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Computing At Chaos Manor:
August 22, 2007

The User's Column, August 2007
Column 325, part 3
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


Continued from last week...

Just when we thought it was safe to buy Blu-Ray and forget HD DVD, Paramount and Dreamworks announced that they'll abandon Blu-Ray. Now what?

Spielberg isn't so sure, so movies he directs will be released in both formats, but Dreamworks is going HD DVD all the way. If you want to see Transformers or Shrek the Third, you need the Toshiba device.

HD DVD systems sell for about $300, and if you count stand alone players there are a lot more of them out in Consumerland than Blu-Ray; but then Sony's Playstation 3 comes with a Blu-Ray player, and if you count those, Blu-Ray wins by the numbers. Alas and alack, Playstation owners don't buy as many movies as stand-alone DVD player owners, and that was one reason for the Paramount decision.

I'm not sure there's any cosmic significance to this. Technology marches on, and one way or another there will be a convergence. If you want my opinion, I like Blu-Ray because the disks hold more; but it's not a strong preference.

Update Blues

I usually leave Alexis, my communications system turned on day and night. Alexis is an AMD X2 dual core system running Windows XP. We're connected through a D-Link Gaming Router (Recommended) to the Internet cable modem, and Outlook goes out and looks for new mail every now and then. That way the email is more or less current whenever I look at this computer.

I have Alexis set for automatic updates, which means that every Wednesday morning I'll see the login screen and a message that my computer was automatically updated and had to be restarted. I'm used to that.

Last week, though, this seemed to happen every day, including Sunday morning. I thought that was wretched excess, and it caused me to worry: was there something fundamentally wrong with that system?

Virus Checking

I don't keep a virus checking program on my machines. Outlook is slow enough in bringing in email and applying spam filters and rules. Adding a virus checking system would keep me from getting any work done at all. My virus protection is simple: all my messages are previewed in plain text, I never open unexpected attachments no matter who they are from, and I'm pretty careful about what links I follow. It's not a perfect system, but it seems to be good enough.

However, when I saw that Sunday morning reset after two previous ones last week, I wondered if my system had been infected. Probably not, but it wouldn't do any harm to check. The only problem was that I didn't have any up to date virus checking software.

A quick visit to the Symantec web site found their free Norton system checking program. It downloads easily, and I presume it's as up to date as anything the company offers. It takes a while to run, but that didn't bother me. It downloads and installs in a couple of minutes. I brought it in and got it running. Then we went out on our usual Sunday morning sojourn to church and then lunch at Sportsman's Lodge.

When we came back the garage door wouldn't open. We thought it was a low battery in the signal system but when I went inside I found there was no power and I had to open the door by hand. There was no power in the house. Worse, although nearly every system we have is on an UPS, none of them will run more than a couple of hours; and it had been about three hours since the power failure. All systems were down and out.

Power

I like to think I'm prepared for disasters, but I'm not; as I suspect you aren't. This was a good test of what I haven't done. For one thing, I have too many systems powered by my Falcon UPS in the cable room. I need to install a second one that runs the router, the wireless access point, the Ethernet switch, the cable modem - and nothing else. That way I can always get on line with a laptop even if every other system is off line.

My present arrangement has too much other stuff on the same Falcon UPS. It's fine if all I want to do is an orderly shutdown when power fails, but that wasn't what happened this time. I clearly need to reconfigure things, possibly making use of the Falcon UPS ability to run scripts when a power failure is detected. The first thing, though, is to shift the vital communications systems to a single UPS, and put everything else in the cable room on another.

There weren't any real consequences to this power failure. Some of my systems had shut down. Some had not. Roberta's system was working just fine, but of course she couldn't get on line because the switch and router in the cable room were unpowered.

Actually, I had at least one charged UPS I could have used to bring up any machine with data I need, which means I could get all needed data onto the ThinkPad. The local Starbucks not far from here has a T-Mobile hot spot; that's the same service that's in American Airlines Ambassador Clubs, so I don't even need to buy any coffee to get secure access to the Internet. I didn't make use of it this time, but I have used that access in the past.

About 5 PM the power came back on. After power was restored I ran the on-line anti-virus scan again. It found nothing. My system also has Microsoft One-Care, which is good enough anti-spyware protection.

So far as I can tell, there's nothing wrong with my system. It just needed a lot of updates and resets this week. And after all that, on Monday night Windows Defender told me I needed to go to updates; it proceeded to feed me Windows Genuine Advantage for about the 25th time. I don't know what else it downloaded and installed.

I'm not sure there is a moral to this story.

Thoughts on Home Servers

Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey points out that one consequence of not running virus checks on incoming mail is that I may be vulnerable to exploits in the programs that do spam checking and run the rules that sort my mail into various folders. He also thinks Outlook is slow because I have large .pst folders.

All true, but given the volume of mail I get, checking all of it for viruses would slow operations here to a halt. I know, because I have periodically tried it. Even the fastest virus checking programs take far too long.

As to the sizes of Outlook .pst folders, I do keep the current outlook.pst under a gigabyte by frequent archiving, and so far I haven't found any automatic method for keeping it smaller. I expect I have been told various methods, but if so, it went in one ear and out the other. I do see that the current archives folder is enormous, so it's probably time to start a new one, once I figure out how I did that the last two or three times.

One way to do virus checking would be to run a local mail server that would periodically go out and get the mail, run virus checking on it as it brings it in, and then feed it to Outlook. I've periodically considered doing this: it's something to write about. Fiction deadlines have slowed down my habit of doing lots of silly things so you don't have to, but I haven't quit. Besides, this might work to speed things up. Candidates for mail server include a Mini-Mac, Windows Home Server, and a Linux box. Clearly the Ubuntu Linux Box would be the cheapest alternative.

At which point Brian says:

Repeat after me. You *DO NOT* want to have a box auto-pull your mail from the server to home. You'll leave it running when you go to the beach, and have no email. You'll leave it running when you go to a meeting, a con, to visit Philip, and you'll have no email.

You're not in a position to have a home email server, and I *strongly* recommend against it.

Of course Brian's organization provides my email, and he's the first one I call when I have problems, so he has a stake in this...

Which means I have no real incentive to have any kind of home mail server. Which means inertia rules...

Many of you have written to tell me I shouldn't be having these problems. I can only say the "problems" aren't that severe; but I do get a lot of incoming mail, and running a virus checker here slows things to an unbearable crawl. Maybe a quad system will allow me to devote one core to anti-virus, two more to Outlook, and the last one to everything else.

We'll see. I don't have time to think about it now. For the moment, Inferno II eats all my time: finishing the book recedes like dreams. We've added 9,000 words in response to our editor's suggestions. I know two more scenes that the book needs, and I have them in my head; but every day I find other things to add and I haven't got to them yet.

After Inferno II comes Mamelukes, the next book in the long delayed Janissaries series. In between books I've already decided to build a screaming new Quad system; that will replace one of the main systems, meaning I'll have a tried and tested box to put a server on. That should be a good time to reorganize things here.

After which I have three more novels in mind, one of them being the next big book with Niven. My wife keeps telling me I'm lucky: I've got more work than I have time to do, and that beats the daylights out of the alternative.

Updates and ThinkPads

Orlando, the IBM ThinkPad T42p also got updated a couple of times last week, but not, I think, as often as the AMD-based system. This doesn't seem reasonable, but that's what the logs show. I'm sure I could figure it out, but it's hardly worth it.

One of the ThinkPad updates seems to have mucked up the Wireless network acquisition settings.

An IBM ThinkPad running Windows XP has two ways to access a wireless network. One is to let IBM do it. The other is to let Windows XP do it. If both try, neither works.

I usually let Windows take care of this. For several weeks I have daily closed the lid on Orlando, and carried him upstairs to the Monk's Cell where I write fiction. I plug in power and attach the Microsoft Laser Wireless Keyboard and Mouse to the USB port. I attach the ViewSonic 21" monitor to the video outlet. Then I open the lid.

The system wakes up, asks for a fingerprint login, and when it believes it's really me everything is fine. By the time I sit down at the keyboard to work Orlando has logged in to my local wireless Internet access, and I can tap into web resources. I need that: Inferno II has a lot of people in it, and I need to look up details of their lives before I put them in Hell.

Last week, though, after one of those system updates, this didn't work. Instead of using Windows XP to log in, the system was trying to use the IBM access software - but that wasn't set up properly. So. Click on the access icon in the tray. Try to get a survey of wireless networks. Be told that some other software is doing that, if I want Windows to do it open this link, then open advance, tell Windows to do it. I do that. Then I watch Windows make the connection - and watch the IBM software jump in and wreck the connection. And when I try to look at the available networks, I discover that it was all in vain: I am told that some other software is doing that, and if I want Windows to do it, open this link, etc.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. I guess I went insane because I tried this three times; each time I checked the box to tell the system I want Windows to make the wireless connection, and each time the connection would be made after which the IBM software would jump in and blow things up (and the "let Windows do it" box would again be unchecked).

It took darned near forever to find out how to turn off the IBM access software and get things going so that Windows would do it automatically as it had last week. (Well, perhaps not forever, but nearly an hour.) Eventually I got that set up, and I am back to the way it used to be: open the lid, log in, and if there's a wireless network the computer recognizes (my own Belkin Pre-n Wireless here at Chaos Manor, T-Mobile Hot Spots, the wireless setup at the beach house) it logs on and gives the password. I'm instantly connected.

I have no idea what caused that painless system to stop working, but the only - only - changes made to that laptop were automatic system updates. Whatever they were patching on Windows XP, it must have had something to do with wireless access. I guess they're playing with the drivers again.

The moral of this story is that it's a lot easier to take excursions from success than from failure: I have carefully recorded all the different wireless settings for both Windows and the IBM access software. Next time it won't take an hour.

Vista

My Vista system only got one automatic update last week. I don't know what improvement it made, but it sure killed my dynamic Moonscape desktop. So far I haven't been able to restore that. That Moonscape desktop was one of the things I liked about Vista. With that gone, I am more and more tempted to put XP on this system and be done with it.

I notice that more and more computer writers and columnists have given up on Vista. This includes PC Magazine's Jim Louderback, who was one of the early Vista enthusiasts. Read this article. That prompted some comments by Chaos Manor Associate Eric Pobirs:

I'm surprised Louderback's announcement hasn't got more emphasis. After my embitterment at the MWD's train wreck project, I can sympathize. (Technically, it isn't Vista's fault but the idiotic way the project was designed had at its root an intent to deploy Vista far too early and with grossly inadequate preparation.) Microsoft has had several patches that fixed compatibility issues for a lot of applications but they've still been far too slow on offering fixes for many complaints.

Sleep, for instance. The Intel based system I built seems to sleep alright but the Nvidia/AMD box I made for my sister still has major problems in that area.

Changing the right-click access to the network properties is a real irritation. I suspect the rationale was to channel less knowledgeable users through a path that would show them the whole array of tools but those of use who frequently need quick access to the basic networking details on client systems feel completely bolluxed. How hard would it have been to offer another item on the right-click menu to the tray's network icon, allowing both choices? It isn't really helping the novices all that much. Instead, it's making things harder for the guys doing tech support by phone, since it adds additional steps to walk the user through. And if the novice should learn enough to start dealing with this information themselves, they in turn will be frustrated by the lack of fast access.

There is always the command line but novices are terrified by it and it can be very painful to get them to execute even simple commands. And that raises another complaint. A long running complaint, especially for network admins, was that the Windows Server CLI was incomplete, leaving many important functions available solely through the GUI, which was very annoying for those adept at using the more advanced features of a command line interface. Well, there is a reverse of this complaint. IPCONFIG is a hugely important app for solving network issues. The Win9x GUI version, WINIPCFG, was extremely helpful for over-the-telephone tech support. Once they user got the GUI applet up he no longer had to type entries and was easier to guide.

This worked well but was not offered in 2K/XP, even though XP was intended to become the mainstream consumer OS. The odd thing is, Microsoft did produce a GUI version of IPCONFIG for 2K/XP but only made it available as a download and not as part of the default XP installation. XP does add a tab to the properties for each network connection that display the IP data but not the commands for talking to the DHCP server. There is a repair button but that isn't as useful when trying to do diagnosis.

I find myself wishing that Microsoft was paying closer attention to OS X. Not so as to copy stuff but to see the evolution that has taken place across the versions. There were things in the earlier versions that made getting online harder than it should have been. It was hard to find certain info or tell if a change had taken effect. Those complaints were heard and later releases were improved in those areas. This was over the course of several years but why should a witness working on their own product reproduce that pace. There is a difference between just copying for parity and observing something done right, and choosing to do the same.

Now it's true that most Vista problems are with older systems "upgraded" rather than with new systems that came with Vista installed. On the other hand, I've had nothing but grief with networking on my Lenovo ThinkPad TabletPC that came with Vista Business. The TabletPC part works well: Vista seems to have a much better handwriting recognition engine than the XP TabletPC OS. On the other hand, the general operation is mushier. I am seriously thinking of scrubbing that Lenovo Tablet and installing Windows XP Tablet Edition before trying to write a comparison between Lisabetta, my ancient HP TabletPC, and the new Lenovo. The Lenovo certainly has better hardware, and when things work it's of course much faster; but I have had a slew of minor problems, almost all associated with Vista.

I keep looking for reasons why I might prefer Vista to XP; I have to say I don't really have any other than the better handwriting recognition. Vista is prettier, but I don't think of anything I can do with it that I didn't do with XP - except, perhaps, my dynamic Moonscape desktop, and now that doesn't work either.

I have always advised readers not to "upgrade" a working system from XP to Vista. I am coming to the conclusion that you shouldn't get a Vista system at all until the inevitable Service Pack comes out: if you can't find a new Core 2 Duo system with XP, then think seriously about putting off a new purchase at all. Upgrade your present system. Add memory and larger hard drives. Make do with what you have.

Or think about getting a Mac.