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Computing At Chaos Manor:
June 26, 2007

The User's Column, June 2007
Column 323, part 3
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


Continued from last week...

The iPhone is Coming!!

This week comes the long awaited iPhone. We don't know how many are in the pipeline, but I for one plan not to be anywhere near an Apple store on opening day. That doesn't mean I am not interested. Like everyone else I'm fascinated by the notion of a phone that's designed around the user interface rather than technology and feature driven.

The iPhone is not a business phone. It's not a Blackberry. On the other hand, a number of business people - and their wives - will think it's way cool, meaning that they'll expect the IT guys to make their iPhone work the way they want it to. Does this mean yet another standard for IT to support? Stay tuned.

Crosley CR248 Songwriter CD Recorder

The Crosley Songwriter is a $400 FM Radio, CD player, Vinyl record player, cassette player, and CD burner. It's a very handsome unit. One friend got one and his wife made him buy a table for it to sit on; it looks that good.

The Crosley Songwriter.
The Crosley is a handsome unit. I found a place for it on my trophy buffet. It may stay there. [View larger]

The sound quality is very good. Do understand, I am no expert on sound quality; I have had some hearing losses since 1950, so many things sound good to me; but in this case I've had others listen to it and they like it. As a record player or FM Tuner you'll love it. The built in speakers are good enough. There's also stereo audio output that you can feed into your stereo system or TV.

The feature that sells the Songwriter is the ability to play an audio record on the built-in turntable, and with one button burn the output onto a CD. This works for 78, 45, and 33 RPM records. The resulting copy is quite good, at least of records with human voices. I haven't tried it with my Isaac Stern Beethoven Violin Concerto I bought as an undergraduate, but I do intend to try. I have done it with an ancient vinyl 33 of Scottish border ballads I bought back in undergraduate days, and it's wonderful. I've also made CD's of some Filk Song tapes. (SF fans will know about filking; it happens at science fiction conventions.)

The Songwriter makes an audio CD. Once you have that audio CD, you can use your computer to rip and transcode, convert to MP3, or do anything else you want to do with it. You'll have to do that on your own computer, because the Songwriter doesn't do that.

Of course most of my readers already have the capability of making a CD copy of a vinyl record. The problem is that for many of us it's a lot of trouble. We're not likely to have a turntable anywhere near a computer, and moving the computer down to the turntable, getting the cables connected properly, getting the levels adjusted properly, and actually making the copies is a pain - enough of a pain that we haven't done it.

The Crosley does not have a hard drive. It only creates Audio CD's. There's no USB port. The unit was designed to play music and record CD's (CD-RW or CDR). Early models had the capability of making CD's from the FM radio or auxiliary input, but that was removed after the RIAA objected, according to a company spokesperson.

What it does do is make CD's from records and cassettes, and do that without cables, muss, or fuss; one button does the trick. The value of that was brought home to me this morning: Paul Schindler, the founding editor of BYTE on Line ( and thus my former editor in chief) now teaches in Orinda, and periodically comes down for a visit. When I showed him the Crosley he decided to go buy one: he has a stack of vinyl records he was wondering what to do with. It's just too much trouble to find a way to convert them to CD's, and he was contemplating throwing them out. Now he has a way to make the useful again. If a former BYTE editor finds this a great idea, I may have more readers who want it than I thought. And, of course, it makes a great gift for vinyl record audiophiles...

It's not cheap, and there are many things I wish the Crosley did that it doesn't do, but I'm sure glad to have it; it's going to save my old vinyl collection. Recommended.

Managed Code Seen Harmful

This is a special report from Alex.

Managed Code Seen as Confusing

By Alex Pournelle

One of the more significant changes "under the covers" of Windows is the .NET library, and the entire "managed code" revolution. A quick look at the "installed programs" list of an up-to-date Windows PC will show .NET Framework 1.1, 2.0 and 3.0 versions installed--plus, usually, updates. Each offers different features and the later versions are apparently not a strict superset of the previous ones, hence the multiple installations. I recently found a practical illustration of that.

In some ways, the .NET framework is the logical successor to the standard C libraries ("stdio") and, more recently, the Microsoft Foundation Classes (MFC) libraries. However, .NET is "managed code", Common Language Runtime (CLR) code, interpreted code, which is designed to be easier to use/code with (and not incidentally increases programmer lock-in to Windows). There's a decent programmer-centric Microsoft TechNet introduction to using .NET code at this link.

When upgrading a long-time client's network, the .NET framework recently reminded me just how complicated Windows has become, even pre-Vista. I think there are some larger lessons, too, which I'll get to presently.

Windows Server 2003 R2: From the Ground Up

This client, a nursing home, started out with a Novell 3.11 network fifteen-plus years ago; they've upgraded several times. Their current Windows 2000 Small Business Server (SBS) is getting kind of long in the tooth, so I recommended they purchase a decent Dell Pentium/4 server, dual S-ATA hard drives, hardware RAID, 2G of RAM, new DDS-4 tape drive, Symantec/Veritas Backup Exec 10.5 backup software. Because of the problems I'd had with their SBS, and more importantly with their Active Directory installation, I decided to start over, with a completely new AD installation from the ground up. More on that in a moment.

I've also learned a great deal about installing Windows in the last few years, not the least of which was that you really want to use the "Domain.LOCAL" convention for AD domains which don't inherit from a routable domain ("mylocal.domain.com"). As we've described before, logging into a "foo.LOCAL" domain won't time out waiting for a response from outside DNS, since it's recognized as a non-Internet domain and the DNS request never leaves the local network. Fortunately this client is all PC: Macs have problems connecting to a ".LOCAL" AD domain (as we've also chronicled in the past).

Dell Service Seen As Helpful

Why a Dell? While hardly the only decent choice on the planet, Dell recently endeared themselves to me with superior customer service. Another of my clients has a Dell PowerEdge server, with a three-drive RAID 5 disk array. Story: The client calls because "our server is screaming"; upon arrival I check the Dell CERC RAID controller via the Dell server management web interface; yep, bad drive, hence the ear-splitting alarm. Get on the Dell support site, ID the machine, log in to the server Instant Message queue, wait 15 minutes for someone to answer. Meanwhile, start two more backups, one to tape (A DLT8000 drive) and one disk-to-disk, to their old server, kept around for just such an occasion. Relate the problem to the Dell support guy. After about ten minutes of persuading, he allows as how they need to send out an advanced replacement drive, under warranty. This was at 5PM on a Thursday. The replacement drive appeared at the client's office before 10AM the next day. Not only that, the customer service guy spoke English natively and was based in Round Rock, TX. Amazing!

My only creeb was that the RAID alarm silence button within the Dell server management software is pretty hidden, but then you don't really want it simple to disable, do you? (And there's a similar button in the RAID card's BIOS, also buried.) Fortunately, Dell Technician David did know where it was.

Oh, and the documentation of "if your server is screaming, you have a bad drive" is pretty buried in the Dell knowledgebase, and no search for common words discovered this point. My ears were ringing once I had it turned off. The users never saw a blip, of course, thanks to the RAID 5 array.

Once received, installing the replacement drive did require me to bring the server down, because they hadn't purchased a server with hot-swappable drives, a la the Dell PowerEdge 2600 or 2900 series. That's acceptable for this client: Even ten architectural drafters can work offline for fifteen minutes without disruption. Yes, it's false economy for anyone larger to skimp on such reliability features. For larger clients, I would recommend true hot-swap drives, or a true Storage Area Network (SAN) with multiple servers. These people don't need that much redundancy, yet.

Once the replacement is installed, back into the BIOS, designate the new drive as a member of the existing RAID. Cross my fingers at the warning about how this join operation might result in data loss. Hold my breath until the "Rebuild" progress meter starts counting up. Exit the BIOS and restart the machine. Booting to Windows Server 2003 R2 takes several minutes longer than usual, because the RAID rebuild continues in the background (fortunately from wherever it left off). Tell all the drafters they can get back to work, but file saving is going to be slow for awhile. Run off to other clients on the waiting list.

The RAID rebuild took a good 50 hours, the entire weekend; disk writes during this time made the server extremely sluggish. I was reminded of just how hard Novell servers had to work, back in the 386 days, with odd pauses in file opens and saves, and for exactly the same reason: When disk writes are limited to around 2 Mbytes/second, your server is no longer a modern speed daemon.

But, on Monday morning, performance was sprightly, the Dell OpenManage software said the system was in fine shape, and the old disk could be shipped out. If I hadn't been available, Dell would have sent out a technician to replace the drive--well worth the price increment vs. a white-box server for most businesses.

Managed Client Slowdowns

Back at the nursing home, I'd migrated most of the desktops to the new domain. I'm sure there are tools to help automate this, but some systems had never behaved right under the old domain--they had continuous problems authenticating, accessing files, etc. User accounts fill with gunk, too, so I wanted to manually move only the necessary files, mostly their E-mail, shortcuts and favorites, and filter out the years-old cruft they no longer needed.

A few PCs, none over two years old, I judged too gunked-up and unreliable for migration. Those I brought back to my office for reformatting and reinstallation with Windows XP. Fortunately, the newest Service Pack 2 reinstall disk works just fine with older Dimensions and Optiplexes, though you still need to download the video, audio and network drivers separately. This took well longer than joining them to the new domain and moving their user files, yes, but I avoided bringing all those support problems to the new network.

I'm hardly the first to recognize that Windows is (1) subject to gunking-up (2) without any universally reliable remedy (3) except for formatting the drive and reinstalling. There are entire products designed to get around this problem, like Altiris (now part of Symantec). Our experience with Vista doesn't suggest this problem is solved, either.

The reformatted systems seemed much more sprightly, but the patient Assistant Administrator (who was the first to get a rebuilt system) pointed out her PC now took 20 seconds to open a file in Word or Excel, far slower than before. Some detective work later, I discovered the Applications event log showed a series of errors with:

Event Type: Error 
Event Source: .NET Runtime 
Event Category: None 
Event ID: 0 
Date: Date
Time: Time
User: N/A 
Computer: ComputerName
Description: The description for Event ID ( 0 ) in Source 
( .NET Runtime ) cannot be found. The local computer may 
not have the necessary registry information or message DLL 
files to display messages from a remote computer. You may 
be able to use the /AUXSOURCE= flag to retrieve this 
description; see Help and Support for details. The 
following information is part of the event: unable to open 
shim database version registry key-v2.0.50727.00000

in them.

For once, typing the error code from the event log into Google immediately came up with the answer, and, eventually, a hotfix. That's a major complaint of mine about Windows: All too often, error messages don't appear anywhere Google or Windows Live have indexed. If Microsoft is going to continue adding complexity to its operating systems, and as long as people continue to use them for strategic purposes, every error should have some coverage in the knowledgebase, with the exact error message quoted. It's not like we have ten feet of three-ring manuals sitting on a counter, with updates pages issued monthly, a la OS/360: The knowledgebase is the only reference most of us have. It should be more complete.

The file opening delay is, it turns out, a .NET code error, as discussed in this article. The result is 15 seconds of confusion before the call is handed on to the .NET 1.1 framework (this according to other sources). It's all the more surprising because I didn't think Office 2003 used any .NET code.

That same knowledgebase article directs you to a hotfix, whose download in turn requires you to join Windows Connect. (I used our press MSDN account.) Why this (and other) essential .NET fixes aren't distributed via microsoft.com/downloads is beyond me. I also wonder why this year-old hotfix hasn't been baked into a .NET framework update, since it's just yet another replacement .DLL in the windows\system32 directory.

Once installed, and the system was rebooted, file load times dropped to two or three seconds, much more in line with expectations. So the immediate problem, slow load times for Office, was fixed. The larger one, of why this fix was necessary, is lost in the complexity of both Microsoft and its code.

Vista Seen As Complex

Adding complexity to solve old problems often causes new ones, even with the best of intentions and design. Witness the cleverness added to Vista to support programs which want to write data to "\Program files" directories: files which change (and therefore are data) get written instead to a "Virtual Store" directory. In the case of Qualcomm's Eudora, my e-mail client, the changed data went to "C:\Users\Alex\AppData\Local\VirtualStore\Program Files\eudora" on the first migration to Vista. On the second attempt, on the Lenovo ThinkPad T60, some went to that directory, but Vista also created "C:\Users\Alex\AppData\Local\VirtualStore\Program Files\Qualcomm\Eudora" as well. By the way, Vista's "C:\Users" replaces the "C:\documents and settings" directory from XP, though there's a virtual "C:\documents and settings" directory for compatibility. See what I mean about adding complexity?

Having Eudora work correctly on Vista is difficult because Microsoft tries to be helpful. Not only did I have to find these hidden VirtualStore directories, I ended up copying all of my live data files to both of them and restarted before my mail files were up-to-date. And Vista made me blunder through third-party support webpages until I finally got Eudora to be the default mail application--until now, six weeks later, when it isn't, any longer. Sigh.

There has been apocalyptic talk about Windows falling apart under its own weight of backward compatibility and complexity, of how Microsoft must rewrite from the ground up to save itself. I think that's mostly Linuxian wish-thinking, but MS has announced that Vista will be their last monolithic operating system. I've learned not to trust such pronouncements--We were told Vista would be the "no reboots" OS--but this certainly means their development strategies are changing. I hope support gets simpler.

I think there are solid business reasons why Windows support must remain at or below its current level of complexity, too. Viz: I'm pretty much a generalist, and two decades of MS tea-leaf reading has served me reasonably well at fixing Windows part-time, in between writing strategic assessments for local governments and supporting on-site press event networks. If I had to spend any larger amount of my time staying current just on Windows support, I would be forced to do nothing else to justify the overhead.

That should seem familiar: I just described modern automobile repair. My father recalls tearing down a Model A truck under a tree with a few wrenches, but a luxury car grease monkey spends as much time in continuing education as an Airframe and Powerplant mechanic, and probably makes as much. They're specialists, professionals in every sense of the word, but must have a narrow, specialized focus. That's exactly why we had the PC revolution in the first place--so the common man could use, fix and support his (mostly his, then) own computer, without becoming a PC specialist. If that self-support gets much more difficult, if it needs must become its own specialty, if the priesthood returns, then other, more self-supportable OSes will ascend. Already, Steve Jobs teases Vista by describing five different versions of Leopard (OS 10.5), all costing the same. "We think most people will choose Leopard Ultimate", a slam on the confusingly stratified Vista offerings, since there's only one version of Leopard.

Microsoft has prospered because the fed-uppedness of its vast user (more particularly the user-support) community has remained reasonably level. Yes, there's always been grumbling: without, this column would have run dry twenty years ago. But if the grumbling becomes a roar, if people vote with their feet, then Windows is no longer the king. No amount of additional complexity is going to cure that. I fear that message is lost within the ever-growing Microsoft bureaucracy, and without Bill Gates wielding the flaming sword, I wonder if they will be king in 2012.

Winding Down

The movie of the month is Ratatouille. Pixar has done it again. Brad Bird is not John Lasseter, but it doesn't really matter: the Pixar Disney team knows how to make Disney movies. Not the so-so movies that came out after Walt and the Nine Old Men were gone, but great movies in the same league as Fantasia and Snow White, movies with story and believable characters, movies that leave political correctness behind and just get on with a good story. And make you believe. If they can make you believe that a rat can become a great chef in an expensive Paris restaurant, they can make you believe anything - and they do. Moreover, these are not cute Disneyfied Mickey type rats. These are rats. I can't imagine that any of my readers would not love this movie.

The book of the month is The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb is a financial expert who currently holds the post of Dean's Professor in the Sciences of Uncertainty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This may be the most important book I have read in several years.

That's an odd thing to say, because the book doesn't tell me much I didn't already know. What it does is make me think about things I knew but hadn't appreciated. I am reminded of Samuel Johnson's maxim that men seldom need educating, but they often need reminding.

This book is not easy reading. Don't worry about that. Get a copy and pay attention. Not too much attention: most of us do not really want to live in the world that Taleb inhabits. Like all models of the real world, his has abstractions. On the other hand, most people's models of the real world do not allow for Black Swans - for events that are deemed impossible, but which on reflection are not impossible at all, and often happen.

For example: the stock broker who for ten years gives you advice that allows you to earn 10% return on your investment. Then, suddenly, the market crashes, and you are wiped out, as were many in the dot bust. The broker will continue to insist that his analytic tools were right; the fact that he and his clients lost all their money and would have been better off putting their original capital in government bonds won't be part of his explanations. Those things happen.

The trouble is, sometimes "those things" are the dominant events. Taleb takes care to show that while most of our predictive models are based on bell (normal) curve distributions, not all the critical values in life follow the bell curve. Sometimes the outliers, the extremes, can wash out everything else. Example: take a thousand people at random and stand them in a football stadium. If you take height, or weight, you will get a smooth bell curve "normal" distribution around a reasonable mean. Now go find the tallest man who ever lived and add him to the sample. The mean height changes hardly at all. Find the fattest man who ever lived and add him. The mean weight barely shifts.

Now consider their wealth. Again you will get a relatively normal distribution - but if you add Bill Gates to the sample, the previous statistics are meaningless. There is only one important number in determining the mean.

Taleb seeks to make you aware of Black Swans, of the impossible that isn't really impossible. You'll be better for having thought about that. Recommended.

It's hardly new, but I just finished David Weber's The Short Victorious War, which might be better titled "Captain Honor Harrington Finds Love". I needed some light reading on my trip, and I hadn't read that one before. It's pretty good, presuming that you like space opera. I don't usually review this kind of book because I write that sort of thing myself, and it's hard not to compare. Those who like the Harrington stories will like this one a lot.

As it happens, while I was in Baltimore I was presented with two books prepared by Ad Astra Games, both compiled and edited by Ken Burnside: Jayne's Intelligence Review, one for the Royal Manticoran Navy, the other for the Havenite Republican Navy. These are meticulously worked out catalogs of the space battle fleets of two fictional nations in David Weber's Honor Harrington stories. I liked them enough that I'm looking into having Ad Astra do something similar for some of my science fictional series. Any fan of the Harrington series would find these interesting, and they'd make good gifts.

The Computer Books of the month are from Sybex and instruct you on how to do things with the new Adobe software suites. The first is by Tim Grey, Photoshop CS3 Workflow, the Digital Photographer's Guide. It gets into gory details as it tells you how to set up to do professional level work in digital photography. The second is by Ellen Anon and Tim Grey, and is titled Photoshop CS3 for Nature Photographers. As the name implies, it's about how to get great nature photos using your camera and Photoshop CS3. It goes into details about various tools and how to use them.

I confess to building a large collection of books on the use of the new Adobe tool packages. I want to be ready for the new wave in entertainment when pocket computers are ubiquitous.