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Computing At Chaos Manor:
August 14, 2007

The User's Column, August 2007
Column 325, part 2
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


Continued from last week...

The news from Silicon Valley is simple. Play ball with the government, or be destroyed. Jury nullification won't save you, and the fact that it's hard to find a victim doesn't matter. If you build up a company and make lots of money for the stockholders, you'd better have powerful friends in the government, or face 20 years in prison and fines that will ruin you and your family.

Gregory Reyes found that out the hard way. In 1998 Brocade Communications Systems Inc. of San Jose had $24 million in annual revenue. That grew to $750 million in 2006. Now read the story here.

Reyes was accused of back dating options for nearly all employees, although it was not shown that he did this for himself. Many startups and expansions are financed through stock options, and back dating options (which can't be exercised until the employee is vested by remaining for several years) is a practice that half of Silicon Valley followed. In many cases it hardly mattered, because the companies vanished in the dot bust; but for successful companies such as Brocade and Apple that survived the crash, it may be a different story.

Apple is known to have done much the same thing that Brocade did. Is Steve Jobs next? What homages must Apple and Jobs make to the US Attorney to gain forgiveness from the High Justice?

And that raised the obvious question, is it a good thing for the Republic to have much of the private sector in thrall to the discretionary judgment of officials who serve at the pleasure of the President?

Fair Fight

Interim US Attorney Scott N. Schools has carved another notch on his belt. "I don't think anyone suggested that this was anything other than a fair fight," he said after the trial. It typifies the attitude the government has on a matter of great importance.

Many who were rooting for Reyes relied on jury nullification as defense, but that didn't happen. Reports are that the jury wasn't at all pleased by its own verdict. US Attorneys and Federal Judges are getting better at intimidating jurors all the time, so I am hardly astonished.

Schools became Interim US Attorney for Northern California when his predecessor resigned.

Freedom vs. Regulation

Silicon Valley was built on free wheeling management paying slight attention to accounting rules. The result was a boom and the birth of a new industry.

Human history is largely the story of a society converting more and more of its output to structure, until eventually there is little room for innovation and freedom. The late Stefan Possony and I were working on The Strategy of Progress when Steve died. It is probably time that I dug out our notes and finished the book. There are ways out of this trap; but usually the end of the process is a society of rules and permits.

Sometimes there is a period of freedom; it usually follows a vast expanse of resources and capabilities. The ability of humanity to forge ahead exceeds the ability of bureaucracy to regulate and stifle it. The Discovery of the New World produced such a spurt, and that lasted more than a century. All three Industrial Revolutions did much the same, alas each for a shorter period of freedom before the regulators moved in. The Silicon Valley explosion was the latest.

In every case, bureaucracy and regulation managed to overcome the surge and bring life back under control. We have just seen it happen again. Of course it was to be expected.

The next great expansion of resources is likely to come from access to space resources. Some have noted that NASA may already have that under control. If the only people who can get to space are astronauts in thrall to NASA, there isn't likely to be much in the way of a revolution.

Sarbanes Oxley

The Enron debacle was a great help for those who want to mind everyone else's business. A number of people were ruined, a reputable accounting firm was destroyed (needlessly as it happens) and executives were demonized; the result was, among other things, Sarbanes Oxley, the greatest single boon to overseas investment banking that Congress has ever flown. The disclosure and other regulations make it very difficult for startups in the US, and ensure the employment of lawyers, accountants, and bean counters. One effect is that if you want to finance a startup, you will need to include a couple of employees whose sole purpose is to comply with regulations; this raises the minimum investment needed to float a new company, and thus insures dilution of ownership by the principals who will actually do real work.

Sarbanes Oxley is useful for the government to bring innovators to heel, and creates a "permanent Y2K" situation useful to empire builders both inside companies and also in government. It's a full employment act for the kind of people who want to do that sort of work - and of course these people find ever new requirements within the law, generated even more "need" for their services. So it goes.

Regulation vs. Freedom

Of course there are many who cheer the government on. Some believe that it is far more important to follow proper accounting practices than to build a company. It is part of the eternal war between freedom and regulation. For a long time in the United States, freedom was preferred; but ever since the Great Depression, and particularly since World War II, the decision has been the other way. The United States seems to prefer a world of permits, auditors, accountants, and accountancy rules, all enforced by Federal Police, US Attorneys who serve at the pleasure of the President, and a bureaucracy that exemplifies Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy. It's a pity, but there it is.

Those with more interest in the subject might want to read what Alexis de Tocqueville had to say on democratic despotism.

LapWorks Futura Laptop Desk

I have had about a dozen "laptop desks" over the years. Most of them never even made it on a trip, and none of them went with me to more than one.

I do carry a PC cooling stand (link) which I got from APC a couple of years ago. Laptops get hot, and I find mine works better when it sits on this stand; and the stand folds up nicely so that it goes into the case with the PC.

Now I have the LapWorks Laptop Desk & Desktop Stand. It works quite well, and I may replace the APC stand with it. It came with me to the beach house, and does about as good a job of holding the IBM ThinkPad t42p as the APC, and is actually a little less bulky in the carrying case.

Moreover, given the heat generated by most laptops, few "laptops" are used on your lap, at least not for long. I've long tried to avoid working with a laptop on my lap anyway: if there's any possibility of a table, I'll grab that when I want to write, just as I try to find some place to put my food at standup receptions and parties. I used to be an expert at finding obscure tables hiding behind potted palms when I had to go to parties in Washington.

The LapWorks Laptop Desk will work to let you keep the machine on your lap: at least it won't roast you.

If you plan on using the LapWorks for actually using your laptop on your lap, there are two models; one is wider and allows use of an external mouse (link). The other pretty well requires you to use the laptop's built-in pointing device.

I doubt I will ever become an advocate of writing with a laptop on my lap, but I have found myself in places where I had to do that, and the LapWorks devices certainly will make that a lot easier if I have to do it again. The Futura (which is the short one: see this) now goes into the Targus Ultra-Lite along with my ThinkPad. It keeps the ThinkPad cool on a desk, and my lap cool when I have to work that way. Recommended.

Peter Glaskowsky adds:

At home, I use a Targus Chill Mat, which uses a couple of fans to keep my MacBook Pro cool. It's a little narrower than the laptop, but that's okay. I wouldn't want something wider, because the laptop itself bumps into armrests more than enough already.

I made two modifications. One was to shorten the USB power cord to about four inches, slightly more than the minimum necessary to reach a USB port on my laptop, and in the process removing the power switch which would turn itself off with the slightest touch. The other was to replace the small rubber bumpers on the top (visible as black dots on the web page above) with much taller rubber feet left over from an old desktop PC case. Now the back edge of the laptop has about three- quarters of an inch of clearance above the Chill Mat, which seems to help the airflow a lot.

Without the Chill Mat, the MacBook Pro gets hot enough that simply typing on it is uncomfortable-- never mind what would happen to my legs. With the Chill Mat, the keyboard and palm-rest areas are barely warmer than ambient temperature, and I'm much happier.

At the office, I use a beefier product from Titan Computer. Mine doesn't have the silly graphics shown there, fortunately. This is a solid aluminum product intended for desktop use; it can't really be used in one's lap. I haven't modified this unit, but I do use a pair of Sanford Magic-Rub white erasers to lift up the back edge of the laptop.

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Modern laptops get very warm. Putting them on a table without any kind of support can let them heat up a lot. Intel chips (and presumably current AMD chips) merely slow down when they get too hot, but that "mere" can be quite annoying. The LapWorks Futura fits into the case with the laptop, and is thus almost always available. We don't currently have a MacBook Pro although I intend to get one, but my PowerBook can get pretty hot if simply put on a desktop. The Futura, and the passive AMD laptop cooling stand mentioned above have always been good enough for the PowerBook.

Peter believes that modern laptops - read dual core systems - should have some kind of external fan system for best results. There will be more on this in next week's mailbag. Stay tuned.

Multiple Cores

AMD is bringing out a quad-core chip and Intel has what amounts to dual dual-core chips to counter that. Intel, AMD and Sun Micro all have 8-core systems with various degrees of integration. Peter Glaskowsky, a former Editor in Chief of Microprocessor Report, notes that

AMD, Intel, and Sun all have 8-core systems.

Sun's unique product is an 8-core _chip_ officially called the UltraSPARC T1 but code-named Niagara. The cores are individually simple, but for inherently multithreaded applications such as Web serving, the T1 is very efficient. Sun's just weeks away from rolling out the UltraSPARC T2, which also has eight cores but is much more sophisticated.

And there's more to come. There's no doubt that great expansion of our hardware capabilities is inevitable. This is the wave of the future, but I do wonder why anyone (other than mad gamers and really advanced graphics artists) find them interesting. Just now the long pole in the tent is software.

For most of what I do, the dual-core systems I have are plenty good enough. The only program I have that runs noticeably slow is Outlook, and when it slows down it really slows down.

I have found that for my communications machine, it's best to confine Outlook to one of the dual cores. That doesn't seem to have much effect on Outlook, which remains piggy and slow, but it does stop Outlook from bringing everything else to its knees - and it doesn't have all that big an effect on Outlook. If you're trying to read your mail when Outlook decides to go bring in more, you'll find the awkward halts and pauses take just a bit longer with Outlook confined to a single core - but it won't be a lot longer, and if you're doing something else like writing in Word or doing some web browsing, you won't get the glitches at all.

In other words, for most of what I do, there would be no advantage to adding more cores unless I could somehow assign the extra power to Outlook and keep Outlook from usurping all the resources. Of course I don't do really large spread sheets with complex formulae; those who do may want more computer power.

Anyway, I will build a system around one of the new AMD quad-core chips, and another around Intel's reply, and we'll see what happens. I suppose I need to devise some bench mark programs. The problem is that the activities that eat the most computing cycles tend to involve video, and modern video boards are more powerful than the computers we had not long ago. Given my background I think of big matrix inversion programs as a good way to stress the system. Peter Glaskowsky suggests video encoding.

We all guess at the future (although if we get paid enough we call it forecasting). My guess is that the real effect of multiple cores will be to allow simultaneous use of a number of operating systems. I really do look forward to the day when I can be running Windows, Linux, and Apple OS all at once depending on which is best for which application I am running, and my computer will neither know nor care which OS it's running at the moment.

In this context see this link.

While most won't make a conscious practice of running more than one OS at a time, the "virtual appliances" described in that blog entry will produce a similar result. The big result of all this hardware power will be to make the operating system irrelevant. That may take a while, but it's probably inevitable.