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Computing At Chaos Manor:
January 9, 2007

The User's Column, January, 2007
Column 318, part 2
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week

Word 2007

I am writing this in Office 2007 running under Vista (Ultimate edition). Both are the release versions. This definitely comes under the heading of doing these silly things so you don't have to. Both Vista and Office 2007 take getting used to.

My first problem was that the text was ugly. Of course that's not Office 2007, but I thought it certainly had to be Vista, since I have Cleartype turned on (it's on by default, but I checked to be sure). Then a miracle: I was able to find out what to do with Microsoft Help. There's a section on getting the best out of an LCD display, and it said to up the resolution to the highest value that allowed 32-bit color. I did that with some trepidation, but when I did, Presto! The text looks good now. Scratch one problem. And mark one improvement: Microsoft Vista Help actually was helpful.

My first impression of the release version of Word 2007 was horror: I was trying to compare and merge two versions of a document, and then found I couldn't edit the final result. I cheated on that one: I asked in a writers' conference, and Walter Glenn was kind enough to tell me the solution. There is a toolbar item called "Review"; in that you can view "Final Showing Markup" or "Final", the latter being what I am used to. For reasons not clear to me I didn't have to fiddle with that in Word 2003, but changing that setting took care of the problem.

There were other problems. I am slowly getting past them, although some seem unbearable. For example, when I pasted that URL above into the text stream, Word 2007 reformatted that paragraph, put in indentations, and did other things I didn't want done. I had to break the paragraph with Returns, insert the URL into a blank line, then delete until I had a single paragraph. That took a full minute to accomplish what uses to be a single click.

I fixed that: I have imported what I call my Column Style into Word 2007 (by bringing in last month's column, then deleting all text but the top heading line). I then chose a paragraph and told Word 2007 to use that as the "Normal" style. My URL import problems went away. Apparently the default "Normal", at least in my Office 2007, is something ghastly.

In other words, learning Word 2007 is not a quick process, but I am making progress. Each time I find a new "feature" that does things in a radically different way from what I am used to I have more doubts, but I do think it may be worth learning. Once you find how to do something in Word 2007 it's easier to remember, because all the commands are grouped in a far more logical manner than they were in previous editions of Word.

I do want to emphasize that Word 2007 isn't all that much better than Word 2003, and I haven't yet found anything in 2007 that I couldn't do in the older version. On the other hand, I don't collaborate with more than one person at a time, and I don't create documents with complex formatting, and Word 2007 is said to have improved its abilities in both formatting and multiple author collaborations. Note that Robert Bruce Thompson, who does use complex formats and multiple collaborators, finds OpenOffice.org's word processor under Linux more satisfactory than Word 200, the last version of Word he has used. My limited experience is that Word 2003 is at least as useful as OpenOffice. One day I'll try a month of Linux and nothing else, but then I've been trying to do this for more than a year.

The major change in Word 2007 is the radically new user interface. Some will like it. Others will hate it.

More in the next few weeks: but clearly I can use Vista and Office 2007 to do the column and write books, and since I can, I'll do it.

Vista

I actually like Vista. Once again it takes some learning, but mirabile dictu the HELP files work fairly well. I still haven't learned how to open the "Display" controls (what you get when you right click the desktop on Windows XP); the only way I know to get to Display is to search HELP for it. That gives me something to click that will open it. I'm sure someone will tell me a simpler way.

Vista doesn't like Mozilla Firefox very much. I have had Firefox freeze up twice now: try to do a search, and nothing happens. Closing Firefox and restarting it seems to cure the problem, but that's not much fun. Nothing I can do seems to restore sessions after I close them: I have tried allowing the Firefox default session manager, then the Tab Mix Plus Extension, to be the session manager. They work fine in Windows XP; I haven't been able to get either to work in Vista. There are other issues. See this link. I had no trouble at all pasting in that URL without Word 2007 reformatting my text. This is about the fourth time that Word 2007 has done something I hate, but when I tried again it didn't do that any more. Perhaps one day I will understand what's going on. As regards Firefox, I am sure the Mozilla people will work with Vista to get it right.

I have installed Vista Ultimate x86, which means 32-bit, which limits memory. At some point I will convert to 64-bit Vista. A story goes with that.

Roxanne

My newest system is Roxanne. She has an Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 CPU, with the standard Intel heat sink and fan. The mother board is an Intel DG965OT with built-in sound, video, Ethernet, and Firewire. She's built in an Antec P-160 Aluminum case with Antec 550 power supply. There are two Seagate Barracuda 7200 RPM hard drives, as well as both DVD-ROM and Plextor DVD writer. This system runs cool and very quiet.

If I were building it from scratch I'd probably have put her in an Antec Super LANBOY case which is smaller and would fit better into the desk/table system I am temporarily using until I decide how to completely revamp this office. I intend to set things up with three screens and two keyboards; I like being able to do communications on one machine while I am writing on another, and neither Windows (from 3 through XP) nor Vista truly knows how to do multi-tasking. It's just easier to use two machines than put up with oddities when Windows decides to go look for updates, or phone home, or make an appointment, or index some files, or examine its navel for lint while I want to do something else. It may be that Vista will cure all that, but I have no great confidence; Microsoft has been promising true multi-tasking since the days of OS/2, and certainly didn't deliver with anything through Windows XP SP2.

I had considerable trouble getting Vista installed. To begin with, I built Roxanne in a case salvaged from an older single-core CPU ASUS/AMD machine, largely because the case had a DVD ROM drive and a Plextor PX-716A DVD writer as well as two Seagate Barracuda 7200 RPM hard drives I could reformat.

That turned out to be a mistake. The DVD ROM drive was a BTC Model BDV 316E. I don't know how long I have had that drive. What I do know is that Vista didn't have any drivers for it, and before it would install Vista asked me to install drivers with a floppy. Roxanne doesn't have a floppy, and I have no idea where the driver disk that came with that drive has got off to. That's assuming there was a driver disk. I have never needed a driver disk for a DVD-ROM drive before. No one I know every heard of an OS asking for a driver disk. I can only conclude that the hardware is broken and Vista didn't know how to tell me that.

After several frustrating attempts to find drivers, I replaced the drive with another generic DVD ROM I've had around a while, a slightly later model BTC; and this time Vista recognized it instantly, and did have drivers for it. I have no more information on that.

After that problem, installation went fairly well. Once Roxanne was running properly I looked at System Information, and discovered 3.325 GB of physical memory. Roxanne has 4 GB of Kingston Hyper-X DDR-2 RAM. It took me a while to realize that I've installed Vista x-86, i.e. 32-bit - and like 32-bit Windows XP, 32-bit Vista only sees 3 GB. Once I am sure there are proper drivers for everything I do, I'll convert Roxanne to 64-bit.

So far there have been no driver problems. Vista had drivers for the Intel Chip Set; the on-board sound system; the on-board video; and the on-board Ethernet. As soon as Vista was installed we were connected to the Internet. I then had to use the change computer name method to add Roxanne to the Chaos Manor domain, but that wasn't difficult. I then went to the nVidia site to download Vista drivers for the nVidia video board. That all happened without incident.

Autoplay and Update Problems

We did have autoplay problems. I described those last week. I have also had some difficulties persuading the Vista firewall security system to allow me to bring in updates to a number of programs, and when it does there are anomalies.

For example, I was so frustrated with Word 2007 that I installed Office 2003. I had no problems with the installation - the autoplay worked fine, in contrast to last week's experience with installers for VOPT and World of Warcraft - but when I went to the Microsoft Update Center after installation, I was told that Vista doesn't support using the Update Center for Office 2003. I went to Office Update, and selected Office 2003, and was told there were a whole slew of updates needed, and I'd have to put them in one at a time: there wasn't an alternative for checking "install all of them".

This was tedious to say the least. I installed them all, more or less in the order they were recommended although I suspect that Service Pack 1 may have included many of the earlier security updates; the site is remarkably uninformative about that. Each time I selected an update for installation I got a security inquiry before download, then another when executing, and each inquiry had to be answered. Eventually I was done and closed Explorer (I always use Internet Explorer when downloading Microsoft updates). Imagine my astonishment when I found about eleven nested dialogue boxes hidden behind the Explorer window. Each had the name of one of my updates and asked if I really and truly wanted to install it. I had to answer each one, at which point up popped a fuel gauge ribbon, the machine would trundle, and eventually I'd be told the installation was successful. After doing this eleven times all was well.

Why none of those boxes ever got focus so that it was displayed over Internet Explorer is beyond my ken. I don't even know if it's a bug or a feature. By me it's stupid.

Roxanne at my writing and games work station.
Roxanne at my writing and games work station. [View larger]

Roxanne the Vista system has been moved into my office and now serves as my main writing and games machine. She plays World of Warcraft and Medieval Total War (both I and II), and both the video and sound are excellent even using the built-in speakers on my HP f2105 wide monitor.

I have saved pictures from several cameras, and downloaded both voice and music recordings from my Olympus WS-100 Voice Recorder. Everything works at least as well as it did under Windows XP, and the on-board sound on the Intel DG965OT is quite superior to what was on my previous ASUS AMD system. All told I like Roxanne and Vista, but I'll know more after a month or so of continuous use in productive work. Stay tuned.

Chaos Manor Users Choice Awards

As I said last week, I would probably give the Chaos Manor Users Choice award for system of the year to the Intel-based Mac; from every report those are excellent systems, and one can easily get used to running Vista (under Parallels) as just another Mac application; it's a painless way for Windows users to convert to the Mac while hanging on to their Windows applications until they learn which one the Mac will do better.

I can't do that because I only give that award to systems I am using, and I do not yet have an Intel Mac. Consequently, my Users Choice for Desktop Systems goes to the Intel Core 2 Duo and Intel motherboards, and Apple's Intel based Macs will have to be satisfied with a very large Chaos Manor Orchid.

For about the twentieth year in a row the Chaos Manor Users Choice Award for disk defragmenter goes to Golden Bow's VOPT; this year there is a new VOPT 8. (link here) VOPT 8 is faster, and works with both Windows and Vista. I am not entirely fond of the new interface, but the program has new capabilities. I have been using VOPT for about twenty years, and I have yet to lose a byte of data because of it. Disk defragmentation isn't as important in these days of enormous disks as it used to be, but it's still worth doing: among other advantages, programs that have been defragmented load faster, and there's less wear on the disk drive. Drives run cooler, and that may be important in hot weather. I use VOPT regularly even when my disks are not full. Highly recommended.

System of the Year

My most useful machine this year was the IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad T42 I bought several years ago. I also have a new Lenovo Z61t Widescreen Core 2 Duo ThinkPad, and I've had it long enough to know that if I were to move everything from the T42p to the new machine, I'd be very happy with it. I put it that way because the T42p remains more than good enough for everything I have asked of it. It has served as the only machine on several expeditions to the beach house in San Diego (well, I did carry the TabletPC on the trip, but I never used it). I carried the T42p (his name is Orlando) on a number of road trips. In every case he was more than good enough for doing my email, maintaining my web site, getting my columns written, showing movies, and generally everything else I asked for.

System of the Year, Orlando the T42p
Orlando the Lenovo T42p, the most useful System of the Year. [View larger]
Titan, the new Z61t
Titan, the Lenovo Z61t Core 2 Duo laptop. [View larger]

I also use Orlando for writing fiction. I carry him up to the monk's cell, where I connect to a Microsoft Wireless Keyboard and Mouse, and a ViewSonic 19" flat panel screen. I do all my fiction with that rig, and it works. The laptop and ViewSonic monitor plug into an UPS (a laptop is effectively an UPS to begin with, of course). The keyboard and mouse are battery powered. I am thus safe from power events. I can use Orlando's built in wireless to connect to the Belkin Pre-N Wireless Router to back up my work or do web research. That latter is important since there are many historical characters in Inferno 2, and I need to look up events in their lives and others' impressions of them. I think we have Sylvia Plath and Albert Camus down cold even if I never met either one of them.

All of this makes the Lenovo laptop the most useful system of the year, and I'll happily extend that Users' Choice to the new Lenovo laptop line. Although Lenovo is now a Chinese company, IBM retains a considerable interest in it, and it's easy to see their design influence. Lenovo laptops are rugged, professional, and reliable, and deserve the Users' Choice Award for most useful system of the year.

The new z61t Lenovo has a titanium case, and has been named Titan. I'd intended a more clever name, but I was in a hurry to get him set up, due to a neighborhood power failure. Battery life of the z61t with Core 2 Duo chip and 2 GB of memory is a bit longer than Orlando's, but whether that's due to the age of Orlando's battery or just more efficient use of the current I am not sure. In any event I've never run out of power on trips with the T42p and I am sure I will not with the new one. Of course I am careful not to turn the wireless on for very long.

The wireless works quite well on both machines. When we had a power failure here I was able to update my web site master files onto Titan, then work on my page; when I had things set, I went down to the Starbucks in Studio City and used the wireless to update my site, then pick up my email. This went on for most of the day until they got power restored. (Incidentally, my neighbor Ed Begley, Jr. never had a power problem: his roof is covered with solar cells, there are batteries in his garage, and when the local power fails he doesn't even notice.)

For all around utility you just won't beat the Lenovo ThinkPad laptops, and those are what I recommend to people who need to get real work done. They just work. Highly recommended.

UPS

The Users Choice Award for UPS systems again goes to Falcon UPS. (Falcon Electric)

We've had several power failures recently. Most don't last long. In every case we've lost no data, because all our critical systems are on Falcon "real time" Uninterruptible Power Systems. Falcon UPS systems cost a bit more than consumer grade UPS, but the batteries last a lot longer so over time I think they may actually be less expensive. They also just plain work. Whether your problem is power failures, brownouts, or variable voltages including surges, Falcon systems are up to the job. Long time readers will remember The Great Power Spike when an accident dropped a 50,000 Volt line across the incoming house power lines in my neighborhood. Lamps exploded, TV sets died, and there were several house fires. We were lucky: most of our computers were protected by surge protectors. One system was connected to a Falcon UPS (the company was called Clary, then) - and when the astonishment was over, the only light for blocks around was from the monitor of my computer. I was able to save my work and shut down, just as I have been able to do when there are power failures.

Falcon Electric UPS and friends
The industrial strength Falcon UPS in my very messy cable and server room. The Falcon is normally rack mounted, but it comes with small feet that are more than adequate. That's a Belkin KVM switch in the background. [View larger]

My newest Falcon UPS is an industrial grade model that runs the entire cable room: servers, monitors, routers, cable modem, and Ethernet switches. I'd had it about a month when we got a live test power failure. Actually it was three power failures. The first one was short, and I hadn't shut everything down when the power came back on. The winds were still howling though, and I wasn't surprised when the power failed again, this time for a couple of hours.

Because all my machines are on Falcon UPS systems, I was able to transfer all the web site files from the desktop I normally use to a ThinkPad laptop and still have time left over to copy the mail files as well. This power failure didn't last long enough that I had to go down to the local Starbucks or some other wireless hot spot that still had power, but I could have.

Falcon UPS systems can be connected to your local network and will cause your systems to automatically transfer files then do an orderly shut down. You may not need that capability, but if you do, it's there. Many police and fire departments depend on Falcon. If your work is worth anything, it's worth protecting with a UPS, and Falcon is the best I know of. Highly recommended.

Monitors

Perhaps there are still magazines with the resources to test and review every single monitor out there, but I sure can't. This year I have relied on several monitors, all flat screen, and I can recommend them all. First there's my original standby, the LaCie photo20visionII. I have had it for years now. The screen has never got dimmer and the images are as steady as if painted on. No flicker, no bad pixels.

My main writing and games machine uses an HP f2105 wide screen monitor I got on an HP sale two years ago. It has built in speakers that are plenty good enough for games and even for DVD movies, and both VGA and DVI inputs. The stand allows adjustment in height and tilt. For much of the day I am looking at either the LaCie or the HP and I don't get eyestrain. It's a bit silly to give User Choice Awards to equipment that's this old, but both LaCie and HP deserve large orchids, and I have no hesitation in recommending their monitors.

ViewSonic monitors are a step down in price and performance from the LaCie, but very much good enough for most work. The monitor up in the monk's cell where I write fiction is a 19" ViewSonic with 8 ms response time and VGA only input. (It's powered from the Lenovo T42p laptop so there would be no point in having DVI input capability.) I also have a 17" ViewSonic with 8 ms response time and both VGA and DVI input cables. That goes to the beach house when we travel. Since I sometimes carry Satine the LANBOY ASUS/AMD computer which does have DVI output both input cables get used. One day I may replace the 17" ViewSonic with a 19", and if I do, I will have no hesitation in choosing another ViewSonic. They make good monitors, and I have used them for years.

One note on portability: ViewSonic monitors come packaged with form-fitting Styrofoam inserts. The box is cardboard, but has a carrying handle. I have used nylon strapping tape to reinforce the box, and it makes a very convenient carrying case. There's even extra room in there for a mouse and keyboard if you're careful how you pack them in.

Microsoft OneCare

I used to be a big fan of Norton anti-virus and system protection, but over time Norton became complex to the point of being unusable bloatware. I'm sorry that happened, but it did. Norton is nearly impossible to uninstall once you have it on your system. I gave it up a couple of years ago.

I was an early advocate of both AdAware and Spybot Search and Destroy, both free anti-spyware programs, and used them until Microsoft OneCare.

I now use Microsoft OneCare on all my systems. OneCare and Windows Defender work together very well, and I don't find I need anything else. I have yet to have either AdAware or Spybot find any spyware that Microsoft OneCare missed. Spybot in particular likes to natter at me about cookies, but I don't much worry about cookies.

Do understand, all my systems operate behind a router. I carry a small D-Link wireless router on all my trips and put that between me and the hotel wall socket or wireless Internet connection. Routers are, in my judgment, a lot more reliable than software firewalls in any event.

Microsoft OneCare is inexpensive and allows installation on three machines for one price. All told it has worked for me. I am sure there are more thorough protection programs out there, but OneCare doesn't get in my way a lot. It lets me play on-line games, and while sometimes it natters at me more than I like, it's nowhere near as bad as some firewall programs I have seen. A Chaos Manor Orchid to Microsoft OneCare. Recommended.

Reader's choice Orchids

Every year I ask Chaos Manor readers to nominate products for Orchids and Onions. This year there were a large number of nominations for Apple: for the Intel based Mac, the Video iPod, and nearly everything else they do. I agree entirely. A large Chaos Manor Orchid Bouquet to Apple Computing. We can include orchids to Parallels for allowing us to run XP and Vista on Intel Mac machine, and a continuing orchid to Microsoft's Virtual PC which allows Windows to run on PowerPC Mac systems.

A substantial if smaller number of readers have also recommended Linux, and particularly the Ubuntu/Kubuntu distribution. Ubuntu uses a Gnome desktop, Kubuntu, which my advisors all seem to prefer, uses the KDE desktop. Both allow you to run Linux off a CDROM without installing it on your machine. Again I agree: Orchids to Linux and a cluster to Ubuntu/Kubuntu (www.ubuntu.com and www.kubuntu.org).

A number of readers nominated Chaos Manor Reviews for an orchid. I thank you all, but perhaps giving one to myself might be a bit much. I did consider it, though...

A final User Nominated Orchid to Adobe Lightroom, and to Adobe as a company for allowing public beta testing of major products before release. More companies should do this. Hurrah for Adobe. They've come a long way since they had the Russian programmer arrested for revealing the way around their imbecilic copy protection scheme a few years ago.

Beating Our Own Drum

Roberta Pournelle long ago developed computer programs that will teach people to read. Her programs work. For details, look at her web site. She recently tested the Windows version in the latest updates of Windows XP as well as Vista, and it works just fine on all Windows machines we know.

It also runs in Windows XP under Virtual PC on my PowerBook, and that makes us certain it will work under Parallels on the new Intel Mac.

Her program is clunky, the graphics are primitive, and what music there is can best be described as hokey. This hasn't stopped the program from teaching thousands of children from more than a dozen ethnic and linguistic backgrounds to read English. There are approximately seventy lessons, each one taking about half an hour. One doesn't go on to the next lesson until mastering the last, and some pupils may need to do a few lessons more than once. One lesson a day for about three months, and one can read just about any English word. Not a bad return on time investments.

We have found that some children, particularly those who think they are 'dyslexic' because they have been told that, are reluctant to start on the program and stay with it; but after about twenty lessons they discover they really are learning to read, and after that it's not hard to keep them at it.

The reading program has been used in public schools from first grade up, in expensive private schools, and in the LA County juvenile detention schools. It has worked with children from age four to adults. We don't know of anyone who went through the whole program and failed to learn to read English.

A big Chaos Manor Orchid to Roberta Pournelle who developed this program. She's deserved one for years.

Next week Onions, and some first impressions from CES.