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Computing At Chaos Manor:
February 6, 2007

The User's Column, February, 2007
Column 319, part 2
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week.

I suppose I should find some way to work in comments on Anna Nicole Smith. Everyone else has. On the other hand, I can't think of anything that someone else hasn't already said. Oh. Well.

ANTEC Power Supplies

You may recall I had some problems early last year with some Antec power supplies. That line of power supplies is no longer sold, and it's worth making it clear that I no longer have any hesitation to use Antec cases and power supplies in any of my systems; indeed, I am writing this on a system built in an Antec case and using an Antec power supply, and my main communications machine is also.

I thought at the time the conflict was with AMD CPU chips. That turns out not to be the case: the problem was with several ASUS motherboards. ASUS makes some of the best motherboards for AMD systems, and all of the high powered AMD systems I had power quality problems with employed ASUS boards.

All this was last year. I have since tested each of my ASUS/AMD system with a current Antec power supply and I have found no problems. Antec cases and power supplies are on my recommended list.

Vista

I am still using Vista on two systems, Roxanne, a Core 2 Duo built just for that purpose, and Leonardo the Lenovo X60 TabletPC.

There's little to say that's new. I continue to prefer Vista to Windows XP. If I continue to use two "main" machines, one for writing and games and the other for communications, they will both be running Vista before the year is over. The uncertainty here is how much of my daily activity will end up running on a Mac, either under OS-X or Vista under Parallels. I'm pretty sure I'll still keep two machines; there are great advantages to having communications running not just in background but on another machine entirely. I'm told that I won't feel that way if I give up Outlook. That's possible, but Outlook is very useful to me. We'll see.

My advice remains the same as last month. You'll like Vista, and if you are getting a new machine, your choices are a Mac or a Vista system; don't bother buying a new XP machine. Bob Thompson and Brian Bilbrey remind me that Linux is another alternative that may well appeal to many of my readers. That's true enough, but for most of you, even if you want to use Linux you will probably be doing that at home; most work environments are going to be Windows based for some time to come. Even Linux users will need to know something about Windows, both XP and Vista — and to a lesser extent about Mac OS-X as well, as the era of computing plenty overtakes us.

My "neglect" of Linux is largely due to time limitations. I have only so much time, and much of that must be devoted to other writing. Not only do I have two large fiction projects — Inferno 2 with Larry Niven, and Mamelukes, the long overdue next installment of the Janissaries series — but also another major project: I am supposed to produce a volume of fiction and non-fiction on High Tech Warfare. This is not only overdue, but I am vain enough to believe it is needed: most of the recent work I see on this subject looks at military effectiveness, but neglects the effects of High Tech Warfare on the future of the Republic. Teaching a volunteer army how to govern without the consent of the governed has never been healthy for republics. Perhaps we are an exception, but the question needs examining.

Thus what time I have tends to be allocated to Windows (as being the OS used by the vast majority of my readers), and Mac OS-X which may actually have made UNIX usable by normal human beings — something that we all aspired to in the earliest days of small computers. I also suspect that the Mac with Parallels is one of the better ways to run Vista; it's certainly a hypothesis worth exploring.

And, to repeat, I do like both Vista and Office 2007 for much of my work.

Having said all that, I hasten to add that there's no hurry for you to get a Vista machine. Vista won't do anything you can't do under XP, and in fact some programs and hardware that run fine in XP won't yet install in Vista.

I do not recommend upgrade installations of Vista. A machine that runs XP quite well may have problems with Vista. If you do upgrade an XP to Vista, be certain that it's a fast machine, with a lot of memory, and a good video card. Given all that you probably won't be disappointed, but you may find yourself wondering why you did it.

I note that there has been considerable discussion among my advisors about just how many legacy peripherals won't work under Vista. The answer seems to be, more than I thought, but still not all that many. Most of the complaints about lack of drivers turn out to be from users of one or another of the early Vista Release Candidates, and were rendered nugatory by the actual release version. I know I have had few problems with legacy peripherals not working with Vista, and every one of those I did have turned out to be due to security setups. Vista shipped with more than 20,000 drivers, and another 10,000 are available through Windows Update. More come out as Microsoft receives complaints.

I think Vista is neat. It's the best Windows yet. Most new Windows PC's will come out with Vista installed. Even so, it's not likely the wave of the future. And as I have said a number of times, as computing power increases, operating systems become less interesting. It's already the case that one of the best ways to run Vista is as an application (in Parallels, not BootCamp) on a new Mac. That way you're really secure since Windows viruses and worms will starve to death in the OS-X environment.

Regarding that last sentence, Brian Bilbrey comments:

You've said this before and I really don't understand it. You're running Windows in a virtual machine. So as long as the virtual machine is running, malware and viruses can do what they want to the system they're running on. Yeah, you can shut off the virtual machine .... just like hardware. Only there *IS* the possibility of detecting that the OS is running on the virtual machine, and breaking out into the host OS. I don't know of actual exploits without doing more research, but the smart paranoid guys I work with are wary of virtualization. Running Parallels makes Windows precisely as safe as if it were running those same tasks on real hardware. The fact that OS X is the host OS for the virtual machine simply doesn't enter into it.

There was a time when I could comment on programming hacks from my own knowledge, but no longer. I suppose it's no more than a guess, but I still think writing a worm that knows how to exploit a virtual instance of one OS to leap out and engulf the parent machine is a lot harder to write than the usual script kitty worms and viruses we see; and I would far rather try to eliminate an infection in a virtual machine than I would try to scrub out a primary infection. Alas, I am told that this isn't true either: it's just as hard to clean up after a virtual machine gets infected. Oh, well.

I'll have a lot more to say about this after I get my new Mac and have some experience running virtual machines.

Prep for hard drive change
Ready to change hard drives. Remove the single screw that holds the drive compartment. [View larger]
Remove the old drive
The drive pulls out. You will have to open the computer before you can pull it out because when the laptop is closed the screen holds the drive in place. Note the "N" marked on the new drive. [View larger]
Swap holder onto the new drive
Depending on where you got the new drive, you may or may not have to remove some screws. I didn't have to take out any screws at all; the mechanism holding the drive in place unclipped from the old drive and onto the new with no effort at all. [View larger]
Restore w/USB Hub doesn't work.
My first attempt to restore made use of a USB port expander hub. That didn't work: Norton Save and Restore couldn't find the external drive. [View larger]
Direct connection to the drive does the trick.
The Seagate is connected directly to the t42p without the expander hub. This time Norton saw the drive perfectly, and the restore operation began. [View larger]

Upgrading the IBM/Lenovo T42p

I've been promising a how-to on how to install a larger hard drive in a T42p ThinkPad for some time. I have managed to do it after some delay. The reason for the delay is instructive. IBM/Lenovo puts a hidden partition on the original hard drives that come with ThinkPad laptops. I thought at first that this partition held service software such as the fingerprint validations, and model-specific help files that I find extremely useful, and I was concerned that they not be lost.

That turns out not to be the case. I'll let Brian Bilbrey explain:

The ONLY purpose of that secret partition is to enable you to rebuild your system if it gets hosed. No current data, no nothing special beyond state of the art at the day the system left the factory. The secret partition helps you not at all if you've put Vista on the new, bigger hard drive. But, use the Access IBM tools portion from your Start -> Programs menu, and build a set of restore CDs. That makes you able to recreate the secret partition at the expense of blowing away the drive, so that you can rebuild the rest of the system from the restore partition. Then you install any other stuff you had, run Microsoft update a million times, and you're back to yesterday, as long as you backed up your data off-system. If the T42p has a DVD burner, use a CD for the Restore boot disk, and DVD's for disk 1 and 2. Otherwise, use a lot of CD's. Better yet, take the original disk, copy your data off of it, take it out, label and put it aside. Put in the new disk, install Vista, and roll on. Or if you really want to have XP still running on that, use Ghost to copy off the LARGER partition off the current drive, and put it on to the new drive as the ONLY partition (and make that bigger using the Partition Magic tools).

The important point here is that the hidden partition is used in backup and restore; and since I use Norton Backup and Restore (think Ghost on steroids) to put restoration points on external USB 2.0 drives, I have no need for the hidden partition.

Once I understood that, things got simpler. I used Norton Backup and Restore to make a restoration point on my Seagate Notebook external hard drive (link) . That done I replaced the original hard drive with a larger one. Then I booted with the Norton Backup and Restore disk, let it find the restoration point, and told it to have at it.

There was only one glitch. The first time I tried to restore the system, I had connected the Seagate drive to a powered USB port expander hub. Alas, Norton Backup and Restore did not see the external USB drive. I thought about that for a moment, shut down the system, removed the port expander hub, and plugged the Seagate directly into the T42p. This time Norton Backup and Restore saw the restoration point, and there was no problem.

There is various software I can download to re-create the hidden partition, but at the moment I don't have any plans to do that. I will keep the original hard drive in a safe place; at worst I can always get back to where I was on February 11, 2007, by reinstalling that drive. The physical installation process takes about five minutes, far less time than the software save and restore require.

The restoration takes about an hour; when done the t42p booted up, asked for my fingerprint, logged on and connected to the net, and worked as it always did except that now it had a large unallocated space on the main drive. Next step was to install Norton Partition Magic. That took about five minutes, after which it took another two minutes to add the new space to the primary partition.

I have saved 3 GB in unallocated space in case I want to rebuild the hidden restoration partition.

For a lot more information on this:

All about the HPA.

Backing up the preloaded OS.

Creating Product Recovery CDs.

Microsoft Comfort Curve Keyboard 2000

I am writing this on a Microsoft Comfort Curve Keyboard 2000 Compact Design. It's not a "clicky" keyboard using collapsing spring technology, and it doesn't have a built-in wrist rest like the Microsoft Wireless Comfort Keyboard I use to write fiction up in the Monk's Cell (link) , but it's $19.95 at Fry's, and it does have the curved sculpted keyboard that I like a lot. It's also a lot narrower than the programmable Ortek MCK-142 that I have to replace. I don't want to replace the Ortek. I like the keyboard feel a good bit; but the Ortek is hard to find, and usually expensive if you do find one. And, alas, they don't last. The key labels wear off in about a year of use. I have tried remarking the keys with a marking pen, but that wears off in days. Model airplane enamel lasts a week or so. Some of the keys are wearing out on the Ortek, and finding replacement units isn't easy.

Ortek sells other keyboards, but so far I haven't seen any of their modern Windows based keyboards. The specs say they are membrane with tactile feedback, which is what the Microsoft Comfort Curve Keyboards have, and I suspect the feel of the newest Orteks isn't all that much better than the Microsoft variety — and they certainly don't have the curved and sculpted keyboard layout.

Unlike the Wireless Comfort Curve Microsoft keyboard I use up in the Monk's Cell, the key layout on this keyboard is fairly standard: no oversize Delete key, standard arrow keys and home-end block, and so forth. The feel of the keyboard is about the same, though, and the sculpted curved rows of keys with oversize g and h keys (those are the ones enclosed between the home keys) are quite similar to the more expensive Wireless upstairs. The Comfort Curve Keyboard 2000 does not have a built in wrist rest; I am using the older Marvin the Martian rest I used upstairs until I got the Comfort Curve Wireless I am using now.

If I appear to be a bit ambiguous about the exact model number of the Wireless Comfort Curve Keyboard I am using upstairs, it's because so far as I can tell, Microsoft doesn't make that model any longer. When I go to the Microsoft web site looking for similar models, I find a bewildering variety, some with the Comfort Curve key layout, some with the split humpback "ergonomic" layout I dislike but Niven prefers, some with the Comfort Curve key layout but with a standard arrow and home-end block, others with the oversized delete key.

To make it worse, no local store seems to have them all, so I can't compare one to another. What I want to do is find a key layout I like, preferably available in both wired and wireless configurations, and standardize. I am fairly flexible but one of the reasons I can turn out a lot of text, particularly fiction, is that I have written enough that I don't have to think about the process of writing. Going from one keyboard layout to another makes that much harder.

I could get used to the Microsoft Comfort Curve Keyboard 2000 Compact Design, but I prefer the wider Comfort Curve models. Now all I have to do is find one. Microsoft makes a bewildering variety of keyboards in both wired and wireless, no one I know has ever worked with all of them or even tried them all, and for me the search for what will become the "standard" at Chaos Manor goes on.

The ideal keyboard would have the Comfort Curve key layout; the oversize Delete key; have a built in padded wrist rest; come in both wired and wireless versions; and use collapsing spring "clicky" keys. I would also like some of the features like Zoom and Magnify that come with the more modern keyboards; I can live without those because I have not really got used to them, but they'd be easy to get used to.

I can live without clicky keys although I'd rather not have to; the Microsoft membrane technology provides enough tactile feedback that I am never uncertain whether or not I have pressed a key. I suppose I can live without the oversize Delete key, but again I'd rather not have to. And clearly I have operated for years without the Comfort Curve key layout, but now that I have discovered it I find I like it a lot.

You would think that in this age of computers someone would develop a really good line of keyboards and keep them available. So far Microsoft is ahead with the Comfort Curve line, but I sure wish they'd standardize on a layout and wrist rest, and make both wired and wireless versions of the same keyboard.

Bob Thompson says

What about CVT? Their OmniKey-clone keyboards, the last time I looked, were top-notch. Not cheap, but very good.

Captain Morse adds

The Avant series still uses genuine Alps mechanical (collapsing spring clicky) keyswitches. Two models, 104 with the function keys across the top or 116 keys with the duplicate function keys down the left. Oversize <enter> key. Onboard macro recorder plus software (Windows only) to do a lot of reprogramming and custom functions.

I have the 104-key model on my Linux box. (link).

Ron Morse

I have looked at the CVT line on line, and those may be what I want, but I'd have to try one. The question would be, do I like the feel of the keyboard more than the Comfort Curve layout? I like clicky keys, but I also like the curved Comfort Curve layout. And there's no way to tell how much I like the feel of the CVT without pounding on one for a while. I was contemplating getting another Ortek keyboard to use up in the Monk's Cell when I remembered that Microsoft had sent me their wireless keyboard and mouse, and this would be a good time to try that. The result was that I've been using their Wireless Comfort Curve Keyboard and Mouse ever since, and I've completed at least one book with it; I actually carry that keyboard down to the beach house.

It's clearly time to come up with a "standard" Chaos Manor keyboard, and I'm looking into it; at the moment my inclination is to one of the Microsoft Comfort Curve models.

WinTV-HVR Hauppauge 950

This is an amazing little gadget. You plug what looks like a slightly oversized thumb drive into a USB 2.0 port, install the software, and plug some source of TV broadcast signal (NTSC or ATSC) into the gadget. The Hauppauge comes with a small antenna, which may be good enough depending on where you live. I live in a notoriously bad signal area, so it didn't work all that well for me, but that's clearly a function of signal strength.

See their web site for a picture and more information. (link)

Setting this up is not difficult with Windows XP. The version I have would not install on Vista; I can download an update to the installation software that will install on a Vista system, but I haven't had a chance to do that. Installation on Windows XP is simple and straightforward.

Once you have the WinTV-HVR set up properly, you open the program and let it scan for channels. That takes about ten minutes. After it has done that — and it found a number of them including high number channels I never knew existed — you can play television on whatever size window (including full screen) you like on your computer. Change channels, surf the channels, shrink the window size to tiny or blow it up to full screen, turn the volume up and down: if you start with a good signal (and oddly enough a couple of the previously unknown high number channels do come in very strongly), you will get quite good television.

You can record the incoming signal, or schedule programs to record. If you use scheduled recording the system will wake up and start recording, then shut down, all automatically and unattended.

The system I installed this on is marginal for high definition ATSC TV. With good signals normal definition TV works just fine, but with high definition signals it gets jerky. I doubt I would have that problem if I were working with my more modern dual processor systems, but I ran out of time before I could download the Vista installation software. I'll get to that another time.

I'll have to do more experiments with this, meaning installing it on my Vista system; I have managed to lock on to a pretty strong HD signal, and while it is jerky because the system I have it installed on doesn't have the horsepower to do smooth decoding, the still pictures I get from it are very good indeed.

Clearly, with a fast machine and a good signal source, this is a good way to watch television. My next experiment is to take this and the new Z series Lenovo laptop out to a good reception area and see what happens. More on that later,

I like this gadget a lot.

TurboTax

I first encountered what became Turbo Tax when it was MacInTax and ran on Macs only. I said then that it was worth having a Mac just to run this program. Eventually TurboTax bought out MacInTax, and Intuit bought TurboTax. There have been a series of "improvements" in the program, including check lists and interviews.

I confess that I use few of the "improvements." I have over the years developed a system for reporting my income and expenses and deductions that has met with the approval of the IRS in half a dozen audits — I never had audits until I hit the best seller list, after which they were fairly routine for a while until it became clear that auditing me didn't develop any new revenue for the government — and I don't want to change anything except as the tax law changes. I know what the IRS allows me to deduct and how to report that, and what I need is what TurboTax started as: a series of IRS forms linked to spreadsheet software, with the option to override automatic entries when necessary.

TurboTax still lets me do things my way. I enter the results of my accounting program that I wrote in Commercial Basic in about 1985, and TurboTax calculates my taxes. If we open any new lines of business or develop new income sources, it's easy to start another form to record those.

The bottom line here is that every year I buy the "Deluxe" edition of TurboTax and use it, and I have never had any reason to regret that. On the other hand, I do want to stress that I know what I am doing, I keep good accounting books, and I use TurboTax as a means for filling out my IRS forms (which can be pretty complicated). I do not pay much attention to the "advice" the program offers. If I need "advice" and help in deciding what to deduct, I'll consult a tax accountant, not a computer program.

Given that understanding, I can recommend TurboTax.