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Computing At Chaos Manor:
March 28, 2007

The User's Column, March, 2007
Column 320, part 4
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week.

I've just returned from a long weekend trip to Phoenix, Arizona, where Larry Niven and I attended the 15th annual Space Access Society conference. SAS was originally formed as an organization of fans and boosters, and early meetings had presentations by NASA and the big aerospace industries. Over time, though, it has become the annual meeting of commercial space entrepreneurs. The big boys don't show up much nowadays — after the disaster of X-33 one wouldn't expect anyone from Lockheed to have enough nerve — and while NASA is generally represented, everyone is pretty well agreed that NASA has been more a part of the problem set than the solution set when it comes to access to space for the rest of us.

For most of its life, the goal of NASA was to maintain control of space access: if you wanted to go to space for any reason: pilot, crew, scientific researcher, technician, laborer, or just plain tourist, your only chance was to beg NASA to take you. There wasn't any other way, and moreover, NASA was dedicated to the financial and often legal ruin of any company or organization that threatened to offer non-NASA access to space.

This was never the official stated policy of NASA; but it always worked that way. In the early days of aviation, the old NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, founded in 1915 whose assets and duties NASA absorbed on an evil day in 1958), did not have extensive operational activities, and did not consider airplane companies as rivals and enemies. NASA wasn't supposed to be the only space operations organization when it was founded, but like all bureaucracies it tried to embrace and extend control over everything in its field of interest. Early US satellite programs were managed by the Navy and Army, but NASA soon took control of those. By the time of Apollo, NASA had a near monopoly on access to space, and steadily tightened its grip and eliminated competitors.

One way NASA stifled competition was to offer to do, free or for very low cost, whatever a commercial service might want to try. Trying to sell services that the government offers free is difficult; trying to raise money to form a company that will do that was nearly impossible even before Sarbanes-Oxley made it nearly impossible for startups to go public. Only the big aerospace companies had the capital and facilities to mount a serious challenge to NASA's monopoly, and they had no financial incentive to do so: breakthroughs in space access technology would destroy existing markets. If you're selling expendable rockets, you have little incentive to develop savable and reusable rockets.

In recent years, however, both the economic and political climates have changed. The Federal Government is running out of money. Entitlements eat a larger part of the budget, and discretionary spending — on NASA and everything else — is vanishing. The space shuttle must be retired. There are both military and commercial requirements for access to space, and the current highly inefficient systems for getting there don't look so good any more.

Having spent since Apollo more than enough money to get us half way to Alpha Centauri, NASA finds it can't get back to the Moon, much less go to Mars. There is increasing realization that new approaches in both technology and management will be needed, and some parts of NASA were reformed. Research and development contracts began to flow. Prizes were offered for technology achievements. While the Shuttle Operations part of NASA continued to pay the aging standing army, some departments and centers began to learn from the history of aviation development, and parts of NASA began to act like NACA, encouraging private enterprise.

As that happened the Federal funds began to dry up, and now the accountants and budget examiners are zealously eliminating from the NASA budget anything that smacks of research and development; any money that can be found is needed to fund Shuttle follow-on such as Ares.

Whether all this is a good thing for the people of the United States, who must find ways to maintain a First World economy in the face of Free Trade and job export; a deteriorating but increasingly centralized school system; and what amounts to open borders with large influx of unskilled workers to compete for entry level jobs is another story.

The computer industry was not built by government, but its basis was the Large Scale Integrated Circuit; and those were largely developed through government R&D contracts, mostly through the Air Force which identified a need for powerful light weight on-board computers for ballistic missiles. Similarly, a number of private industries grew out of technologies developed in the early days of the space program. Now the government is getting out of the space R&D business. We do live in interesting times.

Lesson Learned?

The current budget drought won't last forever. It's largely a consequence of war in Mesopotamia and exaggerated energy prices. It didn't have to be that way: I was opposed to the invasion of Iraq, but I supposed that the objective was the oil fields, and our first goal would be to get the oil fields operating and pump a very great deal of oil. The revenue from that oil would be spent in Iraq and most of it turned over to an Iraqi government; meanwhile, the large increase in oil supply would drive the world price of oil to around $20 / bbl. This would send the Dow to 14,000 or more, and produce great streams of revenue to retire the deficit, finance health care reforms, and let us go back to the Moon and perhaps to Mars. The new technologies thus generated would make access to space cheaper, and allow us to phase in cheap energy from space based solar power satellites, thus phasing out our dependence on Middle East oil. And, of course, since much of the oil from the Middle East would be Iraqi oil because an American client state in Iraq wouldn't let OPEC dictate production quotas, the amounts of money going into the Middle East would decline, thus cutting way back on the funds available to those trying to do expensive things like enrich uranium.

It didn't happen that way. Instead, the war cost an order of magnitude more than the official estimates (not astonishing to most of us), and went on far longer than expected (again hardly astonishing to many of us). The point, though, is that it won't last forever. After the war ends we'll need a couple of years to rebuild the military, repair and replace equipment, refill the supply lines, and restock the arsenals. Veteran costs and pensions will be considerably higher than they would have been without the war; but once these matters are attended to, there will be budget surpluses again.

When that happens NASA will come forward. Space enthusiasts will be asked to support increases in the NASA budgets. NASA will want to go back to business as usual.

It will be an exceedingly poor idea to let that happen. For the moment NASA's monopolies are broken. For the moment NASA would accept a role more akin to the old NACA, with private industry seen as NASA assets and allies, not as rivals to be controlled or exterminated.

It's not at all too early to think of how to reconstitute NASA after the war ends and the military is rebuilt. NACA and NSF (National Science Foundation) are good models to contemplate in this design.

On The Road Part One: Navigation

We drove up to Phoenix in Larry Niven's new Lexus, bought to replace his last that was totaled in a wreck. This one is a hybrid, and gets about 30 miles to the gallon. It does it quietly and with awesome performance from what looks like a big luxury SUV. I particularly like the regenerative braking.

His navigation system is similar to last year's but it seems to be smarter. I don't know how often they update the data base of streets and freeway, but it did seem to be aware of some recent highway openings — and unaware of a major section closed for repair. My usual practice on trips is to let MapQuest select a route and print that out. I did that, and we noted that the route MapQuest selected was different from the one Niven's Lexus chose for us. I have no idea which algorithms the two system use, and I didn't see any obvious superiority of one route over the other, so we let the car tell us where it wanted to go. It does that well.

My old Explorer doesn't have a built in navigation system, and I generally carry a laptop running DeLorme if I want any such thing. I expect there are better ways, but the remarkable thing is that there are so many "good enough" ways to find out how to get from my house to obscure places all across the country.

What I'd like now is an optional "guide book" feature that will tell us about interesting things we're driving past. The AAA has guidebooks for that, and of course Cook's and Baedeker tell you everything you might want to know about the European countryside, but so far as I know there's no system that reads those guidebooks to you as you drive across country. It would seem to be a natural: the car knows where it is, and the guide books are already printed. Obviously that can be overdone, and one would want a way to turn that feature off, but I'd like to have the option.

On The Road Part Two: Working Away From Home

I have several Lenovo ThinkPad laptops. I carried two: my T42p, which despite being several years old I think of as "the new laptop"; and the Core 2 Duo T-60, which I didn't really need, but since we were driving we had plenty of room for it, and it is very powerful.

I did just about everything with the T42p. It is plenty good enough to handle the several hundred emails a day I receive. The built in Junk Mail filters work, then InBoxer sorts mail into three categories: Blocked, Review, and those it passes along to Outlook where Outlook's rules sort it into priority files. That all works surprisingly well.

I do set Outlook so that it doesn't automatically go get mail; it only does that when I tell it to. That way piggy old Outlook isn't eating all the cycles while I am trying to cut and paste mail to my web site, or trying to make notes with OneNote. Periodically I send Outlook out to see what's coming in, and while that's happening I generally take a break. The system works very well.

The only thing the T42p didn't do was to allow me to play with Second Life while doing several other things at the same time. One of the Lindens was present at the Space Access Society meeting and volunteered to show me around, and we thought it would probably be better to use his new MacBook Pro rather than install Second Life on my T42p. Later I downloaded Second Life for the T60, and it works splendidly. I haven't had a chance to see how well it will work on the T42p, and I probably won't: Orlando, the T42p, is the machine I carry upstairs to the monk's cell when I am working on fiction, and I don't want games on that machine. Of course some will argue that Second Life isn't a game, it's a way of life. More on that another time.

I worked with Orlando in the conference itself. During one long panel on insurance, a topic of great importance to entrepreneurs but perhaps less so to me, I ran PowerPoint and put together the talk I gave that evening. I also answered a lot of email. I did find, as I've said before, that if you want to do a lot of cutting and pasting the mushpad mouse on a laptop just isn't sufficiently accurate for my clumsy fingers, and the eraser-head joystick isn't a lot better. For that I used a IoGear Laser Mouse. Those come in both wireless and USB. I have the USB variety, which will never run out of battery power.

Peter Glaskowsky notes that he has no problems with the mushpad on his MacBook Pro, and others have told me much the same thing, so not everyone will need an external mouse; but I find that I do. Probably habit.

We also carried a 17" ViewSonic flat screen monitor, and my Microsoft Wireless Keyboard and Mouse. The ViewSonic monitors come in a very sturdy box with fitted Styrofoam inserts. I find that a bit of nylon strapping tape reinforces that box well enough that it will last for years, and it's no trick at all to fling the monitor into the back of an SUV when Niven and I are going on a trip and we think we might want to work together.

I'm pretty serious about getting work done on the road, and over time I have accumulated what I think is the best equipment available. If I find anything better I'll tell you; but for the moment, it's my firm belief that for serious work on the road you can't beat the IBM designed Lenovo ThinkPad.

TabletPC

The only thing that's going to tempt me away from the T-series ThinkPad for serious work on the road is a TabletPC. My elderly HP Tablet remains very useful, but she is pretty slow: piggy old Outlook can slow her to a crawl.

I have the new Lenovo TabletPC with Vista, and I'm working with it now. The form factor and weight are simply not as convenient as the HP system was, but with a Core 2 Duo processor it's certainly fast enough. I haven't had enough time playing with this machine to do it justice; I really need to get OneNote on it and go to an Internet Café to see if I can get serious work done there. I certainly did manage to with the HP a few years ago; alas, I am spoiled by the speed and display of the T-series ThinkPads, and it's painful to go back to the HP's crawl. More on the Lenovo TabletPC as I work with it.

Winding Down

The publishing industry is said to be in financial trouble. I have watched many of the giants fall. First BYTE and Windows Magazine vanished or went to Internet only, now InfoWorld has joined them. Life Magazine is no more. There are fewer bookstores each month, and the number of independent book distributors fell from nearly 100 to six in a year. Despite all this, there are more books published every year, and there are now far too many to keep up with.

I am grateful to Commentary Magazine for reviews that led me to the two excellent biographies I have chosen for the books of the month. These are David Nasaw's Andrew Carnegie (Penguin) , and David Cannadine's Mellon: An American Life (Knopf). Both books are about men who are generally considered "Robber Barons": unscrupulous capitalists who used the system unfairly to amass huge fortunes. Now certainly there were some people who fit that description. Jay Gould was generally regarded as nearly without scruples, and certainly his attempt to corner the gold market along with using friendship with President Grant's brother in law illustrates that. The result was Black Friday (September 24, 1869), one of the Great Panics of the 19th Century.

Carnegie was no robber baron as usually conceived. He was certainly hard on labor unions, but generally no more so than anyone else; and while he could be ruthless, he generally avoided unscrupulous business practices. Carnegie amassed a huge fortune, but did not believe in passing money along to his descendents. He believed that the community made his wealth possible, and while he left reasonable wealth to his heirs, he gave most of his money away. Moreover, he took a very personal interest in what happened to that money. If this reminds you of Bill and Melinda Gates, it's probably no coincidence. When Gates talks about disposing of his money, he sounds a lot like Carnegie.

One of Carnegie's legacies was thousands of libraries, which he believed would allow intelligent and industrious workers to gain enough knowledge to get rich. Another, his flagship enterprise, was the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which he genuinely thought might bring an end to war. War, Carnegie concluded, was as outmoded among nations as dueling was among civilized individuals.

Mellon was younger than Carnegie, and far less well known during his business career. He was careful not to compete with Carnegie, and until he became Secretary of the Treasury under Harding, Mellon's name probably would not be recognized anywhere but on Wall Street, and not by the majority there. After eight years under Harding and then Coolidge, Mellon was known as the greatest Secretary of State since Alexander Hamilton. Then, alas, he accepted appointment to continue under Hoover, and thus was Secretary of the Treasury during the Crash of 1929. It wasn't his fault and it's not likely he could have done much about it, but like Hoover he got the blame.

Part of that blame was heaped on him by Roosevelt, who seems to have hated him: the story of Mellon's persecution by the Internal Revenue and other tax and regulatory authorities is shameful. The remarkable thing is that despite all this, Mellon left much of his fortune to the people of the United States: he donated the world's greatest private art collection to form the basis of the National Gallery of Art.

These biographies are a good introduction to a critical period of American history at a time when the center of Western Civilization was shifting from Europe to the United States. Recommended.

Many years ago I had a series of well known lectures. One was called "Survival with Style", and was intended to counter the doom and gloom of the 1970's and 1980's. Those who didn't live then probably don't appreciate just how gloomy our intellectuals were: Paul Ehrlich of Stanford was convinced that a significant fraction of the world's population would die before the year 2000, and while he was out at the edge of the doomsayer formation, he was hardly alone there. Even Isaac Asimov, usually more cool headed, predicted various dooms before the year 2020. Those lectures were delivered from Kodak slides. I still have those slides, but I don't give the lecture because no one has a slide projector now.

I've more than once expressed a wish to get those slides into digital format, but I never got around to it despite generous offers by experts like George Margolin to do them for me. This brings us to the Computer Book of the Month, Sascha Steinhoff's Scanning Negatives and Slides (Rocky Nook; distributed by O'Reilly). This book is both introductory and advanced, and covers the subject thoroughly: equipment, software, techniques, tricks, etc. It's all there. If you do this professionally you'll need to add this book to your library; if you're merely curious about what you can do with those crates full of old photographs and slides, this is the place to start.

While I'm on that subject, Photoshop Elements 5 Workflow: The Digital Photographer's Guide (Sybex) is a good introductory to intermediate handbook on digital photography from taking the picture to final disposition. Of course there are many competing books, but this one is clearly written and comprehensive. It's "just another" in a sense, but that's not meant to be insulting. If you don't know what's in this book and you're serious about digital photography, you need it or one like it. Recommended.

The game of the month remains World of Warcraft. I have been busy on my fiction works and haven't had much time to work with my Paladin, but I did manage to get him a horse. Now he can get around a lot faster.

It's not precisely a game, but I have been having fun with Second Life; it's an interesting place with a very steep learning curve. It helps a lot to have friends who will show you around.

The first movie of the month is The Bridge to Terabithia, but with a warning. This isn't a children's movie. It's certainly not Narnia. There are fantasy elements, but they're clearly fantasy, products of the children's imaginations. There's no wardrobe that takes them to another world. Having said that, this is a very good movie, with both tragedy and triumph. It's not a "feel-bad" movie like Babel. But it's not children's fantasy, either. Anna Sophia Robb (she insists on both first names) is almost perfect in her role, and her performance is worth the price of the movie.

The second movie you have to see is "300". This is a comic book on screen, and you need to remember that. Much of it is a parody of history. The Ephors of Sparta were a kind of board of control elected to keep the Kings (there were always two Kings of Sparta) from getting the state into needless wars and require them to enforce the laws. Xerxes was certainly a vain man who thought himself akin to the gods, but he wasn't ten feet tall and didn't act much like the Xerxes of the movie. Ephialtes was not an exiled Spartan. Yet, for all that, there remains some of the old glory. The great lines recorded at the time remain. "Give us your weapons!" "Come and take them."

It isn't history. If you want history, read Herodotus; he's quite accessible in translation. Or if you want a far more accurate movie about the Battle of the Hot Gates, see Richard Egan and David Farar in The Three Hundred Spartans. But for sheer emotional impact, "300" more than earns the price of admission.

I am told that the US Marine Corps enlisted troops have just about adopted this movie as their official film. It's easy to understand why.