Dr. Jerry Pournelle

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Computing At Chaos Manor:
May 29, 2007

The User's Column, May 2007
Column 322, part 5
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week...

I have spent the week listening to speeches and presentations by the Department of Homeless Security. I am now Guest of Honor at Balticon. I just had dinner with my agent and my editor, and Niven and I pitched a book which we hope will be our next major work. We also turned over copies of the manuscript to our editor and our agent respectively.

The bottom line is that I don't have much to say or much time to say it, and we'll have to make do with winding down...

Winding Down

The Game of the Month remains World of Warcraft. My Paladin is up to level 50, and the quests are still fun. I don't get a lot of time to play this game. Also, I am still playing Medieval: Total War - the first version, not the newest, although Medieval II is a good game also.

A very specialized book of the month is The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Pavlac Glyer, Kent State University Press. This is an academic work primarily intended for academics. Having said that, it's also a very good account of the Inklings. That is the name that Lewis gave to the group of writers, poets, and critics who met at fairly regular intervals in Lewis's rooms at Magdelen College, Oxford, and sometimes at a local pub. The group included Lewis, Tolkien, and Lewis's brother Warren Lewis, as well as some fifteen others. They met to read and criticize their works, both complete and in progress.

Diana Glyer has chosen to examine the theme of "influence". Given the recent popularity of both Tolkien and Lewis, this is interesting to both academics and serious readers, and she covers the subject well. While doing so she gives a good account of just what went on in those meetings. As I said, a specialized book; but if you have more than a casual interest in these matters, you will enjoy reading this book.

Two more specialized books this month, both by Richard P. Feynman, and both excerpted from his California Institute of Technology lectures in introductory physics. Feynman was a Nobel Prize winner, but he was also a great teacher. Six Easy Pieces isn't technical at all; I would call it lectures on "the philosophy of science" except that term has been expropriated for some of the most deadly dull prose every written, and Feynman is anything but dull.

Early in the book Feynman says "If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence could be passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis ... that all things are made of atoms - little particles that move about in perpetual motion...." Feynman then proceeds with relentless logic to show just how much can be deduced from this statement. It's not technical, it's entertaining, and it will tell you more about how the world works than many far longer works.

The companion book is QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. This book is not overly technical - there are no equations - but it is difficult because the subject is difficult. Experimental results are highly counter-intuitive. The world does not work the way you think it does. Feynman makes it very clear that there is no "reasonable theory" underlying Quantum Electro Dynamics. QED describes and predicts. It works as a theory, and it "explains" what goes on; but it is not itself reasonable, and there is no underlying theory on how it works. It just does.

"The Uncertainty Principle", "Collapse of the wave function" and other such terms have long been used by science fiction writers to justify all kinds of marvels and whiz bangs, and will continue to be so; but if you are interested in what those terms really mean, these two books will tell you more than most, and it's a good investment of a week. Indeed, next month one of the books will be The Black Swan, another important book about epistemology, and having read Feynman will make it easier to understand.

A less specialized book of the month is Donald A. Wiesner and Nicholas A. Glaskowsky. Jr. Illustrated Negotiator's Glossary, Born Negotiator Publishing Group. Both authors are Professors of Business Administration at major universities, but the book reads better than that. It gets quite snappy in parts, and the illustrations are mostly amusing.

This book is a bit late to be part of the wave of books on how to negotiate your way to success. That wave peaked about five years ago, and it's a pity, because this is a better book than most of those were. It's just the kind of book one would like to take on a trip. There are mini-essays on more than a hundred terms of art.

I am not at all sure that one can learn to be a "good negotiator". I suspect one needs a certain temperament, and it's one that I lack. I took personnel management and other such courses on "negotiation" in graduate school - they were required for the Public Administration part of my graduate degree in political science - but I don't think I learned much that changed my life. I think I would have got more out of reading this book. At least I would have understood some of what the professional negotiators were trying to accomplish. One can learn a lot just from understanding terms of art.

The first Computer book of the Month is Designing BSD Rootkits: An Introduction To Kernal Hacking, by Joseph Kong (No Starch Press). Warning: this is not an introductory book. You will need some experience with FreeBSD, and the book assumes you are proficient in programming in C. The purpose of this book is to show programmers just how rootkits work, and how they can be used both for good and evil. Fair warning: I am not a proficient C programmer. I have written C programs that run, but that was years ago, and I thoroughly dislike C; I much prefer structured languages with strong typing and range checking (and in fact I don't do much programming at all now). What I can do is look to see that there are examples, and there are plenty of them. If I wanted to do kernel hacking, I would certainly include this book in my arsenal.

The second computer book of the month is Upgrading and Fixing PCs for Dummies by Andy Rathbone (Wiley). This book is subtitled "A reference for the rest of us", and like all of the "Dummies" series is written in simple and non-technical language. This is the Seventh Edition of this work, and it has been extensively revised. There are the usual sections on trouble-shooting, replacing components, adding memory and hard drives, and so forth. There is also a section on upgrading to Vista. I don't recommend that you upgrade any system to Vista.

Anyone who depends on PC's needs at least one of these "Upgrade and Fix" books. Experienced users will have several. When your PC develops a problem, you can take it out to the shop; pack it up and mail it somewhere; call the troops in the red Mini-Coopers. All those are pretty expensive options. Better if you can fix it yourself, and often you can. Pournelle's Law says that about 90% of computer problems are caused by cables. A good manual will help you decide whether this is something you can manage for yourself. This is one of the good ones. Having said that, I still recommend Repairing and Upgrading Your PC by Robert and Barbara Thompson, O'Reilly, but you are warned that the Thompsons are old friends.

The Movie of the Month is Spiderman Three. It's not quite as good as the first two, but it's good enough.