Dr. Jerry Pournelle

Email Me

Why not subscribe now?

Chaos Manor Subscribe Now

Useful Link(s)...


Hosting by

Powered by Apache

Computing At Chaos Manor:
October 11, 2007

The User's Column, October 2007
Column 327, part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

The month opened with some interesting news items. Probably the most important was a court decision: a jury awarded $220,000 in damages to six music publishers represented by RIAA. "Accused of encouraging the illegal sharing of more than 1,700 songs, Jammie Thomas, 30, elected to fight it out with the recording industry instead of settling out of court for far less money. The ensuing legal battle marked the first time the recording industry has argued a file-sharing case before a jury." (News.com link)

The jury took very little time to find Thomas guilty of file sharing using Kazaa, even though at least one of the jurors was entirely ignorant of the web and had never used it. (Another News.com link)

Thomas is a single mother with no assets. The award, which could reach half a million dollars when legal expenses of the plaintiffs are added, is well beyond her means even if pro rated over her lifetime. This gives her high sympathy value, but it is also intimidating and intended to be. Imagine RIAA pursuing her as relentlessly as the Goldman family pursues O. J. Simpson. A friend gives Thomas a watch, and the RIAA takes it away from her...

Aside from the ugliness of this picture, the major precedent set here is that it was never proven that Jammie Thomas was using the computer, or that any copyrighted songs were downloaded from it. The jury found that that it was her computer, her account, and her account name, and the songs were available on her machine through Kazaa.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is encouraging Thomas to appeal. Of course the EFF also represented Scribd, a company that raised several million in venture capital to promote a web site that harbored thousands of copyrighted works including the entire oeuvre of deceased writers with no permission from their estates - and insisted that the widows and orphans personally ask them to desist.

Note that investment in Scribd is in expectation of a lot of web traffic to the site. Much of that traffic is generated by the thousands of copyrighted works - pirated works - available for download.

Is this where we are headed? The RIAA wants to squeeze single mothers and grandmothers, and looks like a gang of bullies. It is opposed by the EFF which defends pirates who deprive authors and widows and orphans of their just rewards. Choose between them.

Is this the future of the web? Surely there is a better way?

Silicon Is Cheaper Than Iron

The second interesting news item: "Peter Gruenberg of Germany and Albert Fert of France were recognized for their independent discovery of giant magnetoresistance - an exotic phenomenon whose practical applications became ubiquitous in everyday life in less than two decades." (SJ Mercury News link)

This was interesting to me because it reminds me of the worst technological prediction I ever made. That was way back in the days of the S-100 bus. In those days I made a lot of predictions, and they were mostly right. Some of them may have been self-fulfilling, as when I decided that CP/M was the proper operating system for that generation of small computers: in those days BYTE was pretty dominant among computer users, and our pronouncement had considerable weight. One is trivial now, but was considered pretty profound back in 1980 when I said that by the year 2000 everyone in Western Civilization would be able to get the answer to any question that had a known answer. Not only was that one right, but the time scale was pretty good.

My worst prediction, though, was that "Silicon is cheaper than iron." I applied that to mean that solid-state storage would replace spinning metal for mass storage of data. It seemed obvious to me at the time: in those days I had a Lilith bit-slicer computer with a Honeywell Bull hard disk with the amazing capacity of 5 megabytes. The hard disk unit was the size of a two-drawer file cabinet, and the lights dimmed when you turned it on. I also had a 500 kilobyte solid state magnetic core "hard disk" (i.e., the memory was non-volatile) with very rapid access. The extrapolation seemed easy enough to me: for a while improvements in hard disk technology would continue. They'd get smaller and faster. Machine technology for making precision devices would improve. It was easy enough to see they'd get to 100 megabytes or so before that technology was fully exploited. Meanwhile, solid-state memory storage had no real limits, and surely we would be seeing gigabytes of storage in thumb-sized devices by the turn of the Century if not earlier.

Well, that latter happened, not quite at the year 2000 but close enough. Meanwhile, the scientists came up with new magnetic storage science, and we now have terabytes on spinning metal.

Meanwhile, Gordon Moore, discoverer of Moore's Law and one of the billionaire founders of Fairchild and Intel, says he's overwhelmed by modern technology. His cell phone has more features than he wants or uses, modern data storage with terabytes you can hold in your hand are a miracle, and he's fresh out of predictions.

There's probably a moral to this story, and it's probably Arthur C. Clarke's "First Law": "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

The iBrick Story

There was another news story this month, but it turned out not to have a definitive ending. There may be a lesson there.

I first heard about this from one of my advisors, who waxed eloquent on the perfidy of Apple. Apple, it seems, after first warning that this was coming, had just sent out a software update for the iPhone. If your iPhone had been altered to allow it to be used with a carrier other than AT&T, or to install some third party software Apple didn't approve, the update turned your iPhone into a brick. It wouldn't work. Ever again. Dead, dead, dead. Perfidious Apple warned you not to do this, now the evil empire has struck!

The story had legs. There was a discussion among my advisors on whether or not it was true, but since none of us had an altered iPhone we didn't have any direct knowledge. Then on his Saturday radio show, Leo Laporte, who has two iPhones, reported the story with considerable indignation. How dare Apple do this?

Fortunately, before I bit too hard on this story, I had a number of letters from users telling me that the new software update didn't turn a modified iPhone into an iBrick. It did reset it: that is, it restored the altered phone to its original condition, just as it had been the day you bought it. If it had already been activated, it would be easy enough to restore the activation. If it had not been activated then you'd have to do that by setting up an AT&T account. Since this was the condition you faced when you bought the phone, it was hard to argue that Apple had deprived you of anything.

In my first draft I suggested that no iPhones had actually been bricked, which turned out not to be the case...

First Bob Thompson:

What's the source of this? I've read many stories about the iPhone being bricked. In fact, I see that Apple has now been sued over bricking the iPhone.

Link to The Register

Robert Bruce Thompson

and Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey

I, too, have read of people claiming brickage. There's this, for instance:

Link to ComputerWorld

And Peter Glaskowsky said

In that article, Jim Dalrymple is actually seeing the "factory restore" condition which is the intended result of running the update on a hacked iPhone. It isn't bricked, it's just back to the state it was in when the store sold it. If it's activated normally, or reactivated to the original AT&T account, it works fine.

The Gizmodo story quoted there tries to give the impression that hacked iPhones are left in a "Semi-Brick Activation Limbo" state, but even they admit:

"You can see the result at the end: activation limbo (unless you have a legal AT&T card and a contract. Unlike me and all international users who have unlocked their iPhones.)"

That is, if you do have a legal AT&T card and contract, you're fine. If you've wiped out the SIM card that came with the phone, you can take it back to an AT&T or Apple store and they can get it running again.

Now, some people DID end up with truly bricked phones, phones that will apparently never work again. There are reports of this happening to both hacked and unhacked phones... but there are very few reports either way. It may depend on what people did while performing the hacks, or performing the updates, or running third-party software, or other factors beyond Apple's control.

For example, this guy: MacWorld.com link

In short there's basically no evidence that Apple's update was designed to brick any iPhones, whether hacked or not. Bricking has happened anyway, a few times, but it isn't the usual result.

. png

So: perfidious Apple hadn't deliberately bricked the iPhone, but sometimes that was the result in some cases. But then some bricks were restored: Techmeme link.

And it's not clear to me that any iPhone was so thoroughly wiped out that the Apple Store couldn't restore it to the factory purchase condition. I have not heard that they are not honoring warranties of bricked phones. Apple has warned customers not to hack their iPhone; that sounds like good advice.

Of course there are questions. Some ask why Apple has any right to restrict carriers in the first place? Why can't iPhone users install third party software? But those questions open a can of worms I don't intend to dig into. Apple has always maintained far more control over who can do what with an Apple computer than Windows users will put up with. It's part of the Apple experience.

XP Forever?

Microsoft has announced that they'll continue to sell XP through next June. The original plan was to sell only Vista after January 30, 2008.

The reason for this ought to be obvious. Vista is really good stuff for some people. When Vista works well, it's a joy. I'm using Vista on Roxanne, the machine I am writing this on, and when it works properly I like it a lot. Of course I have problems. Networking is difficult. The security features are great when they work, but often have to be turned off before anything can be done. The Stardock animated desktops are beautiful - when they work. But periodically the animated desktop vanishes and has to be reinstalled, and I've given up on it. In other words, for some people, Vista is not ready for prime time.

As an example, sometimes when I try to insert a picture into a Word file in Vista, the system behaves badly. If the picture is in the default directory, there's no problem, but attempting to browse for the picture hangs the system; the only remedy is to close all instances of Word and start over. Needless to say, this is no fun.

My advice remains: don't upgrade an XP machine to Vista, and if you're getting a new machine, think seriously about getting it with XP. There will be a Vista Service Pack one of these days, and that may fix the Vista compatibility problems; but for now, all too often, unexpected things happen with Vista, and of course they happen just when you don't want them to: which is to say, when you're anxious to get something done, you're more likely to make mistakes. And with Vista some mistakes can lead to more problems.

Some of my advisors are happy with Vista. I'm happy with Vista on this machine. But I don't advise you to take up Vista until the Service Pack comes out.

Office 2003 SP3

I have just about every version of Office ever published. I mostly use Office 2003, in part because it's on many of my machines, in part because Niven uses it, but mostly due to inertia. Indeed, I often use Office 2003 on machines that have Office 2007 installed, and that's almost pure inertia. The truth is that Office 2007 works very well, but there's some similarity to the Dvorak keyboard: one may be able to type faster on the Dvorak keyboard, but it takes getting used to, and you will never get used to it if you often have to use a standard keyboard.

Same story with Office 2007, particularly Word 2007: it certainly is a better interface, once you learn it; but if you're used to the Office 2003 interface, 2007 is awkward and hard to learn, and if you have to switch from one to the other, it will drive you nuts. At least that's how it has been with me. I like Word 2007, I may even prefer Word 2007, but I generally end up using Word 2003.

In any event, if you have Office 2003, you will definitely want to get Service Pack 3. The changes are mostly invisible, but they are important. You'll particularly want SP3 if you use Office 2003 with Vista, since several glitches are fixed. Conversion among Office versions works smoother. There are a number of security features.

I installed Office 2003 SP3 on my main machine, and after a couple of weeks without problems I installed it on all my other machines. I have yet to find any reason to regret doing that.

Installation was simple enough. It does require downloading and installing Windows Genuine Advantage. That hasn't caused me any problems.