Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
February 6, 2007

The User's Column, February, 2007
Column 319, part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Over in mail (February mailbag Part One) I have a letter with a paragraph worth repeating here.

But one thing concerns me; when you have a new Mac and everything 'just works' what are you going to write about..?


Peter Millard.

Of course the question wasn't entirely serious, but it's still interesting.

When the computer revolution first started, we were so excited about what we could do with these little machines that we brushed aside most of the difficulties. We didn't expect computers to be user-friendly, or software to "Just Work". Most of my computer columns were about what we could get done, and various ways to do them.

Over time a lot of things Just Worked and we hardly noticed. One reason old Zeke, my original computer, is on display in the Smithsonian is that to the best we can find out, I was the first person to write a book using a home computer. In those days writers mostly worked with typewriters. David Gerrold got a magnetic card driven IBM Selectric, and other writers got dedicated word processing systems not long after I began using Zeke to do my BYTE columns. Others joined in, and eventually typewriters vanished. There are a few authors who use typewriters just as there are a few who still write in longhand, but now most books are written on computers.

It's the same with accounting. I wrote an accounting system that produced books that looked like the hand-entry books illustrated in the Accounting 401 textbooks used at UCLA. My notion was that the IRS people wouldn't be used to computer generated accounting systems, and if it printed out books that looked just like the ones in their texts it would be easier for them to understand what I was doing. That worked: I was audited several times, always with results favorable to me.

I could go on, but surely the point is clear? Many things are now done routinely by computers, and we hardly notice. What we notice now is when something doesn't work very well; meanwhile, our expectations of what it means for something to "Just Work" have risen. In older times we thought nothing of going around Red Robin's barn to accomplish something. We got used to things working but only if you knew the major arcana needed to accomplish them.

User nowadays won't put up with all that. They want things to work intuitively. They don't want to know how to "drill down" to find a file or drill through Word menus. I don't much blame them. I also don't worry much about such things. Over time these things will fix themselves.

I make no doubt that this will be a fairly common story. Vista will have growing pains, but between Microsoft and third parties those will be solved. We'll always have some problems, but those won't and shouldn't take up most of our time. As systems get faster and more powerful the list of things that Just Work gets longer. Note that connecting to a wireless network wouldn't have been a problem a few years ago, because there weren't any wireless networks. In those days the problem was connecting to any kind of network. Now that just happens.

What Do You Want To Do Today?

Columnists stuck for a theme used to have one sure fire subject: computer literacy. I doubt a month went by without a major column and two editorials on the subject. In those times I guess we assumed that anyone who wanted to use a computer would be willing to work at learning how to do it. We all hoped for user-friendly systems (Mac, the system for the rest of us) but we didn't put the entire burden on the developers; we expected the users to make some effort.

In fact, we expected computer users to learn something about programming.

The Second Literacy Revolution

The first literacy revolution came with the invention of the alphabet. Prior to that (and until very nearly the present in some countries) writing was by ideographs, and learning to read and write took half a lifetime. The profession of "scribe" was honorable, but it wasn't common.

The alphabet and phonetic (from Phoenecians, I learned in school) scripts made it possible for everyone to learn to read, and at one time the US achieved astonishingly high literacy rates. We took a slump when some sophomoric professors of education determined that since really good readers recognize words without looking at the individual letters and "sounding them out," the ability to read phonetically was needless, and need not be taught; whole word recognition would be enough. They thus neatly set the history of literacy back about two thousand years, and we have not yet recovered. Perhaps we never will. (Data points: look at the Army's figures for literacy among conscripts. During WW II, there were essentially no draftees who had been through four grades of school and still could not read; the illiterates were those who hadn't been schooled at all. Over time the number of illiterates who had been through school rose and it was still rising when the draft ended. This corresponds with the war on phonics in our colleges of education.)

(Aside. Shameless self promotion: If you want to be certain your child will learn to read all the words in the English language, get Mrs. Pournelle's Reading Program (link here) and use it. After 70 half-hour lessons you will no longer need to worry about your school's reading program because it will be irrelevant.)

Once literacy became universal it changed the world. The Gutenberg Press made it possible for books to be widely distributed - and thanks to phonetic alphabets, people could learn to read them. This led to political and technological developments that never happened in countries with ideographic languages.

Now look at computer literacy. The first stage is largely done. Nearly everyone can use a computer, and now that the Operating System is becoming irrelevant this trend will advance even more rapidly. If Macs "Just Work" but can also run Vista and XP, there is no reason not to have a Mac; while there is a great deal of incentive for Vista to become more user friendly, either through the efforts of Microsoft or by third parties like IBM/Lenovo.

The next stage will be simpler programming. The literacy revolution came to fruition when almost anyone could write a book. Computers finished that: not only can anyone write a book, but publish it.

Now we need a means by which anyone can teach a computer to do useful things. At the moment it takes years to learn how to teach computers to do things; so much so that it's a specialty, and few computer programmers know how to do very much except programming. They haven't been medical diagnosticians, or accountants, or aircraft engineers, or architects.

Programmers have developed software to help architects and engineers and such. That's the current state of the computer revolution. The next step will be when nearly any skilled or artistic person can, without spending years in programming classes, teach the computer to do interesting things.

We were moving in that direction with HyperCard and SuperCard for the Mac. The first versions of Mrs. Pournelle's Reading Program were written using SuperCard. Education conferences used to have sessions for teachers on how to develop lessons using HyperCard, and there were some fairly complex simulation games (Crawford's Balance of Power comes to mind) written in HyperCard. For some reason this trend has slowed, but I expect it to pick up again.

Real computer literacy will come when ordinary people can write computer programs, just as ordinary people can write novels. Most novels written by amateurs aren't very good - but some are. The same will be true of the programs developed with the new tools. Most (like my accounting program) won't be all that useful to anyone but those who wrote them. But some will be.

And that will be the fulfillment of the computer revolution.

Why Software Sucks

Before we get to the point where everyone can program in the same sense that everyone can write, we will need a lot of discussions on just what makes software user friendly. One of the problems with software design is that programmers are accustomed to having to do things the hard way, just as many of us who have been using these computers for a while have got used to it.

David S. Platt is a programmer and software developer who has taken a look at just what programmers often do wrong. His book, Why Software Sucks ... and what you can do about it, (Addison Wesley, 2006) is the result. It's spotty: some parts are fascinating, while others are either wide of the point or concerned with such narrow problems that most of us won't care. For all of that, any programmer who is concerned with making his software user friendly will profit from reading this book. Even when Platt gets things wrong (in my judgment) he raises good questions.

Vista and Wireless

Belkin Pre-n Wireless Router
The Belkin Pre-n Wireless Router sits in the window in a back room. The signal is usable anywhere in the house and out in the yard. [View larger]

After hours of experimentation I have been unable to get Vista to see any local wireless networks. Whatever I do leads me in a vicious circle that ends with the report that Vista cannot see any wireless networks.

The networks are here. There is my own local Chaos Manor net connected through a Belkin Pre-n Wireless Router. I am unsure of the status of the "n" Wireless specification because I haven't needed to follow that: the Belkin Pre-n allows all my systems using their built-in wireless to access my network from anywhere in the Manor including pool-side in the back yard and my downstairs kitchen table. I make no doubt that with Belkin Pre-n cards in the different machines I could get reliable wireless connections from even further away, but I have never had any desire to do so. The Belkin uses WPA security and Just Works.

Or did Just Work until I tried connecting with Vista. As I said above, I was never able to do that.

Two Lenovos: Z61t and X60 TabletPC
Left, the Lenovo Z61t laptop. Next to it is the Lenovo X60 TabletPC with Vista. Full reports later this month. [View larger]

Fortunately, as I mentioned above, IBM/Lenovo seem to have anticipated the problem. IBM/Lenovo has built in a new function in their Access Connections (fn-F5) that wasn't present in the XP Lenovo laptops. The Access Connections software shows all available wireless networks in a very neat little chart that sorts them by signal strength, and makes it quite simple to connect to any of them. Once you know to use Access Connections rather than continue futile attempts with Vista, it Just Works.

Next week we'll have new reports on the new Lenovo laptops, particularly the X60 TabletPC with Vista. I have already installed OneNote 2007 and Office 2007 on the X60. I've previously mentioned the Titanium Z61t laptop (which runs XP at the moment), and we'll have more on that as well. The bottom line is simple enough: for professional grade laptops you can't beat the Lenovo line.

I do have pro and con comparisons of the X60 Tablet configuration with the HP Compaq TabletPC form factor. Of course my HP Compaq is many years old and thus a lot slower than the Lenovo X60.

Black and Decker AutoWrench

Black and Decker AutoWrench
The Black and Decker AutoWrench. Note that it opens about 1/4" wider than many adjustable wrenches of similar size. [View larger]

A few days after I got this gadget I had a problem with leveling the washing machine. I could only get at the locking nut that allowed adjusting the let height by tilting the machine over for Roberta to hang on while I loosened the lock nut.

I don't know what size that lock nut is, but fortunately I didn't have to: this looked like a good time to try the Black and Decker AutoWrench. This looks like an ordinary adjustable wrench - we call them "monkey wrench" when I was a teenager - but it has an electrical motor to open and close the jaws. I didn't have to reach under the washer: I just got the wrench set on the lock nut and used the electric drive to close it down to the right size.

The result was that a job that I thought would take half an hour and skinned knuckles or worse took about two minutes. The AutoWrench made that so easy that if I ever lose mine, I'll go buy another before I tackle that washing machine again. It's that good.