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Computing At Chaos Manor:
July 31, 2007

The User's Column, July 2007
Column 324, part 4
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week...

Begin with this: if you want a picture of the future, go to this link and watch the video. This is another look at "Surface computing" in which coffee tables, wall mirrors, and other flat objects become fully interactive multi-user computer interfaces. We're told these will be available about the end of this year. Apply Moore's Law, and think about the pocket computer I described in The Mote In God's Eye in 1972.

Blu-Ray Winning?

Many of us have been confused about what to buy, Blu-ray or HD DVD? Some remember Sony's Betamax vs. JVC's VHS formats for video cassette recorders. VHS won, largely because you could record more on a VHS tape, even though many purists insisted that Betamax was a superior technology. Those who bought Betamax eventually had to get a VHS VCR as well.

It may play out that way again. Blu-ray holds more: more data, or longer movies. In any event, a number of major consumer electronics channels have dropped HD DVD from show room shelves. Target and Blockbuster, for instance, will only sell HD DVD from web sites; you can't find them on the store shelves. They were recently joined by BJ's Wholesale Club. Market analysts predict a trend.

Consumer electronics standards tend to be a bit like classical infantry battles: there's a long struggle, nothing much happens, then one side begins to break. Shortly after, there's a rout, and one of the standards vanishes.

I've so far managed to live without either Blu-ray or HD DVD, largely because I don't have time to watch movies at home on either one. I suppose I'll eventually succumb to the high definition craze, but I'm in no hurry.


If you haven't read last week's column, you probably ought to go do so, because even with this summary the tale may not make a lot of sense without more context.

Last week I detailed my problems with the New AT&T Cingular wireless service. Those were largely caused by my inattention: ten years ago I signed up for a plan with Pacific Bell that didn't require me to pay for incoming calls. Over the years Pacific Bell was bought out, the buyer was merged with someone else, it all became Cingular, then the old AT&T, then the new AT&T; and in all that time I did nothing. I simply stayed with The Plan, paying no attention to details. Then the problems came; as I said, go read last week's column for details.

Last Wednesday we drove down to the beach house, where I expect to finish the changes our editor wanted in INFERNO II. The good news is that he thinks the book can be promoted and is a potential best seller. The bad news was ten pages of notes, all of which have to be dealt with, and an escape to the beach where I can work without distractions seemed in order.

We had no sooner got here and lugged all the gear inside when my cell phone rang. I answered to discover that the caller was an official in the Office of the President - I could hear the capital letters in his voice. Apparently someone in the Office of the President had read my column, and this pleasant chap had been assigned to make friends. He had all my phone records, and apparently had recordings of the conversations described in last week's column.

I pointed out that I had just had a long drive. Then I asked if they were going to charge me for this incoming call? I had just come to San Diego. Was I about to be stuck for "roaming" as well? There was a momentary pause, and I was assured that I wouldn't have to pay for this call.

It seems that over time the Plan Has Changed, and I probably was notified by mail. I had to confess that I often get notices enclosed with my bill. When they have an offer they want me to accept - and generally will cost me money - it's in large type and contrasting colors. Sometimes there are long and complicated notices in fine print. Like most people I simply pay my bill and ignore all that. I probably shouldn't have.

In any event, my Plan wasn't very good any longer. It no longer covered incoming calls, and cost me too much for what I was getting. I needed to change to a New Plan that would give me more service for about the same costs.

"I suppose it will cost me to change plans? And I have to sign up for some long term contract?" I said; but I found that wasn't true. Due to my long and faithful record as a good customer all that would be waived. I also got an apology for being harassed about a bill that was one or two days late (and which had been paid and the check received before they started calling me).

I have to say I was impressed. AT&T has at least one persuasive executive who isn't easily ruffled when talking to an irritable curmudgeon not on his best behavior.

I also knew from the responses to last week's column - see a selection in this week's mail (link) - that AT&T Cingular is sound technically and has good coverage. I know I can get a strong signal all over my neighborhood in Studio City including in my office, and all over Mission Beach including at our condominium. I have no complaints about the telephone itself. And, of course, I have a name and telephone number of an AT&T executive who went out of his way to remain calm and polite despite my best efforts to upset him.

So I agreed.

It certainly won't do any harm to try the New Plan. Alas, because all this was done on the telephone, and my log notes aren't very good, I'll have to wait until I get home to get the details of the New Plan. I'll give it a try and let you know how it works. I am assured that I can get out of it without further obligations.

And the message I have from the Office of the President is that the New A&T does care. Really.

AT&T Sends Email

I am not sure what this means, but it came Friday:

Dear Customer:

Thank you for your recent inquiry regarding your Cingular service. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you. The issue has been resolved.

Should you have any further needs regarding this issue, please do not hesitate to call us at 1 800 331-0500 and reference the tracking number shown above.

Cingular Wireless

On The Road

I brought three computers down here. They're all IBM/Lenovo ThinkPads. One is my old standby, Orlando the T42-P that I have had a couple of years and still think of as "the new laptop." The second is a Titanium Z-series; and the third is a ThinkPad TabletPC. I don't really need all that machinery, but this is a trip, and it did seem like a good way to do some product testing; and I do sometimes like editing with stylus on a TabletPC.

One thing I brought down was a LapWorks laptop desk which I have had for several weeks now. It has served me well at home as a desk stand for my laptop - high performance laptops can get pretty warm - as well as its more intended function of allowing me to hold the laptop on my lap without frying myself. Recommended.

I also have two new cases, a Targus Ultra-Lite Corporate Traveler Notebook Case, and a Briggs & Riley travel companion roll-on. Orlando rides in the Targus laptop case - it's his new home when he's being moved, even just going from my office to the Monk's Cell - and the Tablet PC nestles safely in the protected and padded laptop section of the Briggs & Riley roll-on. Both these new cases have been added to my recommended list.

I had intended to review all three of these travel aids this month, but given the length of the reviews below I have put that ahead to next week. If you're thinking of getting a laptop case or a travel roll-on, wait for the review. You'll like these.

Winding Down

The game of the month remains World of Warcraft. I have acquired a few new games, but I just haven't had the chance to install them. I did try to get the old Sid Meier Railroad Tycoon to run properly, but that didn't work. I think I will have to install a virtual machine and run it in that. I doubt that would take more than an afternoon, but lately my afternoons have been dedicated to fiction. By evening I've used up my quota of mental energy. I find I can play World of Warcraft in that state, but I sure am not up to installing a virtual machine. So it goes.

The movie of the month is Nancy Drew. I doubt it will be in theaters much longer, but if it happens to be in your local theater you'll probably like it. There are no real surprises in this movie. Emma Roberts looks a lot like her Aunt Julia, but she's quite young and looks the part of an ingenue in high school. The gimmick in the film is that Nancy Drew, while an A student with great experience in detective work, is as naive and innocent as the Nancy Drew of the early novels. The first Nancy Drew stories came out in 1930, and when the series was revised after World War II, Nancy retained the innocence of earlier times. That remains in this film, even after Nancy moves to Los Angeles and goes to Hollywood High. The contrast between the virginal small town girl and today's Hollywood High hipsters makes for some very funny scenes. Emma Roberts does the seemingly impossible job of making this seem real while you're watching it.

There were many teen aged girls in the audience where we saw this movie, and they all seemed to like the movie although it's unlikely that many had ever read the books. Roberta used to be addicted to the Nancy Drew novels. She loved this movie.

We also saw No Reservations, a very lighthearted romantic comedy with the charming Catherine Zeta-Jones, the handsome Aaron Eckhart, and Abigail Breslin. There are no surprises in this movie, but there aren't any shockers either; it's precisely what you expect from a lighthearted romantic comedy. The characters are in character, the skits and incidents can be hilarious, there's just enough pathos - in a word, it's the feel good movie of the summer. Go see it if you're down.

The books of the month are Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, and Thomas McCraw, Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction.

Schumpeter was a very interesting man, and his biography is well worth reading. McCraw does a good job of embedding the Austrian School economist in his times. He also provides an excellent introduction into Schumpeter's work.

Schumpeter probably understood capitalism better than any other economist. He also understood that it was a more fragile system than most supposed, and that Capitalism and Democracy were not entirely compatible. Under the older regimes the leadership class came from the aristocratic military officer corps. There is a certain romance to the old aristocracy that is entirely lacking in the bourgeois regimes that nurture capitalism. It may be irrational, but people are more willing to follow a military hero - or a prince, or a lord - than someone who has made a fortune in dry goods. This is one of the explanations for why democratic societies often adopt measures that are very bad for the institution of democracy. Schumpeter gives considerable insight into the conditions that capitalism needs for survival.

Schumpeter wrote many parts of his book in ironic mode. It was more obvious when he wrote the book which parts were ironic and which were deadly serious. Today, many institutions which Schumpeter parodied are now implemented, and they are failing for precisely the reasons that made him ridicule them.

McCraw's biography is very good on showing where Schumpeter was being ironic. This biography and Shumpeter's major work are not light reading, but they ought to be widely read. Indeed, these two books and a few weeks of study will teach you more about economics than several semesters of economics as taught in most universities.

While I am on the subject of economic education: the Austrian school of economics has proven itself to be both predictive and explanatory. Despite Nixon's inane remark that we are all Keynesians now, it's pretty clear that the Austrians have the better understanding of how the world works.

However, if you want to understand the world as it might (and I think should) be, in addition to Schumpeter one ought to be exposed to "the forgotten Austrian" Wilhelm Roepke, whose major work is A Humane Economy. Roepke understands that human beings have souls and hearts, and that there is more to life than the mere accumulation of goods. Unrestricted Free Trade Capitalism will almost certainly maximize the production of cheap goods and services; it also contains the seeds of its own destruction, a fact known to many besides Karl Marx. A free economy is important; there is no freedom without a high degree of economic freedom. On the other hand, there are common goals and institutions which must be preserved. Unrestricted capitalism often creates a kind of tragedy of the commons and a race to the bottom that is very bad for long term stability. Roepke understands these matters better than most.

The first computer book of the month is Richard Wagner and Richard Mansfield, Creating Web Pages for Dummies, All In One Desk Reference. The value of this book lies in the "All In One Reference"; it really is that. The book looks at many different web creation tools, including the latest Adobe Dreamweaver and Microsoft Expression Web. It looks at Java and Flash, XML and XHTML, Cascading Style Sheets, and just about any other web mystery you might want to know about. It doesn't go into them in detail. As an example, the index has no reference to "spelling" or "spell checking" or indeed anything with the word "spell". I looked because I wanted to know whether the new Microsoft successor to FrontPage does spell checking. I think it does, but I didn't find that out from this book.

The book has other limits, but it is still the best single volume reference work on modern web creation tools I know of. Recommended.

The second computer book of the month is more comprehensive and is very nearly an education in itself. This is the second edition of Douglas K. Van Duyne, James A. Landay, and Jason I. Hong, The Design of Sites (Prentice Hall). The subtitle, Patterns for Creating Winning Web Sites, is of course mostly advertising blurb, but it's not all that bad a description of the book, which is about patterns. While intended for the hard core programming professionals, this book can be read with considerable profit by advertising managers, creative design artists, and for that matter, anyone who might be a customer looking for a web site designer. I doubt that this book alone will allow a baker to go design and implement his own web site, but I do think the book would be well worth its cost in both money and time to that baker - or anyone else contemplating paying money for a web site design.

Indeed, it's on my list for slow and careful reading. One of these days I'll redesign The View from Chaos Manor and while this book is more oriented toward those who are looking to make money from a commercial web site, the principles for being user friendly are worth thinking about. Recommended.