Dr. Jerry Pournelle

Email Me

Why not subscribe now?

Chaos Manor Subscribe Now

Useful Link(s)...


Hosting by

Powered by Apache

Computing At Chaos Manor:
June 12, 2007

The User's Column, June 2007
Column 323, part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

I spent two weeks in the Washington, DC area. The first week was spent in conferences with the Department of Homeland Security research department. That has resulted in several interesting news articles, of which this and this were probably the most interesting. A few news articles couldn't resist laughing at the notion that science fiction writers might be of use in the war on terrorism, but most of my interviews have been both cordial and interesting and the resulting stories, while getting a few details wrong, have been surprisingly accurate.

We went from the Homeland Security conference to Balticon, the Baltimore Regional Science Fiction Convention, where Niven and I were co-Guests of Honor. I also had dinner with my old friend and NASA Senior Scientist Dr. Yoji Kondo. The Convention Committee went out of its way to make that a pleasant convention, and they have our thanks. Roberta went home after the convention.

Niven and I stayed to take part in the first major book signing event at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC. We had a very good day at Walter Reed Hospital. Our publishers brought a truckload of books, which we signed and gave away. We were astonished that this was the first such event ever held at Walter Reed.

Me, Bob Gleason, and Larry Niven at the Walter Reed Hospital book signing.
Me, Bob Gleason, and Larry Niven at the Walter Reed Hospital book signing. [View larger]
General Freddie Franks, at the Walter Reed Hospital book signing.
General Freddie Franks, at the Walter Reed Hospital book signing. Apologies for the awful picture quality. Farther down the table is former Secretary of Defense Cohen. This is one of two long tables. My place was just to the left of General Franks. As you can see, this was a big event, with more than twenty authors. [View larger]
Dinner in Georgetown after the signing.
Dinner after the signing. Left foreground is Lt. Cdr. Phillip Pournelle. Larry Bond is across from him. Again my apologies for the quality of the pictures. You can just make out the Potomac and Roosevelt Island in the distance outside. [View larger]
The Korean War Monument.
The Korean War Monument. I'd never seen it before. It seems fitting. [View larger]

The book signing was arranged by Tor Books Senior Executive Editor Robert Gleason, a name my readers may find familiar. Bob Gleason bought The Mote in God's Eye back in the 1970's when he was Editor at Pocket Books. He has also over the years edited Lucifer's Hammer, Starswarm, and many of my other works. Although the signing was arranged by Tor Books - Tor publisher Tom Doherty flew down for the day, and took us all to dinner afterwards - Gleason invited a number of people whose books are not with Tor. Most of the publishers sent books, although, alas, most didn't send very many.

I shared a table with General Fred Franks. They had managed to get twenty or so copies of Into the Storm, the book General Franks wrote with Tom Clancy about the first Gulf War. They didn't last long. I wish I had thought to bring my own copy to get General Franks to sign. My own books went quickly as well - Starswarm is between printings and our works still in print are with other publishers - so Fred Franks and I had some time together. Franks lost a leg in Viet Nam and went on to become a general. As you might imagine, there were a number of amputees who wanted to talk with him. I feel privileged to have been included in some of those conversations.

The book signing was in the general cafeteria area of the hospital. Bob Gleason and Larry Bond and a couple of other authors visited the wards. The officials didn't want many of us up there, and in my case that was a very good idea since I had come down with what I thought was an allergy but might be a head cold, and I certainly didn't want to spread that around. What with Purelle and frequent hand washings those in the cafeteria were safe enough, but it would be different up in the wards, so I stayed behind.

After the book signing we went to Tony and Joe's, a Georgetown waterfront restaurant I can recommend if you like seafood.

We're rather hoping that this book signing will set a precedent and other publishers will arrange events at our military hospitals.

The day after the Walter Reed book signing a few of us were given a tour through the CIA building. We were escorted by a former agent of the Directorate of Plans, one of the few who in retirement is publicly identified as a former covert agent. Alas, no cameras were permitted, so I don't have a picture of Larry Niven sitting in the Director's chair in the Director's Conference Room. If I ever have to write stories about what goes on in Langley I will at least have the location details right.

Our final day in Washington was spent being tourists. The Korean War monument was constructed since my last visit to DC - or at least since the last time I was there with any time on my hands - and Niven and I found that.

All through my DC trip my head cold had got worse. I thought it would get better when I got home, and for a couple of days it did, but I don't seem to be shaking it off; which is why, with apologies, much of this has been a "what I did on my Memorial Day Vacation" report rather than a report on computing on the road and reviews of what I found when I got home. Alas, my head is still not working well. There are many new items to review, and I don't trust my own judgment to be fair about them.

On The Road

This was my first road trip for some years without Lisabetta, my HP Compaq 1100 TabletPC. Instead I carried Orlando, the Lenovo ThinkPad T42p that I have had for years. We had just finished Inferno II, and one reason for the trip was to deliver copies of the manuscript to our editor, Bob Gleason, and our agent Eleanor Wood.

My first mission on arriving at Balticon was to get copies of INFERNO II for submission. I used Orlando to format the manuscript for printing - I'd been working on it up to the last minute - and copied it out onto a tiny little 2 GB thumb drive Microsoft had given me at WinHEC. Then we had our driver - Mr. Dan Guy Fowlkes, an Army security programmer when not on convention duty running errands for Pournelles - to locate a Staples. I handed the thumb drive to the nice young man at Staples. Ten minutes later we had three copies of a 286 page book.

We stayed in three different hotels in the DC area. Every one of them used wireless rather than Ethernet connections. I am pleased to report that the IBM ThinkPad with Windows XP was able to connect to each one more or less automatically. The wireless networks had varying degrees of security, none very secure at all. The Homeland Security Conference in the Ronald Reagan Building in DC (near the Federal Triangle) also uses wireless, and it's no more secure than the hotel networks.

In hotels I have the choice of using a D-Link wireless router to provide a layer of insulation between me and the Internet, but that wasn't possible in the Ronald Reagan Building. The commercial network in the Reagan Building wants a user name and password along with a credit card (and conveniently forgets that you paid for a 24 hour day 22 hours before) but that's not a lot of security. Since the Secret Service, the Secretary and Undersecretaries, and a whole slew of Senior Executive Service DHS officials were all using their Blackberries, one would expect something more secure. Others were using laptops. I have no idea what was on them.

I used my laptop with OneNote to take notes during the conference. The conference was of course unclassified, but I did worry a bit about spyware contamination. Not that my own system will ever have anything classified on it - I have held security clearances, but I wouldn't accept one now, because I don't want to have to worry about what I can and cannot say - but some of the officials using laptops at the DHS conference must surely carry those into secured places.

My own precaution was to keep Microsoft OneCare running at all times, and when I got back to my hotel each night I would run two different spyware detection routines. I never found anything to worry about.

ThinkPad Users: Beware of Vista

I carried the ThinkPad T42P on the trip, in part because I am used to it: it has been the most reliable laptop I have ever had.

I have more modern Lenovo laptops, including their new TabletPC and an updated T series with Intel Core 2 Duo processor. I'd have carried that latter on the trip except that Alex borrowed it as an emergency replacement of his system. It turns out that's just as well. Both new ThinkPads have Vista.

I do not recommend Vista for anyone with critical operations. I'll let Alex explain what happened to him.

Windows Vista and the ThinkPad T60:
Stay Away from the patches (Alex Pournelle)

I borrowed the Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2G RAM, 2GHz Centrino, 105G hard drive, ATI graphics) while my H-P was being repaired. The ThinkPad was loaded with Vista Business (not Ultimate), and came with the latest Norton Anti-Virus (90 day trial). Here are a few notes on it.

First and most annoying, Symantec/Norton didn't even survive the first update: It tripped over its own shoelaces on the first attempt, and LiveUpdate now won't complete. That's even more disappointing than usual for Symantec--not that I was likely to use Norton for very long, but they underwhelmed me even more than usual.

The T60's battery life is reasonable, something over 3 hours and well more than my H-P Pavilion (not hard). It has a bright, clear 1400 by 1050 15.4" screen. I haven't tried the built-in Verizon cellular modem (which requires a subscription). The built-in speakers are pretty anemic--you won't have to worry about keeping your spouse up if you play games on it, but neither will you listen to much music without headphones, either, unless you live somewhere very quiet.

Migrating software to this machine wasn't as easy as I'd like. To their credit, the Microsoft Windows Vista Software Migration Tool really does transfer application settings pretty smoothly to your new machine. On the other hand, applications which stow their data in a "C:\Program Files" subdirectory are not welcome. Background: Microsoft has decided that storing data there is harmful, and goes through great pains to transparently make copies of those data to a virtual directory, away from "\Program files". This only works vaguely well with, e.g., the mail application Eudora, and in fact I had to give "everyone" permission to the virtual working directory before I could (1) send messages or (2) use it as my default mail program. I still can't add words to my custom Eudora dictionary (it doesn't complain, they're just not added).

Stability: Earlier this week, I was offered the latest driver updates from Lenovo (as compared to the regular Windows Updates, which have slowed from the thunderous stream which Microsoft was releasing through April). Since then, the machine only recovers from Hibernate about 50% of the time, and Standby maybe 75%. That's down from about 75% and 95% previously. This seems independent of what applications I'm running, whether I have 9 Word 2003 files open or just Eudora. It seems mostly to be a power/restore problem; I haven't seen more than about 4-5 Blue Screens O' Death in normal use. (That's higher than under XP, so far, as well.)

A quick literature search shows some problems with the new "hybrid sleep" mode (see this, for instance), but the T60 has that off by default. And I'm not the only one with this sort of problem; see the well-reasoned (though 7 months old) Windows Vista's Broken Wakeup Support for some other reports.

Writing power-management-savvy software that's stable isn't easy; Peter Glaskowsky went to some WinHEC (Windows Hardware Engineering Conference) 2007 sessions which stated many of the really cool power-saving features were left turned off in Vista on purpose, in large part because no one could write drivers which would work in all cases. You'd think Hibernate and Sleep code (as compared to "Turn off part of the chip while you're not using it" code) would be well-known, having been in laptops for nearly a decade? Not for me, yet.

My current guess (and it's no more than that) is that the late May Lenovo updates trashed the system's reliability. I'm reluctantly concluding that Windows Vista really truly isn't more than a year-long beta, at least until Service Pack 1. I need to figure out if I can back out the updates which caused this greater instability, obviously, before I can confirm that pronouncement. Meanwhile, I may yet go back to the heavy, power-guzzling, fan-infested (three, on the bottom) Pavilion, simply to get more-familiar Windows XP under my fingers again. Sigh.

Vista Report, Continued

I am writing this on a big Core 2 Duo system running Vista Ultimate. It is the only Vista production machine I have.

It mostly works, but then things happen. For example: when I began inserting photographs into this column, Vista locked up. I would use the Insert Photo button. The proper window would pop up, but when I tried to change directories to find the photo I wanted, I got a "Not Responding" message, and the system in effect locked up.

I "fixed" it by logging off and back on. I didn't have to restart the machine; logoff and logon did the job; but of course that closed all the windows I'd had open. Those included some Firefox windows and several instances of Word, but nothing weird. It wasn't too many open windows. After I did logoff and logon everything worked perfectly again.

I have been using this machine to do net browsing, some writing, and a couple of hours of World of Warcraft. It has been on and running without restart since I came home a week ago. Of course since Windows XP came out, none of us think it unusual for a computer to run for weeks without having to be restarted; but some of us do remember that this hasn't always been so. There was a time when you routinely rebooted a machine just in case. Maybe that's what Vista needs?

In any event, Vista is just too temperamental for me to recommend it for production work. It's pretty, and sometimes it's fun, but it doesn't do anything important that Windows XP with Microsoft Desktop Search won't do, and XP is just plain more stable. Wait for Service Pack One before switching to Vista. If that means putting off buying a new computer, then put off buying a new computer, particularly a laptop. If IBM/Lenovo can't get the upgrades and drivers right, who can? I do note that I have a Lenovo Titanium Z61 laptop with Windows XP, and it works just fine. The Z series machines are light in weight and I did wish I were carrying it during the Homeland Security conference, but when I'm back in my hotel room I just plain like the larger T series screen better.

I won't be "upgrading" either to Vista very soon.

In Vista's favor, I do have to say that OneNote with Vista on the Lenovo TabletPC works very well indeed. I have been able to do serious editing on that tablet; I think I have told you about using it while sitting in a medical waiting room. So far Vista hasn't been much of a problem on the Lenovo Tablet, but I'm a little gun shy about going far from home with only a Vista machine. That may not be a justified fear, but I have it.

And before my Linux and Apple friends can say it, I know that Apple OS X on the Intel platform is very stable, and Linux gets more useful every week. All of which should spur Microsoft to greater effort to get Vista SP-1 out. There are some good things about Vista.

The Digital Wind

If you use peer to peer file sharing networks, be afraid. Be very afraid. Dartmouth Professor Eric Johnson has "tracked sensitive financial documents as they moved through three popular peer to peer networks: Gnutella, FastTrack, and eDonkey." See the article "Sharing MP3s may mean sharing far more than just music."

What happens is that peer to peer software may be configured improperly, so that files other than those in the intended public shared access folders get shared out across the Internet. Some of this may not be accidental. Many peer to peer networking schemes have been filled with spyware which may be set to share more than the user intended. Whether intentional, accidental, or simply through negligence, users are sending out a lot of files they hadn't intended to share. These are then passed along as new users, thinking they are getting mp3 files, get more than they asked for - and send them along when they share their new musical finds. The result is a "digital wind".

Moreover, this is not an obscure or unknown vulnerability: there are apparently a number of people and organizations searching the "digital wind" to find references to banks, financial codes, bank statements, PIN numbers, etc. Johnson's study doesn't go into who might be using this information, but it's not hard to guess that not all of them are innocent academics.

All of which brings up Joost (say "Juiced"), the new networking service dreamed up by Skype founders Janus Friis and Niklaus Zennstroem. This will bring full length TV programs to users.

Just as I was leaving for my trip to the East Coast, we received an invitation to install Joost as part of a new promotion. I asked my advisors what they thought of the offer, then didn't think about it until I got back.

The most succinct reply was from Eric Pobirs, who says that he has concerns about the software you'll be asked to install, and as for him, he'd be afraid of Spyware. After all, these were the people who ran Kazaa, and that was the all-time champion for infecting systems not only with Spyware but other crippling loads. Dan Spisak, who is often called security conscious to an extreme, says Eric is overly suspicious, and reminds us that after Kazaa they brought us Skype. Rich Heimlich notes that he tried Joost, and now his system is popping up ads from time to time, even with Joost unloaded. He adds that since his 12 year old son plays with that machine, the infection could have come from elsewhere, but once he gets rid of the infestation he doesn't intend to reinstall Joost.

As for me, I have no need for TV episodes at the moment, and I think I will let someone else do this so I won't have to. If you want my advice, this isn't something you need to get in on early.

Maxtor Shared Storage II

One terabyte of storage! Painless setup! When they say "easy to install" they really mean it. See this link.

This is a automatic data mirroring network storage system. It reminds me a lot of Mirra, which I have been using for several years, but there are other features. There's password controlled sharing with other users. This can include streaming video. The sharing system makes it possible for others to verify the integrity of backed up files; a matter of some importance.

Installation is a breeze. The automatic setup software really works as advertised.

I realize this isn't a long review: but what else is there to say? Automatic backup of all critical files. Raid 1 mirrored. A terabyte of storage, and all for five hundred bucks and change. Buy this, install it in an out of the way place - it needs access to an Ethernet switch or your router, but there's nothing you need to do with it, there being no user accessible controls - install the software on the systems you want backed up, and forget it.

Actually, of course, you shouldn't "forget it". Backup systems need to be tested and verified, and a dynamic backup system isn't really enough if your files are worth much. I will use the Maxtor Shared Storage gladly, but that won't stop me from making periodic copies of my "full Monty" directory that contains every word I have ever written in electronic form onto a DVD. I then send copies of that DVD out to other places including Niven's house. The Chaos Manor backup system mostly consists of copying everything important to several other places; chaotic but it mostly works. It doesn't always work: there is a generation of files from the Cheetah 80386 days that I didn't manage to back up properly and when the Priam hard drive they resided on died, they were lost. Fortunately I have paper copies of almost everything that was on there and over the years I have had those typed in - Laura Sampson has been a jewel at both copying and editing - so my Full Monty is pretty nearly complete now.

No automatic backup system is enough; but having one is a lot better than having nothing, and with a terabyte of storage for $500, the days of mucking with tape are thankfully over.

In my case the Maxtor Shared Storage II goes into the cable room to be run off the wonderful Falcon UPS that also powers my main server, router, Ethernet switch, and cable modem. So far it hasn't given me a bit of trouble, and it's sure great for peace of mind.

Highly recommended.

More on Backup Systems

My first draft of this column did not have the paragraph about verification. Robert Bruce Thompson instantly said

The problem I have with all such systems is that users do forget them, and just assume they're working. Then, when they desperately need the backup, they find that the "set and forget" system actually never did work, or stopped working weeks, months, or years before.

I much prefer my manual backup systems. Yes, I have to spend a few minutes every morning making copies to multiple local and network hard drives, and writing my working data set to a DVD+R disc. But I know for sure that my backups will be usable when I need them.


and Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey added

True. So add a verification step in, perhaps monthly, perhaps quarterly.

Every once in a while I rebuild my main system. When I do, I make a backup expressly for the purpose, but then use my normal backup dataset to restore from, leaving the special-purpose backup as a reserve. I've never had a problem. Of course, that sort of thing is harder under Windows because of the registry. So for Marcia's machine, I backup data, only. And I have a list of programs installed on her machine. So she's got a rebuild plus slotting data into the right places afterwards. That's worked okay, too, in the past.

And for the backups from Zidane to my home server, it is set-and-forget, but then it's not proprietary software, it is rsync and cron - I get an email every morning showing the files that were transferred (okay, hard to forget when there's a daily email that I expressly don't filter).

No compression - straight filesystem copies.

That backup saved all our bacon when the machine that was "Rocket" died, and Zidane came online - it was a few hours to restore, but then all was good.


I know some of that is redundant; but what we tell you three times is true. There are few feelings comparable to the horror of realizing that something you really need is just plain gone. With storage so cheap there's no reason ever to experience that again.

Adobe Creative Suite 3: Design Premium and Web Premium

This won't be a review because I haven't had a chance to use all this yet. On the other hand, I don't really have to: that is, nearly everything in these packages is an upgrade to existing Adobe software, only now it's bundled sensibly.

Design Premium contains full new versions of InDesign CS3, Photoshop CS3 Extended, Adobe Illustrator CS3, Adobe Flash CS3, and Adobe Acrobat 8 Professional. The box blurb calls it "the designers dream toolkit for print, web, and mobile publishing", and I have trouble quarrelling with that. All these programs work together seamlessly.

The Web Premium package contains Dreamweaver, Flash, Photoshop Extended, Illustrator, Fireworks, Acrobat, and Contribute. Both Design Premium and Web Premium have bundled in a number of supporting programs.

I have experimented with Dreamweaver in the past; my web page (www.jerrypournelle.com) is currently kept in Microsoft FrontPage, but that is now moving into the category of unsupported products, and I will probably have to update one of these days. When I do I'll very likely convert to the Adobe Creative Suite Web Designer package, since it's likely to be here to stay.

There is a plethora of books about Adobe CS3 products. I must have twenty for review; learning how to use Adobe products is not a big problem. I have not studied conversion of my web site from FrontPage to Adobe Dreamweaver, but I'm told it's not all that hard to do. We'll see, and I'll tell you about it when I do - or if I do, because I tend not to fix things that aren't broken, and FrontPage works just now.

Changing Times

The publishing industry is changing rapidly. Few publishers make much from paperback books. At WinHEC we saw true pocket computers, small enough to be carried on the person (see my account in the 2007 May Part Four column).

I am convinced that in future these will become ubiquitous, and when they do, they will become an important - dare I say primary - instrument for reading. They'll be used for both entertainment and education.

When that happens the art of story telling will change. Sure, the old fashioned written story will continue - but there will be new forms as well. Stories with accompanying music. Stories with maps. Stories with illustrations of the characters. Stories with interactive scenes. Stories with cut scenes in which some of the dialogue may actually be spoken.

All this is easily enough done with the new pocket computers. At first it won't be too popular, and I can see the reading public separated into the old fashioned people who want their reading matter on screen without it being adulterated with music and illustrations, the really old-fashioned who want their stories printed on dead trees, and the moderns who want entertainment woven in with their stories. Now stories are not movies: I can spend more on special effects with three paragraphs of words to stimulate your imagination than Hollywood can afford to pay for the whole movie. On the other hand, I know that readers like details, maps, charts, illustrations; and I can predict that they'll like other enhancements that pocket computers will make not merely possible but easy.

This is why I find the new software tools for creating new computer user experiences so important. Apple seems to get that, and is working to make it easy for users to add such materials to their work.

The Adobe packages move us toward that for Windows as well.

Learning to write before computers was hard work. Getting a clean manuscript required knowing about carbon paper, vintages of Sno-Pake, and other esoterica. The small computer took most of the work out of that. At first it wasn't very easy, and we had to learn a lot about small computers in order to use them. That's changed. Now a writer can concentrate on the words, not on the production.

I believe that in the next decade we'll see software tools develop to make it much simpler to create the new entertainment. I have only a dim idea of what that will be like. I intend to experiment and find out more.