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Computing At Chaos Manor:
February 27, 2007

The User's Column, February, 2007
Column 319, part 4
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week.

The big news for the week was a lawsuit. I don't suppose that is much of a surprise. Lawsuits and lawyers have far more importance in American business than engineers and actual innovations. It's worse in this case because no one knows what is going on.

  c|net news article: Microsoft hit with $1.5 billion patent verdict
  eChannel Line article: Microsoft hit with big patent judgment in Alcatel MP3 suit

Dan Spisak summarizes this as follows:

Short version:

Microsoft pays Fraunhofer $16mil to license MP3 patent rights for use in Windows.

Alcatel (who now now owns Lucent) claims Microsoft's license didn't cover some specific Lucent patent pertaining to audio.

Side Note: Bell Labs and Fraunhofer co-developed MP3 IP, hence Lucent owned it, so now Alcatel does.

Court in San Diego claims MS now owes Alcatel-Lucent 1.5 BILLION in damages/licensing fees to cover all copies of Windows sold since 2003.

This is BAD for the industry. Apple, Intel and TI are all MP3 licensees with Fraunhofer. Surely they are next in line from Alcatel's lawyers.

Eric Pobirs adds

Not to mention myriad much smaller companies that would be wiped out by equivalent payment demands.

One area that has raised objection from Microsoft is that the monetary amount was based on the average price of the computers to which the Windows licenses were attached, not on the Windows licenses' selling price. So the retroactive license fee is being calculated against a $1,000 PC rather than the, say, $50 portion that PC that went to Microsoft. On that basis the PC vendors should have to pick part of the tab as well, since they had full knowledge of the MP3 playback capability they were selling as part of their products. If it wasn't built into Windows they would almost certainly have bundled it from another source.

It's clear what happens next: There will be appeals, coupled with frantic efforts to reach some kind of deal that will benefit all the parties rather than merely enriching lawyers. It may be that Microsoft and Apple will work together on this; they certainly have a common interest.

You may also expect to see the Microsoft Lobby in Washington move for patent reforms. We can agree that the law ought to make such matters clearer. It would probably do no harm for the rest of us to keep an eye on this. We all have a stake here.

Vista and Windows ReadyBoost

ReadyBoost is a new Vista feature that really works. One of my complaints about Vista has been that it takes a long time to load some programs. There's a remedy for this.

I plugged a Kingston 1 GB thumb drive into a USB 2.0 port. Since I intend this to be a reasonably permanent part of my system, I decided to plug the drive into a USB slot on my HP f2105 Wide Screen monitor, where it's not in the way, but I can see the little blue light when the drive is active.

Once Vista found and installed the drive I opened its properties. There are a number of tabs. One is ReadyBoost, where you can choose to devote part or all of that drive to speeding up your system. I accepted the defaults.

Thumb drive provides a boost
The Kingston 1 GB DataTraveler in place in the USB port on the HP f2105 monitor. Installation is trivial, and the speedup effect is dramatic. [View larger]

The results are pretty dramatic. The drive caches programs as you open them; once that has been done, programs open noticeably faster. When I work on documents, I note that the blue light flashes when I load and save them, but I also see that when I save, the work is saved to the hard drive; I'm not sure what's going on there, since most documents I work on are short enough to have negligible load and save times anyway, so I haven't noticed any improvements there. The biggest speedup is when a program loads for the second time.

I haven't done any benchmark tests and I probably won't, but I find the system enough faster that I will certainly leave the thumb drive connected; indeed, I intend to hunt up a larger thumb drive to use for this purpose. I've heard good reports from using a 4 GB thumb drive.

The system works invisibly. The feature documentation tells me that the system does encryption of some kind. It certainly concatenates it into one big unparsable file that so far I haven't been able to open with any kind of hex editor.

It's easy to use and speeds things up, and large thumb drives are cheap. If you use Vista you'll want this. Recommended.


John Dvorak has recently come out in favor of getting the computer exhibits out of CES, on the grounds that CES is no place for blade servers and business software, while having the entryway to the show dominated by enormous Microsoft and Intel exhibits is distracting. CES ought to be for consumer electronics.

John's remedy would be to restrict the COMDEX type exhibits to one hall, and after a couple of years spin that off to a different time – perhaps November. Maybe they could call it COMDEX.

I often wonder about some of John's views. I certainly don't share his enthusiasm for net neutrality legislation. In this case, though, on reflection I agree. At least it would be a great deal more convenient for those of us who have to cover the shows. I like gadgets, and I like computers, and I probably would go to both and enjoy them more than I do the One Big Show that CES has become.

CES has got so big that it's impossible to cover. This is mitigated by the convenience of Show Stoppers and Pepcom events and the other press-only peep shows, but the problem here is that many of the smaller innovative outfits either can't afford to exhibit in those, or don't know about them.

The counter argument is that it's getting harder and harder to distinguish computers from consumer electronics. What's an iPod? And the smaller outfits would have to choose one show because they couldn't afford both.

I suppose it hardly matters. It's not likely to happen anyway. But for the record, for once Dvorak and I agree.

Winding Down

One computer book of the month is one I've mentioned before, the Word 2007 Missing Manual by Chris Grover (O'Reilly). Word 2007 takes a good bit of getting used to, but I think it may be worth doing. At least I'm still trying, and this book like most of the O'Reilly “Missing Manual” series is a great help. Recommended.

The book of the month is Elizabeth George, Write Away (Harper, 2004) Unlike most creative writing teachers, Elizabeth George has written a dozen best-selling novels, so she certainly knows what she's talking about. I have no idea whether this book would be helpful to someone trying to break into our racket. My own advice to beginners is a lot shorter — see How to get my job — and a great deal less detailed than this work, but I haven't found anything I violently disagree with. My wife is an Elizabeth George fan and she liked this book a lot; indeed she got a copy from the library and asked me to buy a copy, which is how it fell into my hands this month.

The game of the month is World of Warcraft, The Burning Crusade extension. This breaks the level 60 barrier, but there's something for less advanced players as well. There are two new races. The new Alliance race can become a Shaman, and the new Horde race can become a Paladin; this doesn't entirely make sense in terms of the backstory, but they have a justification of sorts. It is much easier to get to level 20 in the new territories; the quests are fun and considerably easier. In any event, if you play World of Warcraft, you'll want this expansion.

The movie of the month is Night at the Museum. I know that many critics didn't care for this movie, but I loved it. It won't do to take it seriously, of course. It's a comedy suitable for children of nearly any age, and some of the shticks in the movie are pretty hokey. No matter. It's funny all the way through. Ben Stiller has always had the potential to be hilarious; this time he achieves it. He's both funny and likable. That may be because his mother, the legendary Anne Meara of Stiller and Meara fame, has a small but important role in the movie; maybe he was showing off for her.

The special effects are wonderful. I was completely taken in by the integration of the computer graphics and live action. A skeletal tyrannosaur romps through the halls. Attila the Hun makes faces and threatens to tear our hero apart. Lions and tigers and bears, O My! Romp through Roman Legions and American cowboys building the Union Pacific railroad. Jackal-headed sentinels guard a Pharaoh. And if all that isn't enough, Dick Van Dyke shows he can still dance, and Mickey Rooney manages to be funny. What more could you ask for? It's not deep, it has no significance, and I loved it.