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Computing At Chaos Manor:
August 28, 2007

The User's Column, August 2007
Column 325, part 4
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week...

A number of problems with Windows Vista playing streaming media, complicated with some people finding their systems were pronounced piratical because the Windows WGA servers either crashed or were overloaded, have raised questions about Digital Rights Management. It's not actually established that DRM was strictly the cause of either of these problems; but of course WGA is by definition a kind of Digital Rights Management. Apparently Vista failing a WGA test has far more serious consequences than when XP decides it isn't genuine. I'm told all this is being fixed and I can hope so: but for now it's one more reason to stay with XP until all this dust settles.

Those interested in the WGA glitch and just what handicaps are imposed on Vista systems with WGA failure can find out more at this link.

As to the streaming media glitches, while there has been considerable discussion of DRM and Windows designs, it doesn't look as if that's the actual problem here. We had an enormous discussion of all this in my advisors conference, and I felt a bit whelmed; but then Rick Hellewell posted this:

[Windows Vista Blog link], wherein Nick White references the Mark Russinovich post and summarizes thusly:

"The explanation is quite technical and rather esoteric, but the gist is that when receiving data on faster networks, the number of system interrupts is increased and because network-driven system interrupts are handled at higher priority than media playback, multimedia playback can be affected if the number of network-driven interrupts outpaces content refilling the multimedia playback buffer. Mark's full explanation is quite a bit more detailed -- I've only described it here in outline."

" While this behavior is by design, the throttling parameters as shipped caused greater-than-anticipated degradation on gigabit Ethernet systems. In addition, there's also a related bug we've identified in scenarios involving multiple NICs but for which we're scheduling a fix."

At this point I was entirely whelmed. Rick added

If you read Mark R's blog entry on the subject, you will see that he explains the reason (and the conditions to duplicate) for the 'throttling'. Here's his conclusion:

"The throttling rate Vista uses was derived from experiments that reliably achieved glitch-resistant playback on systems with one CPU on 100Mb networks with high packet receive rates. The hard-coded limit was short-sighted with respect to today's systems that have faster CPUs, multiple cores and Gigabit networks, and in addition to fixing the bug that affects throttling on multi-adapter systems, the networking team is actively working with the MMCSS team on a fix that allows for not so dramatically penalizing network traffic, while still delivering a glitch-resistant experience."

Some of this is a bit over my 'technical head', but I was able to understand the explanation by Mark R.

Rick Hellewell

At which point I felt better. If Hellewell, a security expert who works at this stuff full time, has trouble getting his head around the problem, it's not likely I'll understand it without more work than I want to put into it. Smart people are aware of the problems, and they're working on them.

Peter Glaskowsky notes that hiring Russinovich was one of the smartest things Microsoft has done. We could all agree on that.

The bottom line is that this is a Vista design flaw that is being repaired, and there's no real evidence that it has anything to do with DRM.

The matter of Digital Rights Management remains. Within a few years I expect paperback book sales to collapse; their place will be taken by electronic books. This won't happen until most of us routinely carry a reading device; but that won't be long now that iPhone has shown the way. Once people carry a good ebook reader as their telephone, they'll prefer ebooks to actual things you have to carry.

Paperback book royalties are a large part of many authors' incomes; without them, many writers wouldn't be able to write. I am aware of the argument that people will pay reasonable fees without being forced to. I also know the percentage of readers of this column who subscribe. You do want to subscribe, yes?

We're not going to settle the DRM question here. I do say that it won't go away. From my view, if there were a good technical way to make electronic book sales much like regular book sales - if you want to give away a book, you can't do that and keep it as well - I would cheer for DRM. On the other hand, if DRM makes life difficult for paying customers, that's not good.

I think we're just going to have to watch and see what technology can accomplish. With luck we'll still be able to collect royalties. On that score, I just got some reasonable advances on electronic rights to several of my older fiction works, so Baen Books obviously thinks we can both make some money with ebooks.

Winding Down

The movie of the month is The Bourne Ultimatum. This film had the biggest ever August opening day, and I can't imagine there are many readers who haven't seen some of the hype. It is about what you'd expect, almost two hours of non-stop action adventure, with almost no slow scenes. Bourne once again outsmarts the entire CIA and NSA organizations, outfights both the US assassination teams sent against him and the police departments of several major cities, and manages to save his girlfriend.

The film has obviously been cut: there are hints of subplots that never appear, and a definite indication that Bourne and Nicky Parsons have had an affair that Bourne doesn't remember, but she does. One also wonders just how supposedly competent intelligence people - they were able to train Bourne, and he's certainly competent - managed to post to this Treadway Project several ruthlessly incompetent people and one venial crook. I kept hoping they'd explain that, but they didn't. One supposes some of the missing scenes will be in the DVD, but given the way that movie continues to sell in theaters, it may be a while before you can see it.

Of course Hollywood almost always portrays the CIA as incompetent. Note that most intelligence agencies prefer to be thought bumbling and incapable, at least by their enemies.

Unlike most trilogies, the Bourne series holds up quite well. If you liked the first two Bourne movies you'll like this one. If you didn't see them, I can't tell you whether you'll like this one, or even if it will make sense.

I have no new game of the month. I still play World of Warcraft late at night after I have worked on fiction all day and my brain has turned to mush, and once in a while I pay a visit to Second Life just to see what's going on there; but in reality I don't get to either very often. Oh. Well.

What I really want is some bug fixes and some means of adjusting non-sea trade incomes in the original Medieval: Total War. That game is script driven, and allows you to change initial conditions, the map, units, and research. I find it superior to Medieval II, although that is also a great game. One day I'll look into what I can do with the original Medieval; but there are already a number of wonderful makeovers available on line. The script-driven nature of the game made it superior to most others; alas, they didn't use scripts in the latest Total War games.

The book of the month is American Prometheus, The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The book won a Pulitzer Prize, which tells you it will be politically correct or nearly so, regarding the Communist Party and its objectives. You won't find anything about Stalin's crimes, the artificial famine in the Ukraine, or that the USSR stacked up more bodies than Hitler ever managed; and very little about the slavish subordination of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) to Moscow. There is nothing about Party discipline.

Now it's certainly true that many fellow travelers and even "special" CPUSA Members, were merely sympathizers with popular front causes. Those who want to understand some of that era would do well to read dos Passos' Midcentury. There were legitimate reasons to be sympathetic with left wing causes. Whether someone as intelligent as Oppenheimer became one of those whom Lenin called "useful idiots" is another story.

Bird and Sherwin certainly try to show Oppenheimer in a sympathetic light, and often succeed. What they don't manage is to justify the lax security at Los Alamos. While telephone calls were monitored (for a while the only telephone was on the desk of General Groves) and outgoing mail was censored, there were also unsupervised leaves of absence for key workers at the Atomic City. Several of them were known by Oppenheimer to be full card carrying Members of CPUSA, and thus subject to Party discipline; yet they were allowed to leave the campus and travel. One of them, Ted Hall, was given a fourteen day leave; in 1944 he took a train to New York City and walked into the Soviet Trade Mission headquarters, where he told them everything he knew about the Manhattan Project. He knew a lot, including both the Uranium (Little Boy) and Plutonium (Fat Man) bomb designs, and a lot about the rather tricky implosion lens needed to detonate a Plutonium fission weapon.

I can recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand Oppenheimer; but perhaps one might want to read Koba the Dread, by Martin Amis to get some notion of what was really going on in the USSR while it was fashionable for American intellectuals to hang out with Stalinists. How much of this was known to US intellectuals isn't clear; but it is very clear that they could have known if they wanted to. Of course this was true for years after World War II. Robert Conquest's Harvest of Sorrow not only tells the story of the artificial famines, but also what information was available to the West while it was going on.

The second book of the month is Charles Sheffield and Jerry Pournelle, Higher Education. I mention this book because I recently read it again with a view to writing a sequel. I liked the book when we wrote it, and it's still a good read.

I suppose I should mention the last Harry Potter book, but it's pointless. You've either read the previous Harry Potter books or you haven't; if you have, you'll read the last one, and if you've resisted Harry Potter this long, I doubt you will now want to read about Harry as a stubborn and not very likable teenager. The final book is satisfying, even if teenage Harry isn't very likable. Most of the loose threads are gathered in, and the reasons for what looked like inexplicable decisions by some of the major characters are laid out in detail. Rowling has managed to bring it off. I never doubted that she could.

The computer book of the month is Photoshop Elements 5 for Dummies by Barbara Obermeier. I've recommended more advanced books on Photoshop Elements, and frankly I prefer them, but if you really need a basic introduction to the subject, this one will do the job.

I owe you all a good review of the latest Adobe image editing suite, and I hope to get around to that as soon as I escape from Hell. In a nutshell, Adobe has genuinely improved their program line and the user interface. If you do graphics on Windows, you want the Adobe suite.