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Computing At Chaos Manor:
December 11, 2007

The User's Column, December 2007
Column 329, Part 1
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


This is the first December column, which means that it's time for Christmas Shopping tips and hints. I started doing this a long time ago, when this column was a regular feature of McGraw Hill's BYTE Magazine. In those days BYTE had a bunch of technical editors funnelling products and software my way, so compiling lists of good stuff was easy.

It's a bit tougher now, and especially has been this quarter when I have flat run out of time. I won't go through all that because I'm not making excuses, but you have my apologies for this short list. I have a number of suggestions from readers, but I don't have the time and resources to check them out. I'll include a couple anyway.

First some items I know about.

The Tornado

This handy little gadget comes in a number of form factors, and I've found it extremely useful. It consists of two USB plugs that reel into a housing, and some built in software. When you plug the cables into two computers, a menu pops up, and you can transfer files from one machine to another. No muss, no fuss, easy to carry.

For the Amateur Astronomer

I do the International Edition of the column at the same time as the first installment. It includes the "Winding Down" section which traditionally appears at the end of the month. When the column was both prepared and presented as one monthly item this made sense, but now that it's prepared in weekly or bi-weekly segments, including Winding Down in the last segment means that some movies get reviewed after they have left the theaters; it also means books are left out of the Christmas list. It would probably be better to put Winding Down in the first segment, and I'll consider that; for the moment I'll simply scoop myself.

The following will be in the Winding Down section at the end of this month:

The second book of the month isn't quite a computer book, but it's certainly high tech: The Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders, by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson, O' Reilly Like all of Bob Thompson's books this is complete, both an introduction and a handbook of amateur astronomy. If you ever wondered what impelled people to go out on cold dark nights to stare at the skies, this will give you some idea of what they're looking for. It will also tell you what equipment you need, and how to find what you're looking for. Highly recommended.

A perfect gift for the amateur astronomer.

Moffsoft Free Calc

Anybody can afford this, because it's free. The Moffsoft calculator makes a "tape" of the entries, and it's the one I use when I'm depositing checks or doing any kind of financial calculations. Takes almost no time to download. You can download this, transfer the installation program to a thumb drive you got from a tech show, and put it in a big box...

Plantronics DSP Noise Cancelling GameCom Headset

I've reviewed this before: it's the most comfortable headset I own. I use it when I'm doing the TWiT broadcasts: Leo Laporte sets up a Skype conference call, and we all talk from our desks. Many of the TWiT participants use this headset, for good reasons.

HD on Your PC

If you're interested in seeing what all the shouting for HD TV is about, you can go to a bar or other public place that has it, or you can get one of those TV Tuners and try it on your PC, since your monitor will very likely display HDTV resolution. There are several of these, and they all work. Hauppauge makes one. Plextor makes a good one with a decent external antenna, and that's the one I use. Fair warning, the software that comes with it takes getting used to. It works quite well with laptops that have Windows Media Center installed, and with Vista. Finally, Pinnacle makes one that has got excellent reviews. I just got one, but deadlines are upon me and I don't have time to try it. Apologies.

USB TV Tuners work reasonably well, but you will need a good signal source.

GForce Home Theater Watch

This watch from Alexander Innovation Wizard is spectacular. It's an FM radio. It's an MP4 Video Player (128 x 128 resolution; holds 2 GB). It's a still picture viewer. It's an ebook reader! It's also a watch that corrects its time and date by radio.

You will note the 2 GB and 128 x 128 resolution, and that the screen is one inch square. Given those limits, this works better than you would expect, and it's a lot of fun. I expect to wear it to a number of parties this season.

The instructions are theoretically in English, and if you work hard enough you will probably be able to understand them. You may need a strong light, and notebook to write down your translations, as for instance, Setting the time and date is under a set of instructions called "Time Hypothesis". I have yet to figure out how to set the clock, which at the moment is set to Tokyo day and time. I can read ebooks, but you will understand that on a one inch square screen it's not all that easy to read. I've also managed to transfer some videos I took with the JVC Everio, and it's pretty startling to see those on a watch. Now if I can just get it off Tokyo time...

I'm not entirely sure how practical this is, but it's sure cool, and buys lots of bragging rights.

One Laptop Per Child

http://laptop.org/

The One Laptop Per Child project from Nicholas Negroponte of MIT seeks to give low cost, low maintenance laptops to every child in the world. To do that, they offer to sell you one for some local child (your own, or a neighbor, or through your church or other charity) provided that you buy one to be given to a child in a third world country (probably but not necessarily Haiti). These Linux based systems are interesting, and reasonably powerful given their low cost. I don't have one, and if you want to know more about them, you can search the web for reviews as well as I can. Enough people I respect are fond of this project that I don't mind mentioning it, but I can't recommend it without seeing it and its rivals, and that's not likely to happen.

Mrs. Pournelle's Reading Program

Obviously I am not unbiased in this recommendation. I can only say that last week one of the schools that uses Roberta's reading instruction software was named as being in the top 10% of schools nationally in reading comprehension.

For years California conducted a war against comprehensive phonics instruction in reading on the theory that good readers don't "sound out" words, they merely read them, and therefore it is useless to teach phonic word attack skills. (I wish I were making that up.) Other states followed suit. The result was a literacy crisis in the US, and worse, many colleges of education hired tenured professors who believed that theory. Those professors are still there, and comprehensive instruction in systematic phonics is more rare in colleges of education than you might suppose.

The problem is not that good readers don't read by whole words, because they do; you're doing that now as you read this. The problem is when one encounters a word never seen before, like Constantinople or Timbuktoo - or like polydiphenolphosphate, or disestablishment, or a host of other words that will not be in controlled vocabulary readers, but which students begin to encounter in fourth grade geography and science. Pupils well grounded in word attack skills will be able to read every word they see, and understand all those they have encountered before in conversation: that is, their reading and speaking vocabularies will be the same. For more on all this see Roberta's web page. Her reading program would make a great present for anyone who needs to learn to read English.

There is a Mac version of the program; it uses the Mac Text to Speech software that was in its day (and probably still is) the best sounding text to speech available. That program comes in many voices, among them Victoria. I have met the young lady whose voice was used to generate the phonemes used by the program. Her voice is so good, and so empathetic, that it turns out not to be the proper voice for teaching; instead, Roberta chose Agnes, who sounds remarkably like Sister Mary Agnes my second grade teacher. Alas, the Mac version still sounds like computer generated speech.

The Windows version of the program uses the voice of Mrs. Roberta Pournelle, not in text to speech; she recorded the thousands of phonemes, words, phrases, and sentences used in the program, so when the program "reads" to you what's on the screen, it's actually presenting you her recorded voice. The program works in all versions of Windows, including Windows running on the Mac.

Alas, we haven't seen it run under Linux. The program was written in Delphi, and requires Internet Explorer; I think I could get it running under Xandros and Wine, or Crossover Office, but I confess I haven't done that yet, so I can't recommend it for Linux users. It certainly won't work on systems that can't run Internet Explorer, which probably means it won't ever work on Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child. Alas.

Some reader suggestions

Jerry

1. EyeFi wireless card for digital cameras. www.eye.fi

At last, my wife won't have to bug me to download/upload/print the pictures.

2. USB drives.

An old suggestion perhaps, but you can pick up small capacity drives for almost nothing, and they are a lot more convenient for quick transfer of files than CD or DVD media. Pick up a handful.

3. MacBook notebook computer

My son accidently broke the LCD-LED screen on my six month old MacBookPro (Owww!) This is an incredibly busy time for me so I borrowed a black MacBook to use. It seemed a little sluggish at first, so I added memory up the max of 4 gb. And to my surprise, I like it better than the Pro. I believe I will be selling the MacBookPro when it gets back from repair.

4. iResq (formerly known as PowerBook Resq, and iPod Resq etc) www.iresq.com

This company has replaced a hard drive in a 12 inch PowerBook for me, replaced iPod batteries in two iPods, and now they are replacing the screen on my MacBookPro ($519.00) They overnight a box, you place the item in and call for pick-up, they turn it around the day they get it and within 3 to 4 days you are back in business.

This is not really a Christmas gift item, but I highly recommend them.

Best wishes for the holiday season.

Dan Brantley

Another reader suggests:

An OEM copy of XP (or an Ubuntu CD) for all the people who were unlucky enough to buy new computers with Vista.

We just bought a quad core machine for the office, and it feels slower than an old 750Mhz P3 when it's running Vista. It is amazingly (as one would expect with quad core) zippy with Linux!

I note that Lenovo now offers all ThinkPad models preloaded with XP as an alternative to Vista.

A more serious and larger item:

I like the SqueezeBox (Version 3) from Slim Devices (now a Logitech Company) so much I now own two of them. I have one in the bedroom and one in the kitchen. At $299 each it was not an impulse purchase. However the competition from Sonos costs twice as much.

Hooked up to some sort of tabletop stereo (or any sound system or powered speakers) you can stream your own music from your own computer over a Wi-Fi (including WPA encryption) or Ethernet network or you can access the Squeezenetwork when the computer is not turned on for listening to Pandora or Rhapsody music services or (as I do) the internet streams from radio stations anywhere in the country or in the world.

During the winter I can listen to a local radio station that is not "listenable" because the station's power has been reduced after sunset and before sunrise so it won't reach to the Atlanta suburbs. I also can get stations on the West Coast for syndicated programs that are not being broadcast in the late night lineup of my local station.

The sound quality is fantastic in stereo for any music programming.

The PC Magazine review is here.

They gave it 4 out of 5 stars. Maximum PC magazine gave it a top rating in a review published in late 2006, which is why I knew it was worth considering.

I have not seen it sold in any stores. Slim Devices is selling it through Amazon.com in addition to their own site, so you can link to its listing at Amazon.com.

Merry Christmas
Pat Gibbs

I am not really an authority on audio systems, having been partially deaf ("Artilleryman's Ear") since 1950. I have to rely on readers and advisors. Here's one such:

For someone who likes music, I suggest a Sony 300 CD player. I have two model CDPCX350 units in service, daisy chained, which I bought on eBay for around $100 each delivered.

The current model is the CDP-CX355

It is also available a number of other places, including Amazon, Crutchfield, and Circuit City, also in the $200.00 price range.

The manual is on line at this link.

Or, for a bit more money there is the Sony 400 disk CD/DVD player DVP-CX995V

One does need an amplifer with this. I use the external RCA stereo jacks on my basic tuner/CD player.

Let's see... 300 CDs at say 45 minutes each, with random track and disk selection, means 225 hours of music before a track is repeated. Almost ten days 24/7.

Charles Brumbelow

Rene Daley suggests a theme:

This year's theme: Be Prepared.

#1. A keychain flashlight. If you want to buy the best, go with the Photon Freedom Microlight -- the Rolls Royce of keychain lights. You can dim the light, tell it to signal S.O.S. (it has a microchip controller), or drive over it with a truck without harming its functionality. Extremely useful for putting keys in locks at night, finding dropped cell phones in theaters, looking for toys under the couch, tinkering with your computer's innards, and a thousand other similar tasks. About $18.00 (plus S&H). If the Photon Freedom Microlight is too spendy, consider the Yugo of the keychain lights. At $1.00 a pop, buy a handfull of them and give one to everyone you know.

#2. A pocket knife. I don't know when or why, but people have stopped carrying them. They're about the most useful thing I can imagine carrying in my pocket. Go with a classic like the Victorinox Spartan or Classic if your recipient is going to use it mainly for the non-knife tools. Or, give a Byrd Meadowlark if the knife is the only tool needed.

#3. A whistle. Especially useful if you're buying for a lady, but appropriate for everyone (especially if you live in an earthquake zone). Whistles can be heard for greater distances than a voice and you can make noise as long as you can breathe. Get a thin profile Fox 40 -- they are VERY loud.

Rene Daley

The Be Prepared theme sparked this contribution from the Advisors conference. First, Peter Glaskowsky:

For the "preparedness" category:

The best pocket-size emergency kit, hands down: Pocket Survival Pak

The best pocket flashlight, the Fenix P1D special edition:

That light gives 180 lumens from a single LED and a single CR-123 lithium battery, and it's only 2.8" long. It also has a 16-lumen mode that runs for 21 hours. It's pricey at $61, but you get what you pay for. A low-power keychain LED can help you find a keyhole; the Fenix P1D can be used as a defensive weapon against an attacker's dark- adapted eyes.

There's also the L1D, a 90-lumen light that uses a single AA battery.

I carried this one until the P1D came out.

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Captain Morse adds

I have a P1D and a couple of L2Ts (uses 2AA instead of one). All are on the cold, dead hands list. They are pricey, but if you appreciate both function and craftsmanship they are worth every penny. The store gets high marks for customer service, too

Ron Morse

Chaos Manor Advisor Rich Heimlich suggests

A great Christmas gift for the humor fan in the family (link to Rich's blog).

And Captain Morse, who doesn't usually care for snarky humor, agrees. As do I.

And for the final reader recommendation, a suggestion I enthusiastically endorse:

Jerry,

I'd like to recommend "Building the Perfect PC" by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson, with a foreword by some guy named "Pournelle." :)

It's been a long time since I was "into hardware" (in a prior life, I built and sold machines, mainly to local units of government). An awful lot has changed since those days -- so much, that anyone who hasn't kept both feet in the water will find themselves lost in the woods (going for the award in mixed metaphors, I am).

This book is a fantastic resource for any folks looking at building their own "white box" computers. It goes *far* beyond teaching a mere "it works" level of competence, and it does so without lapsing into jargon (and out of readability).

I shudder at the thought of all the "name brand" computers that are going to be foisted on the unsuspecting this season, and my thoughts on the art of selling proprietary *hardware* on folks, convincing them they're buying something *better* than a "generic" machine, are not printable.

Yet, millions of "name brand" computers *will* be sold to people, locking them into a dead-end, and making them into captive customers when it comes time to replace anything in the machine (care to spend several hundred bucks for a replacement proprietary power supply for a "name brand" machine, instead of picking from a selection of "generics" for under $50? Can't do it!)

This book would make a great gift for anyone who is thinking of buying a new computer. It would also be a wise purchase for anyone considering giving a computer as a gift.

Ron

As I said, I couldn't agree more. If you are building a computer, or contemplating buying one, get the Thompson book. You will not regret it.

JVC Everio GZ MZ-255

This may be a bit expensive as a Christmas gift, although if you're contemplating getting a camcorders as an "Open Me First" gift, this would certainly be one to consider.

The only reason the Everio GZ MZ-255 isn't a cold dead fingers item to be kept for making my video podcasts is that this model doesn't have a separate microphone input. Even at that I am tempted because the built in microphone is quite good.

I have used this camcorder for three weeks now, and it is quite simply the easiest to use camcorder I have ever had. It's small and handy, and not obtrusive. The video screen is very bright and can be used in the brightest sunshine: in my case at a cemetery on a bright winter day in the noon sun.

When I first got this camera I took it out of the box, charged it up, and carried it on my morning walk. I figured out how to turn it on - it's pretty obvious - and how to use the zoom features, and proceeded to walk along holding Sable's leash and my cane in my left hand, and the camera in my right. I walked along the street, taking shots of Sable, my neighbors' houses - Ed Begley Jr. has a little 1500 Watt windmill in addition to his array of solar panels - and anything else that struck my fancy. I talked in a normal tone of voice as I did so. The result was excellent: if I had taken any pictures worth showing, I could have easily edited them into something to put up on Utube without problems.

The pictures were good enough. My photography wasn't, but that is emphatically not the fault of the camera; indeed, on reviewing the pictures I took that morning the learning curve is obvious.

The lenses on this camera are quite good. Color quality suffers in low light, but that's true with any camera; the miracle is that you can get pictures in conditions I'd have thought far too dim for video recording. Steadiness isn't much of a problem either: that is, my early shots were pretty shaky, but that's largely a matter of getting used to using the camera. I am not very experienced with camcorders, and my past attempts at learning haven't been very successful, but with this camera I learned fast.

If you get the idea that I'm not terribly experienced with camcorders, and I haven't taken a bunch of them out and compared them, you're absolutely right. I am very inexperienced. What I can do is decide what's good enough, and this mid-price camcorder is definitely Good Enough. You or your Aunt Minnie can take this out of the box, charge it, and go get some good quality family pictures; and as I said earlier, if it had a separate audio input (which most people probably don't need) I'd not hesitate to put it on a tripod, stand it on the other side of my desk, and start making video podcasts with it.

Getting the pictures out of the camera was quite simple: on my Vista system I merely plugged in the USB cable. The camera screen popped up with a menu, one item of which was "connect to the device." I chose that, and Windows Photo Gallery popped up. I used it to copy all the pictures, video and still, and then spent a while looking at my handiwork. No problems.

Then I installed the software that came with the JVC on an XP machine. It took a while, nearly ten minutes all told, and the system wanted to be restarted afterwards; but that was all I had to do. I then connected the JVC camcorder to the USB socket, invoked the software I had just copied, and copied all the videos and still photos over. Again, there was no trouble, and they played just fine.

I can now use the editing software to cut out the dead spots, splice some of the videos, and in general play with what I have. Of course there's a learning curve, but it's not very steep. If Aunt Minnie is ever going to edit videos, she'll be able to do it with this.

In other words, the JVC Everio GZ MZ 255 is a quality consumer product, ready to use, and quite a lot better than the expensive video cameras we used to have when Roberta was teaching and directing her students in musical comedies. I wish we'd had something half this good when the boys were growing up.

One warning. This is a very right handed device; I would hate to try using it left-handed.

I can't compare the JVC Everio against competitors; but I can say I like it a lot. It's easy to use and I made some good videos with it. Recommended.

Rick Hellewell adds:

If you have a digital camera, you probably have a little USB cord to connect the camera to the computer. Which means that you have to find the USB cord...

The folks at Cyberguys have combined a wrist strap with a USB cable ($7.99 ) for your camera. There is also a neck strap model at $8.99 . Great "stocking stuffer" idea.

I've had nothing but good experiences from Cyberguys. Good prices, great service.

Regards, Rick Hellewell

And that should do it for this year's Christmas Shopping column...