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Computing At Chaos Manor:
December 31, 2007

The User's Column, December 2007
Column 329, Part 3
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Happy New Year!

The Users' Choice Awards and Annual Orchids and Onions Parade

We are open for nominations for the Chaos Manor Users' Choice Awards, and the annual Orchids and Onions Parade, which appear in the column in mid January. Please put the words "User's Choice", "Onions", or "Orchids" in the subject matter and send to me at jerryp@jerrypournelle.com. Your message should have the name of the product or company, some link to it so that readers (and for that matter moi) can find it, and your reasons for the nomination. In general short is better than long, but take as much space as you think necessary.

I will accept anonymous nominations, but unless anonymity is specified your message may be quoted either in the column or the mailbag.

The Year End

It's traditional in the year's last column for pundits to wax eloquent about developments in the previous year. The right way to do these would be to write snippets while the events were happening, then collect them into a coherent essay, but of course no one does this. Instead, they tend to be done at the last minute, with luck from notes, but mostly from fallible memory.

Now that latter is not always a bad thing: some people's memories are good filters, dropping out the trivial and retaining the important. When Larry Niven and I are working on a new novel, much of the work is done on five mile hikes into the California hills – we both live at the edge of many square miles of scrub brush designated as public parks – and we get most of our best ideas while trudging uphill, breathing hard and getting lots of oxygen flowing.

For years we didn't bother to take notes. Niven's theory was that if it was a good idea, one or both of us would remember it. For the most part that was true for the first thirty years of our partnership, but in the last half decade it has become less so. We have both found ourselves remembering that we had good ideas neither of us could quite recall, at least not without a lot of effort. Now sometimes, when we did recall the “good idea”, it would turn out to be best forgotten, but not always. Anyway, the solution to this was my Olympus WS-100 Digital Voice Recorder which fits nicely into my pocket, and allows me to gasp out notes when we come up with something good.

Another way not to forget good ideas is to write them down. Some writers carry notebooks. Others carry 3 x 5 cards. In my case I carry an Executive Scan Card Pocket IdeaFile because it's always with me, and it's easy to organize the notes later. Written notes have the advantage that you can look at them immediately, which is much faster than listening to a long spiel by an exhausted hiker. On the other hand, you have to stop walking to make a written note, so I carry both pocket recorder and note cards.

The point here is that for the past decade or so, my memory isn't what it used to be, and I can't count on it to filter out the trivia and leave me access to the good stuff, particularly over a full year. That leads me to my first (and possibly only) New Year's Resolution: to take better notes over the year to make the Year End Column easier. Of course I do make notes over the year. It's called Chaos Manor Reviews, and in addition there's Chaos Manor in Perspective, which has both View and Mail. The problem is that I don't flag items for year end review; so that's my New Year Resolution. I'll create a web page that points to essays and mail I think should be looked at when the year is ending.

Musings about 2007

All that said, here are some reflections on computing in particular and high tech in general in the year 2007. I won't pretend they are the most important stories of the year, but then this isn't the official high tech history of the year. Mostly I find them interesting.

Marque and Reprisal

The most under-reported story of the year was Russia's cyber attack on Estonia. There were several stories, including a mention by the New York Times but given what happened there wasn't much. The Guardian appropriately called it Cyber War, but the world didn't pay a lot of attention to the matter. Given that China is said to have about 250,000 zombie computers under its control, and those computers are located all over the world so it's pretty near impossible to isolate them from the Internet, perhaps we ought to be worried. Not all those are controlled by the Chinese government, but you can be sure their government knows about them and probably has plans to enlist them if there's ever a need. Think of letters of marque and reprisal.

The Department of Homeland Security has enlisted the aid of a number of science fiction writers including me and some would say that is itself a significant story (although that would include people who think it a hilarious waste of money). There's a conference coming up early next year, and I'm going to bring up cyber war. Your thoughts appreciated.

Dim Bulbs

The laws of these United States are never read by the Congress. At one time the actual law had to be read, aloud, on the floors of the House and Senate, a quorum attending; but now the “reading” is symbolic (the bill is paraded to the desk of the clerk and accepted as “read”) and no one, not one single individual Member, Senator, or staffer reads the entire Bill; and most of the Members and Senators have read not one word of the Bill other than the title.

The latest Energy Bill gets rid of the Edison incandescent light bulb. Green advocates cheer. Here is a US News & World Report link on the matter. Many Congresscritters are aghast at what they have done, not having read the Bill. The result is a big sale in Chinese made screw-in fluorescent bulbs. We have long known that breaking a fluorescent bulb is a Big Deal (at least I was taught that in school); now it's even bigger. Apparently one family asked for advice on what to do about a broken screw-in fluorescent and ended up paying hundreds of dollars to a hazmat crew as well as scrapping their rug. And don't use vacuum cleaners.

When I was in Human Factors in the space program we used mercury manometers which contained about a pint of mercury. One day one of those got connected to a high pressure line, and the mercury spurted up and out onto the lab floor. Boeing's Health Physics Unit came to clean it up – with powerful vacuum cleaners. I suppose those were specially made for the purpose. In any event, a mercury spill was a Big Deal in 1958, and I would suppose it's more so now: and we'll have millions and millions of mercury-containing bulbs distributed into every house and school and office in the country.

Of course the amount of mercury in a small fluorescent is very small, although it is liquid or gaseous, depending on the bulb. Liquid mercury will evaporate over time, and like lead never leaves the system once digested. Heavy metal poisoning is no joke; but unless you break a lot of those fluorescents and never clean up, or make a point of breathing near the wreckage, the danger is pretty small.

Perhaps some rethinking of this Green Energy Bill is in order? Me, I am laying in a supply of incandescent bulbs. Bob Thompson says he's going to Costco to buy cases of 100-Watt light bulbs; they ought to hold value better than gold.

Get the Lead Out

Roberta says that the story that most concerned her this year was the lead in toys. The Chinese already have an average IQ about 5 points higher than the average in the US; spread enough mercury around here and that can only get worse (although China seems to be spreading both lead and mercury about in its own environment).

On that score, our granddaughter likes Webkinz (if you have kids you probably know about it). They make among other stuff small figures of Webkinz characters. Roberta called to ask if they were made of lead. It took her a long time to find anyone who would answer. Eventually one Webkinz staffers said no, they weren't lead, they were “pooter” (the accent was so thick Roberta asked her to spell it). Another said they were not lead, they were pewter. Since pewter is a tin and copper alloy that often contains lead, this wasn't encouraging.

Unlike mercury, which will slowly evaporate into the air, room temperature lead doesn't reach out to get you: you have to lick lead figures, or rub them hard and lick your fingers, or make lead-pewter cups and drink from them, or otherwise ingest lead before it will do you great harm.

We are probably overly sensitive to lead, particularly in toys. Back before 1970 the US put tetra-ethyl lead into gasoline, and spewed lead containing fumes into the atmosphere. Boys had lead soldiers for a hundred years. Still, it was worth decreasing environmental lead. Some have credited the slow decrease in crime rates since 1990 to having a generation grow up without so much lead exposure.

The OS Wars

One of the most significant events of the year was the release of the latest Macintosh operating system. In the early days of small computers, the Holy Grail was to make UNIX usable by the masses. Some of us, definitely including me, thought it would never happen. Now Apple has done that. The Mac OS is a very usable UNIX. That UNIX underpinning is invisible to most users, but it's there all right.

Moreover, the Intel based Macs can run Windows just fine, and that can only be a good sign.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's Vista hasn't lived up to expectations. As a result, many reviewers and columnists are recommending that your new computer be a Mac. This includes some long time Windows users.

I haven't gone quite that far, mostly because of the expense. Macs are cool, they're beautiful, they work flawlessly for many purposes. It's used to be true that on a Mac everything is either very easy or impossible; that remains true for casual users, but for those who will take the trouble to learn more about UNIX the impossible becomes only difficult. There are many reasons to get a Mac – just as there are many reasons to drive a BMW. Who wouldn't rather have a BMW than a Ford?

Alas, Macs are not cheap. All of which leaves Microsoft a bit of wiggle room: they can still compete. Vista SP-1 works according to all reports, and clears up a number of vexations I've noticed in my Vista system. Notice the singular: I have several “main” machines, and only one has Vista. The rest have XP. I've tried several versions of Vista, and only Vista Ultimate is even tempting. If Microsoft will abolish all those crazy variants and concentrate on Vista Ultimate, which ought to sell at a price lower than Mac OS, the company can still keep it's huge market share. Apple has historically gone for immediate profit rather than market share, and there's no evidence that they will change this strategy.

Electronics are getting cheaper and computers are getting more powerful. We are not yet to the point where the underlying OS isn't important because any machine will be powerful enough to run any OS in software (as the Mac pretty well does now) but we will get there, and sooner than Microsoft supposes. Mac prices have to fall simply because component prices will fall. Apple will try to keep profit margins high, which is what will give Microsoft the wiggle room.

At the moment, Microsoft looks to be gouging: their OS costs a lot more than Apple's OS-X 10.5; as Managing Editor Brian Bilbrey points out, at the moment it's Microsoft's prices that look to profit rather than market share. However, OS-X requires Mac hardware, and a good Mac costs more than a comparably equipped Windows system.

But it's getting late for Microsoft if they expect to keep the kind of market share they're used to. Perhaps they'll notice and get rid of this insane variety of OS versions. When I write a novel I don't hold anything back for sequels: I figure the reader deserves the best I have. It's a lesson Microsoft ought to learn. Do one OS, do it right, and put all the good stuff in it. Then sell it at a reasonable price.

Intellectual Property

The war for protection of intellectual property continues. Despite the screeches of some who really wanted their Creative Commons documents exposed to a readership mostly looking for pirated documents, SFWA was able to get scribd to change its policies.

There is a lot said about intellectual copy protection; some will be in today's mailbag.

Meanwhile, the Amazon Kindle is yet one more device in the development of electronic readers. Whether it's good enough – and I don't think it quite is – I think it inevitable that there will be an ubiquitous device that serves as telephone, web browser, email handler, and ebook reader; and when that happens, a lot of the paperback book market will collapse. Ebooks will be cheap, easy to obtain, and you won't have to worry about what to do with them once you've read a mystery or an adventure story. It will be around if you want to read it again, but it won't take up space.

When that happens, ebook revenues, which are trivial now, will become important to authors; and when that day happens, protection of intellectual property will become important. How that will happen isn't clear. The goal, though, will be that when a reader searches for a book, the first page of the search engine will contain legitimate copies, for sale, from publishers (perhaps including the author's web site) who will pay royalties to the author. What must not happen is that the first hit from the search engine is a pirate web site offering that book for free.

Whether we can achieve that goal isn't clear. I don't think it can be done with draconian laws punishing both pirates and their customers; nor would I want to see anyone ruined over a stolen book any more than I thought it reasonable that Jean Valjean went to the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread. I do think there are ways to achieve that state.

Incidentally, in the above I mentioned books on author web sites. I can conceive of a time when I pay publishers a “royalty” on copies of a book I wrote, they published, but I sold from my web site. Contract negotiations in future are likely to be interesting.

I see no clear path ahead, but I will assert that intellectual property issues, important in 2007, will become far more so in the year ahead.

Winding Down

To the extent that there is a game of the month, it remains Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa, but I have to say I haven't played it a lot. I did find out that if you have a good partner, and use the built-in voice communications, it can be a lot of fun, particularly if you find an experienced partner who like to teach. I was lucky enough to find one, and for those few days, it was fun indeed. Then work caught up with me...

I also managed to get my World of Warcraft Paladin to level 60, and I have to say that WOW remains an enjoyable way to wind down when the work's done. It can also consume time you don't have.

The movie of the month is Enchanted, and if you haven't seen it, be sure to do so. It's wonderful. Everyone I know who's seen it loved it, and that includes adults and children. Princess Giselle is a very typical beautiful ingénue in a very typical fairy tale, able to make friends with animals and dwarves, and waiting impatiently for love's first kiss so that she can live happily ever after. This part of the picture is in animation. Then the wicked witch – Susan Sarandon – sends Giselle to a land where there is never a happily ever after: modern New York City. She gets there, and animation ceases: it's all live action now. Amy Adams becomes the most wonderful ingénue I ever saw as she tries to cope with New York and people who don't at all believe in happy endings. She is, of course, pursued by Prince Charming, a talking squirrel, and eventually the wicked witch. She is also wooed by a cynical New York divorce lawyer.

Go see Enchanted. You can't possibly dislike it. I think this may have been my Movie of the Year, but I do need to review the candidates.

The book of the month is Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Conversations with Gerald R. Ford by Thomas DeFrank. I knew Jerry Ford when he was a Congressman: Ford was Chairman of the Robert Taft Institute, of which I was West Coast Director in my days as a professor at Pepperdine. My impression of Ford then was that he was a decent man, the kind of Congressman that America has been fortunate enough to have many of over the centuries: honest, not overly ambitious, and concerned for his country, his party, and his own interests in that order. DeFrank's book confirms my impressions, and gives some insights into how American government works.

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.

The computer book of the month is Knoppix Hacks, 2nd Edition, by Kyle Rankin. Knoppix is a Linux distribution that runs entirely from a DVD; if you have ever had any interest in Linux, you can try it by getting a free copy of Knoppix and letting your computer boot from it. You won't have to install a thing on your hard disk.

Having booted in Knoppix you can do a number of things to your Windows installation, including file checking, eliminating bad drivers, look for and eliminate Windows viruses and root kits, etc. The cover blurb for this book calls it a veritable Swiss Army Knife packed full of tools, and for once this cover blurb is accurate. If you have to maintain Windows systems, you need to get this book with its Knoppix boot disk. You may never need it, but if you do need it you will need it in a hurry.