesting way.

Eric Pobirs

Peter Glaskowsky adds

And Jerry has never made a secret of it, and he's published his review-equipment policies in his columns from time to time. I adopted the same basic policies when I was at Microprocessor Report.

Reviewers working for a living at large publishing companies may be more vulnerable to this kind of influence, so these companies always have more restrictive policies, usually prohibiting employees from accepting gifts more valuable than a T-shirt or other tchotchke.

Bloggers are caught in between-- they're usually not wealthy, and they aren't constrained by company policies about gifts.

I know some bloggers who are practically immune to claims of influence because they've shown themselves to be independent thinkers-- Jerry, of course, and Joel Spolsky also comes to mind. And there are bloggers who might as well accept gifts because their prejudices are obvious anyway-- I'm thinking here particularly of some of the pro-Microsoft guys.

But the rest of 'em need to be pretty darn careful what they do and say in order to protect their reputations. This latest scandal is just part of the learning process for the blogger community, and nobody seems to have done anything really inappropriate, so I can't get too excited about it. I figure as long as people are learning and improving, that's good enough.

. png

In the interests of disclosure, I seldom pay for software, and I rarely pay for all of the hardware that I build. Some equipment gets sent to me on long term loans that are indistinguishable from gifts because it's obsolete before it gets sent back. I do not write about things I can't recommend unless, as Eric says, it sucks in an interesting way in which case I say so.

Given that I don't have an unlimited budget I don't see how else I can operate. I've just installed Vista for about the 5th time. Before it's over it will be installed on at least six machines. I have no need for six machines with Vista any more than I have any need for a full Active Directory Domain with 8 networked machines; I do these silly things so you don't have to, but I sure couldn't afford to do them if I had to buy all that stuff. It's bad enough paying for the air conditioning in the cable and server room. I certainly couldn't justify paying for six copies of Vista.

And that ought to be enough on this subject.

Antec Power Supplies

Before we start on the New Year, I am pleased to report that Antec's new power supplies work with all my AMD systems. I removed the Rosewill power supplies from working systems and installed new Antec power supplies; there were no problems.

Apparently last year the power standards for AMD systems and nVidia motherboards shifted more rapidly than Antec could keep up with; that's the best explanation I have. Symptoms included failure to boot, memory errors, and video errors. All those were cured by installing a Rosewill power supply (see the November 28, 2006 column). That's all fixed with the new Antec power supplies: all my machines came up without a glitch and I'm writing this on Satine now powered by Antec rather than Rosewill. If you have an older Antec power supply of the proper wattage that still doesn't work with an AMD system, Antec will replace it. In my case I had three such systems. They all work with Antec power supplies now, and Antec is back on my recommended list.

Incidentally, both Rosewill power supplies functioned perfectly during the time they were in use, and I'm keeping them as spares. Antec and PC Power and Cooling build their power supplies to heftier specifications than Rosewill, and in my judgment it's worth paying extra for that quality.

Vista

I have Vista installed on a new Core 2 Duo machine built in an Antec P-160 case with an Antec 550 power supply. The construction itself has some instructive details, too many for this week. Part of the Vista story is installation, and that too will have to come next week.

I do have one problem which may be unique to me: the DVD ROM drive is utterly confused about autoplay. When I insert an autoplay disk into the drive, it trundles for a while, then ejects. It has done that with the VOPT 8 (yes, there's a new VOPT; we'll get to that) and with the World of Warcraft installation disks.

I got it to install WOW finally by holding the shift key down as the drive closed. That allowed me to explore the disk and start the installation setup program. That seemed to start all right. Then, when it got to the point of asking for the second disk, instead of merely accepting it and continuing, it popped up a menu asking me what I wanted to do with the disk I had just inserted.

When it wanted the third installation disk, it kept ejecting it until I put in the disk and quickly opened Computer (that used to be My Computer but in Vista it's Computer) and doubleclicked the drive letter. Then it popped up the autoplay menu. When I closed that, the installation continued. It did much the same thing with disk four. I could fool it into continuing the installation but I had to work at it. Astonishingly, Disk Five behaved exactly as it should; insert the disk, click OK on the Insert Disk Five instruction, and stand back. Of course the autoplay menu dialogue popped up, but I merely had to close that. Eventually the program did install properly, but it sure was a pain, and I'm still fighting with the Vista firewall.

Of course this bizarre disk behavior could be Blizzard's installation program, which wasn't designed for Vista. Vopt uses a standard installer as well.

Of course it might be my hardware. However, that drive worked to install Office 2007 from a disk made by downloading from MSDN and burning with a Plextor DVD burner. It installed Vista itself, booting the system from a Plextor-burned DVD of an image downloaded from MSDN. It plays Harry Potter movies all right. I don't think it's hardware. On the other hand, this is such an obvious bug that I can't see how it got past beta much less to a release disk.

If anyone knows more about this, please tell me.

Otherwise, I like Vista well enough. Some parts are a bit confusing, but for the most part, it's interesting and some of it is fun. I think I will like it - but not if it doesn't learn how to handle autoplay installation disks.

Multiple Cores and Virtual Machines

In my judgment the most significant technological event last year was the explosion of multiple core machines. I will not go so far as to say that single-core CPU systems are obsolete - there are hundreds of millions of them, and they'll continue to operate quite well - but I will say that you should think very hard before buying a new system with only a single CPU core. I am certain I will never again build or buy a new single-core system, and I think the only single-core system that I'd accept as a gift would be one of the tiny hand-held specialty machines - and I'd have to think about that one, since it would likely end up in the peach crate with all the other PDA and hand-helds I no longer use.

Related to the multiple-core revolution and not a lot less significant was Apple's turning to Intel based machines for all their new OS-X systems. This is important because multiple cores make for invisible virtualizaton. One of the most secure systems you can have is a good Core 2 Duo Macintosh running Vista under Parallels. There are not many Vista vulnerabilities (as of now) to begin with, and if you did acquire a Vista worm it would starve to death in the Apple operating environment.

Indeed, I am fairly certain that if it weren't for my house rules the Intel based Macs (either Mac Book Pro or the 24" iMac, or even possibly the Mac Pro) would win the Chaos Manor User's Choice Award for best system of the year. Alas it's not eligible because I don't have one yet. One reason I don't have one yet is I have to choose precisely which one I need. There was a time when this house was full of Apple equipment on loan (purchasable at a discount if not returned); we were, after all, Apple Developers and Roberta developed her first full version of her reading instruction program for the Macintosh. There have been some changes in Apple management since then, so I've got to be precise in what I choose to buy. So this year Apple will have to settle for a very large Chaos Manor Orchid.

I said some time ago that when multiple core computers are common and we are in an era of computing power plenty, we will use virtualization for most of what we do, and the average user will neither know nor care what operating system is being used.

I'll go further. It would not at all surprise me to find that Vista is Microsoft's last operating system; after Vista they might find it prudent to design a good Presentation Manager for UNIX and LINUX and get out of the headaches of the OS business. After all, at one time Microsoft was designing the Presentation Manager for OS/2. It's hard to imagine Microsoft without the OS income stream, but it's entirely feasible. Bob Thompson, author of Building the Perfect PC, comments:

Look at Apple, with their GUI shell on top of BSD, for which they charge a significant amount of money. There's no reason why Microsoft couldn't make as much revenue as they do now on Windows by selling a new GUI shell on top of Linux (or BSD). Just think of it as a replacement for KDE or Gnome. And they'd be shifting a lot of their development and maintenance costs onto the OSS community.

Virtualization and presentation are more important to the user than the nuts and bolts of the OS, and Windows, Linux (all flavors), UNIX, and MAC OS-X all have major annoyances and just plain defects. Microsoft would do well to assign some smart people to read David S. Platt's Why Software Sucks and applying what they learn to the Windows interface. Building a really effective Presentation Manager could be more lucrative than Windows.

They're Baaack

Don't look now, but Ma Bell is back. The FCC has approved the merger of AT&T with Bell South, and that's pretty well the end of the experiment with the Baby Bells. AT&T is a nearly unregulated utility now rather than a regulated public utility. Whether that's better than the old AT&T Ma Bell isn't clear yet.

One thing is clear: we lost Bell Labs, the Advanced Planning Department of the human race, to this deal; and I am not sure that any advantage from the breakup and reassembly can compensate for that.

A Few Predictions from my Oracle

I have a prediction source much like the Delphic Oracle. Here are a few things the Oracle says will happen this year:

Coming Up this Month

We will have the Chaos Manor Users Choice Awards, and the Chaos Manor Orchids and Onions Parade.

My new Core 2 Duo system is running Vista. By next week it may - repeat may - be the main writing and gaming system. When Vista and Office 2007 are good they are very very good; but when they are bad they are horrid. At the moment Roxanne is out at the test station, but I'm hoping to move her into the main office. As I said, when she is good she is very very good.

We have a new IBM Lenovo ThinkPad Z61t and its docking station, and it's every bit as good as you'd expect it to be. Fast, lighter than my t42p with longer battery life; it just works.

Not that there's anything wrong with the t42p: I recently upgraded him with additional Kingston memory, and I'm about to install a new 100 GB hard drive. We'll have a full report on how I did that, and the results.

And with luck we'll see the new IBM ThinkPad TabletPC with Vista before the end of the month. I'm looking forward to that. Core 2 Duo TabletPC with Vista and 2 GB memory...

There's a new VOPT from Golden Bow. Still the best disk defragmenter program around.

And Consumer Electronics Show is coming up; we'll have reports from there, followed by a flood of products to talk about. All in all it will be a very busy month.

Winding Down December

Winding Down is usually a feature of the last column of the month. Due to Christmas I skipped last week's column which would have been the December 26 Column. I now include the section that went into the International Edition of the December column. I'll catch up by having another "Winding Down" in the last January column.

The book of the month is Tim Powers, Three Days to Never. Like all of Powers' work this is nearly indescribable because there are so few writers who do the things Powers does. His research is impeccable, his characters believable, and his plots are literally incredible - but incredible or not, he keeps you believing until the book is over and then some. This will win awards, but don't read it because of that. It's just good. Imagine that everything you hear on the Art Bell show with the possible exception of alien abductions is literally true; now imagine that it's woven into a self-consistent plot. That's Powers. There's no one like him.

The game of the month is Medieval II: Total War. This uses the Rome: Total War engine rather than the original Total War engine, and there are no editable scripts. It is a far more difficult game to win than Rome: Total War where the "Smackus Maximus" strategy (Google that if you play Rome: Total War) will generally carry you through. Some starting positions seem hopeless. One of my favorites is the Sarmatians (you may recall them from the film King Arthur of a few years ago), but I don't see how they can survive against the Huns given their starting forces. Unlike the original Medieval Total War your revenue does not depend on sea trade with neutrals; you can build decent revenues by developing your land and local trade routes.

The first computer book of the month is Brad Dayley, Python Phrasebook from Developer's Library (Sam's Publishing). If you don't know about Python you should; it's an easily learned free language that allows you to do all kinds of utilities and small programs. There are versions for Windows, Mac, Linux, and nearly every other operating system you might find interesting including Nokia cell phones. The Python Phrasebook has actual working code segments that will do useful things like expand Zip files, recursively delete files, change file attributes, do file searches, work with XML, retrieve cookies - you get the idea. If you don't do any Python programming you probably ought to learn how. If you do Python, you will want this book. It would make a great present for a medium geeky friend.

The second book of the month is from the Prentice Hall Open Source Software Development Series. That Series itself is worth your attention. Developing Open Source software is a bit different from doing proprietary development, and if you haven't tried it, you won't know what it is. This book is called Rapid Web Applications with TurboGears: Using Python to Create Ajax-Powered Sites. If that title doesn't inspire you, you probably won't find this book interesting. If it does, now you know it exists, and you'll want it.

And the Movie of the Month is The Good Shepherd. Despite obvious plot flaws and a definite political bias, this is a painless introduction into how Wild Bill Donovan built OSS using Princeton and Yale WASPs, and participated in converting it to the CIA. It's painless because it is very well acted and directed. It's flawed because of its political agenda.

One non-obvious flaw in the movie has to do with what really happened at the Bay of Pigs: the operation didn't fail because of a mole in the CIA. It failed because Adlai Stevenson got to Kennedy and unmanned him. Kennedy lost his nerve and called off the US jet fighter air cover for the CIA's B-26 bombers flying out of Nicaragua. Without air cover the old WW II propeller B-26's were easy targets for the Soviet supplied Cuban jet fighters. When Kennedy cancelled their fighter cover he doomed the operation, but he didn't have the courage simply to cancel the invasion. As a result the operation was doomed, a number of Cuban resistance leaders died, and a number of CIA pilots, knowing that without air cover they were low flying ducks, still volunteered to take their obsolete bombers and try to use them as fighters to aid their comrades.

The movie well shows the confusions of the Cold War. The Soviets sent in dedicated defectors who might or might not still be KGB and GRU agents (with their families in KGB custody as security). The mission of one bogus defector was often to cast doubt on the information supplied by a genuine defector. Meanwhile, nearly every covert agent we sent to the USSR was detected nearly instantly. This inspired heroic - some would say insane - efforts to find a CIA mole. Ironically, the genuine mole was Kim Philby, a highly likable British agent serving as liaison between the CIA and the British intelligence services. Philby was shown nearly everything the CIA knew and passed it on to Moscow while the Agency and FBI vainly searched for the CIA mole. A bit of this is shown in the movie, but if you didn't know it already you wouldn't deduce it from what you see.

Finally, the founder and first Director of Central Intelligence was Allen Dulles, brother of John Foster Dulles, and whatever Allen Dulles' flaws may have been, he was neither venal nor corruptible, and had the ability to inspire fanatic loyalty in those who worked closely with him.

For all that the movie does a reasonable job of showing just what kind of sacrifices intelligence people make when they take on the job of standing watch over a free society.