Feburary 2016 Column


We are pleased to present a new Computing at Chaos Manor column from Dr. Jerry Pournelle. His recent experiences with Outlook, Word, and using his computer after his stroke are instructive as always. – Editor

Chaos ManorI like Outlook and Word. I suppose there may be better mail/calendar and text creation programs, but I’m used to these, and they’ve always worked for me; and moreover I am used to their quirks. When Word 2007 went from the old Word 2003 interface to the famous – or notorious – ribbon, I resisted the change for years, but eventually I found sufficient reason to give Word 2007 and its ribbon a try, and discovered that it really wasn’t all that bad, and grew to like it. I did grumble about the ribbon taking up a lot of screen space, but it was about then that I moved from big bottle monitors to 25, then 27 inch flat screens, and I could hardly kid myself that I didn’t have screen space to spare; indeed I wasn’t using all I had since I don’t like to have lines so long I have to turn my head to see the whole line.

So: I adopted Word 2007, and then went to Word 2010 when that upgrade came out, and I’m not sorry I did. Since my stroke in December 2014 I have been unable to touch type, and I have to stare at the keyboard rather than look at the screen when I write, so I often don’t bother using Control-F1 to hide the ribbon; I can’t be distracted by it because I’m not looking at the screen when I type.

The problem with being a two finger typist, at least for those sloppy like me, is hitting two keys at once. It happens often, and you will see words like “wou;ld” a lot. The remedy for me is AutoCorrect. Of course it must be used with care, but in my case my AutoCorrect file consists of many impossible letter compositions fairly commonly made by striking two keys at once, each to be converted into the word I obviously was trying to type. Of course some are ambiguous, and then there’s nothing for it but to let the spell checker show it with the red underline and choose; but some have only one rational intention, and I have AutoCorrect deal with those so I never see them. This has worked well for me.

With Word this is made simple; right click on a red-underlined word, and you are shown a list of words the system thinks you intended; click on one and it changes to that. Word 10 adds a feature: when you right click you are also offered the AutoCorrect option; choose that and it shows the list of candidate words. Often there is only one. If you click on a word in that list, the particular misspelling and the correct word are added to the AutoCorrect dictionary, and you will never see that particular mistake again. I have used it on this machine – Alien Artifact, a Windows 7 system – and it has saved me much time.

Alas, with Office 365 you get Word 2016, and that does not have this method of adding words to AutoCorrect. I have not yet found how to transfer the AutoCorrect data file on Alien Artifact to my Microsoft Surface Pro 3, and have had to build a new AutoCorrect data base on the Surface; and with Word 2011 this is a longer and more painful process. The “Improvement” to 2011 was a drastic error for the work I do, and I am still trying to figure out what to do about it.

Eric Pobirs, Chaos Manor Advisor, said:

   The main problem with AutoCorrect is that the Word team has a different scenario in mind for its use than Jerry’s situation. The implementation could easily be made to accommodate those in Jerry’s situation if they exposed a few more controls to allow configuration of its behavior. I keep hoping someday I’ll reach the right person in Redmond to convey this.

It appears to me that AutoCorrect has become focused on allowing those with a lot of frequently repeated text, text that isn’t quite lengthy enough to keep in a boilerplate file, to create their own custom shorthand system. Word’s configuration menus also refer to AutoText as a separate function, even though this appears to be the exact same thing.

I believe it would be quite easy for MS to add a ‘clumsy typist’ mode if they were made aware of a sufficiently interested portion of the user base.

Peter Glaskowsky tells me:

“Interestingly, Office 2016 on my Mac does still have this exact feature.

Online I found this web page offering a Word template to put the function back in (basically re-creating it in VBA) but it doesn’t seem to work on my Windows 10 machine with Word 2016.

http://bit.ly/1QVjaml

I have had similar experiences with other attempts to add the feature to Word 2016.

This all became more acute when I had my Outlook misadventure. I have Outlook 2010 on Alien Artifact, my main machine, in part because Outlook 2010 also has the simple method of adding to the AutoCorrect data base, and I often use it when answering email; I don’t type as much in answering mail as I do when writing fiction or non-fiction, but I do it a lot. I have also paid a lot more attention to rules and sorting email in the Outlook in Alien Artifact, and thus this remains my main machine for Outlook as well as Word. Of course I also get all the mail on Precious, the Surface Pro 3, but she doesn’t have the same sorting system and sub-folders; I could put them there, but I haven’t done so.

Outlook saves all your work in an enormous file called Outlook.pst; and by all, I mean all, not only all your mail, but the rules, account information, categories for manually or automatically sorting mail, calendars, appointments, etc. Obviously I could try to synchronize my various machines running Outlook, but I haven’t summoned up the energy; things have been hectic here at Chaos Manor since my stroke. I had a lot of recovery in 2015, but what with Roberta getting pneumonia and me getting bronchitis in early January, 2016 has been a bit slow.

All this is background to my latest adventure.

Outlook 2010 Crashes

Friday, January 29, I was dealing with the mail, answering some, deleting a lot, and sorting the rest into categories like “To be answered” and “To Be Posted” and such when I received an email of the final edit of There Will Be War, Volume IX, which will come out next week. I wanted to do a final proof reading, even though I know that Castalia House does a pretty good job of that, so I opened the epub file in Calibre; or at least I intended to open it. Calibre is infuriating: you can’t just open an epub file, you must first insert it into the Calibre library; but when I went to do that, I was informed that there was an update available, didn’t I want to download that first?

All right, I thought, and attempted to do so. It took a long time; so long that I decided to stop the process. It wouldn’t stop, so I went to Windows Task Manager to stop it. Then I decided to restart Windows; sometimes that helps when things slow down. Restarting Windows takes a while since you must close all ongoing applications. After I restarted it took a very long time to come up; far longer than usual. Outlook didn’t seem to want to start. OK, time for more drastic measures. Restart, then do a virus search. Something, I thought, is wrong, so I used the Shutdown button to completely turn the system off.

I did that, using an external search program. Nothing wrong. No malware found. Alien Artifact came up about as fast as usual, and everything seemed OK, so I opened Outlook. The system trundled for five minutes, but the program would not open. Now I really had a problem. Everything else about the system, Firefox, internal network connections, Word, seemed to work fine, but Outlook would not start.

Rick Hellewell, Managing Editor of Chaos Manor Reviews, tells me he did the Calibre update recently and it went smoothly, so I suspect that Firefox had one of its glitches that come with my bad habit of leaving a lot of Firefox windows open as an aid to my memory; when it slows down I find that restarting Firefox, and sometimes restarting Windows, fixes the problem, and it was an attempt to do that that generated this problem.

Eric had thoughts on Calibre and upgrades:

Calibre is a very active project and sees update releases with great frequency. If you don’t use it at least weekly it can seem like it wants to update with every single use. This would be less annoying if it had a less primitive method for updating and instead did things like Firefox or Chrome. If they released a version that was distributed through the Windows Store, that would also provide a much better update mechanism.

Alien Artifact has an SSD C: drive where we keep programs such as Windows and stuff that needs to load fast, and a terabyte spinning metal D: drive where we keep data. Because the machine is several years old and was built when SSD drives were quite expensive, the C: drive is only 250 gigabytes, so the terabyte D: drive gets a lot of use. Among other data on the D: drive are the Outlook data files, including outlook.pst. I looked at the Outlook data folder. There wasn’t an Outlook.pst folder. Or, rather, there was one, but it had a date of last change of 1/25/2015 which was impossible; I’d been using Outlook all through 2015 and of course the first month of 2016.

Now I had a backup of Outlook.pst on My Book, a very nice Western Digital 5 terabyte external drive. I admit I bought it partly because it was on sale but mostly because I was rather thrilled to have a 5 terabyte drive; my first computer had 8” floppy disk drives of 64 kilobytes for “mass” permanent storage.

Anyway, I had that backup on the external USB drive, so this was not a disaster of great proportions, but it was annoying; I’d have considerable work reconstructing all I had done in the several days since last backup, but I certainly had all the incoming mail I’d received in the past few days, both on Precious, the Surface Pro 3, and Swan, a Windows 10 system in the back room. It would be tedious, but I could do it. However, it would be better to find out what was wrong here.

Years ago I had a problem with a corrupted Outlook.pst file, and fixed it by running a Microsoft program, scanpst.exe. Worth a try, anyway. All I had to do was find scanpst.exe.

Microsoft keeps changing the default locations of programs, and the “improved” search program in Windows 7 and later sucks dead bunnies compared to the older Windows internal search programs, but it does work; only it could not find the program.

I told it to do an extended search on “My Computer” which includes all the other computers mapped to this one, and after long trundling it found scanpst.exe on Bette, a Windows 7 machine asleep upstairs. Bette was previously a main machine, but except as part of my extended backup procedures I hadn’t looked at her since my stroke – going upstairs is a bit of an expedition now.

But there was the program, in Program Files (x86) meaning that it is a 32 bit program. I double clicked on it, so that it would run on Alien Artifact, and Lo! it ran fine. It asked what file it should scan. I browsed to Alien Artifact’s D: Outlook Data file – it’s buried deep in the Jerryp Documents Library – and told it to scan that.

I knew it would take a while so I went to lunch. When I came back it said, Yep, that’s a corrupt file, back it up and I’ll fix it.

No problem. I used Norton Windows Commander, still one of the best file management programs I know, to create a “backup” folder and copied the misdated Outlook.pst into it, then told scanpst.exe to scan it again; this time it went very fast and offered to fix it, please make a backup first. Since I had made a backup I told it to go ahead. Trundle, but not for very long, and it said it was fixed.

The only problem was that the file still had a “last changed” date of 1/25/2015. Very interesting. I figured it could not hurt to open it – after all I still had my 4 day old Outlook.pst file on my backup drive—so I opened Outlook. It came right up. It was up to date, had all of today’s mail up to the moment I had shut down Outlook, and so far as I could see was in perfect shape. All my rules worked.

Not only that: Firefox was fast again, the Calibre update worked smoothly, and I’m working on proofreading There Will Be War Vol IX; I am also preparing a preface to the 2016 edition. It should be published soon.

Eric added this about searching for files in Windows:

The changes to Windows Search started in Vista. The big difference is that the old search in XP started from scratch every time while the newer version uses indexes maintained in idle periods to give far faster results.

The tradeoff is that indexing EVERYTHING would get really slow and most of it would be for indexing areas that most users will rarely or never need to access, especially system files.

Further, many of those files default to hidden from user view to keep them out of trouble. It only takes one radio button in the File Options control panel to change this but it can be annoying if you’ve forgotten about it or are using somebody else’s PC (as is often the case in my job) but it put an end to a lot of incidence of people deleting portions of the OS or program files because they didn’t know what this stuff did and it seemed to be taking up a lot of space for nothing.

It was always one of Window’s weaknesses from evolving out of a DOS shell that it lacked the basic protections that had been normal all along on operating systems that started on large multi-user systems and became available on micros as they grew in capability.

Anyway, the index scope of search can be made to include the entire volume but it means the indexing will require a lot more system time and the benefit would be non-existent for the majority of users whose only concern is finding data files stored in the provide library locations that are part of the default scope.

 

Two Finger Typing and Lost Text

This is the second time I have written this story. One problem with Word and two finger typing is that alt-spacebar does something. It opens a mini-window that I do not quite understand, but there are then keys you can press that delete everything you have done on that Word file. By delete I mean delete; the text is gone, not to the recycle bin, but gone. The Word window you were writing in is closed, and all unsaved text is lost. So far as I can tell there has never been a “Are you sure” warning; certain keys will simply close the Word Window without saving. It doesn’t happen often, but it can happen.

When you are two-finger typing you do not see the screen, so you do not see this mini-window that opens in the upper left of the screen; and if you are typing fast it is possible to hit keys – I am not sure which – that result in closing your Word window and deleting all your text. I did it yesterday, losing 1500 words of text, and that so depressed me that I went into a funk despite my success with scanpst.exe. If you are a sloppy typist, be very careful of alt-spacebar. It’s an easy mistake to make for a sloppy typist and the result is disaster.

Eric’ provided some thoughts about Alt-Spacebar

This is what ALT+spacebar does. It’s part of a set of commands that lets you do window manipulation stuff you’d normally do with a pointing device, in case none is available. I imagine somebody has a situation that requires them to memorize these commands but it must be quite rare. It’s an interesting novelty to play around with but I cannot remember the last time I had a functioning keyboard but no option for a pointing device and the need to for GUI manipulation. Some devices for enabling use by the handicapped make use of these commands to enable interaction with software that has little or no good support for disabled users.

The accidental use probably opened the drop down menu normally found in an app’s upper left corner and defaults to highlighting CLOSE, the equivalent of ALT+F4. If you were near the end of a paragraph when this happened and hit ENTER, the system thought you wanted to close the window. This should have resulted in a “Are you sure?” or ”Do you want to save?” dialogue but another fast ENTER may have dismissed that before it was noticed.

Word keeps a hidden backup of the work in progress to allow recovery from things like power failure but this file gets overwritten by the next session if it isn’t put to use immediately after such a failure. With the speed of the systems today, especially the storage, there is no penalty for greatly reducing the autosave period as a safeguard. There was a time when AutoSave would disrupt input but you’d have to be working on a fairly massive file on a modern system for it to be noticeable. This, of course, is one of those subtle improvements the super-fast PCI-e SSDs will give us.

[More information about Alt-Spacebar is here http://cnet.co/1QVjamp ]

Rick Hellewell recalled an early story about Windows keyboard equivalents:

A friend from early Windows was really a techie about computers and Windows. He like to delve deep into the hardware and software of PC’s and Windows. I recall that he disconnected his mouse from his computer for a week to force himself to learn all of the keyboard shortcuts available in Windows.

The moral of this story is simple: save early and often, as we did in the old days.

When I first started writing with computers, back in S-100 days. I used to save after every paragraph even though I was saving to an 8” floppy and that took time. I hated losing text.

As the years went by, disasters became more and more rare. When I had this one, I opened Word and went to File >Options > Save and discovered that my auto-save was set to ten minutes. I can write a lot in ten minutes, and apparently did yesterday before I lost it all. I have since set the auto-save time, first to 3 minutes, and when I found that I did not notice that, I have reset it to 1 minute; I don’t notice that either. Saves, even of large documents, are fast. I suspect that if I have a whole novel up I will probably change auto-save back to a longer time. But perhaps not. Ten minutes, though, is entirely too long.

Regarding alt-spacebar, It is certainly possible that I hit Return just after alt-spacebar, but there is simply no “Are you sure” warning before the Window closes with loss of all text. I’ve experimented. With fast drives it is not a large problem: I have set all my machines to save every minute, and I have not noticed having done so; I can’t lose more than a minute’s worth of text now, and while that would be annoying it would no longer be a disaster. Hurrah for faster drives! Still, alt-spacebar is a dangerous, and in my judgment a needless “feature”.

Transferring AutoCorrect Dictionaries

Eric Pobirs reminds me:

‘Technically, we know how to transfer AutoCorrect settings but the multitude of identically named files is such that we gave up in the face of the lengthy trial and error that would have been required to make it work. There is probably an app out there to sync such things but they tend to be pricey for single users across multiple machines. Microsoft has been implementing more and more sync functionality in Windows and Office, so it is possible it will be built-in someday.”

To which I can only shout encouragement to Microsoft. It is time they took some notice of the inconveniences they cause normal users in their constant efforts to add “improvements”. For some of us the improvements are needless and sometimes interfere with the program’s utility for us, even if it does add some feature useful to other users. I know it’s a bother to look into how people actually use software, but isn’t there some obligation to long time users?

The Dreaded 550 Error

While I was dithering about what to do with my lost outlook.pst, I went to Precious, the Surface Pro 3 with Surface Pro 4 keyboard, because of course I could not use my main machine to read or answer mail; once that outlook.pst file is corrupted, Outlook won’t open until it is scanned and fixed, or replaced.

Precious was doing something odd: I could reply to certain mail, like mail from my advisors group, but ordinary mail, whether a reply or original mail, got a message from “System Administrator”:

Your message did not reach some or all of the intended recipients.

Subject:     Sent from Surface Pro

Sent:  1/30/2016 10:50 AM

The following recipient(s) cannot be reached:

Alex Pournelle (alexp@xxx.net) on 1/30/2016 10:50 AM

Server error: ‘550 through this server.’

This no matter who I tried to send to. I can send mail to myself, or to certain lists, but nowhere else. I have discussed this with my advisors, who are pretty sharp. I have also looked on-line but the discussion seems confusing. I know that Swan, a modern Windows 10 desktop running the same version of Office as does the Surface Pro, does not have this problem; and of course the Windows 7 Alien Artifact does not either.

It is merely annoying at the moment, since I only use the Surface to keep track of experimental Windows 10 changes; but it is an annoyance. The loss of Outlook on my main machine caused me to do a good bit of work on Precious, and I find that the Surface Pro 4 keyboard is the best two-finger keyboard I have yet found, better than the Logitech K360’s I have installed on Alien Artifact and Swan; and while I have mixed emotions about the small screen, I also notice the screen as I am typing; with a desktop the big 27” screen is at eye level so when I am staring at the keyboard, as I must, I do not see the screen at all.

It is possible that I will be able to work on novels on the Surface Pro; that Pro 4 keyboard really is superior. The keys are large, and they are well separated; I don’t hit control-spacebar very often. On the other hand, I only have Office 365 on the Surface, which means teaching AutoCorrect about woul;d and so forth is much more difficult.

It is possible that some Outlook setting has been changed, although it would have had to “just happen” since I did not use that Surface Pro at all since the last time I answered mail with it; I’ll keep looking, and perhaps someone will have a cogent suggestion.

And perhaps Microsoft never will get around to fixing the 550 error, meaning that my Surface is useless as a travelling machine. I keep thinking it must be Microsoft and one of the recent updates to Windows 10, because I have barely used the Surface recently.

When I first connected the Surface Pro 4 keyboard to it, the Fingerprint ID system worked just fine; then there was a period of a couple of weeks when it did not work at all, and I had to type in the password; then another software revision, and the fingerprint system worked fine again, worked much better that the IBM system on the ThinkPad.

I had done nothing to the system; all the updates were automatic. The fingerprint worked, then did not work, then worked again; no word from Microsoft, just automatic updates. I can hope that another update will fix the dreaded 550 error.

On the other hand, Outlook works just fine on Swan, a Windows 10 system with Office 365; I’ll have to dig to find its Outlook settings; perhaps they differ from those on Precious, but I don’t see why they would; I certainly never changed anything. Anyway that’s for another time.

Winding Down

The book of the month is Angus Deaton, The Great Escape, Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality.
Deaton writes well, and is careful in what he says. I suspect he and I would not be in great agreement on many things, but he is very careful of his data. He also points out that both the poor and the wealthy now have access to benefits, particularly in health, that the wealthiest and most powerful could not have had a few years ago; that world health among the richest and the poorest has become much better in the last hundred years, and continues to rise. That includes life expectancy. See Matthew 6:27.

We didn’t get to the movies this month. I get DVD’s of many of the acclaimed nominee movies, but I have not been looking at them; frankly, Birdman was so disappointing to me last year that I am a little leery of critical acclaim. I’m sure that will pass.

I will try to be more regular with these observations in future.

We invite your comments below. Be aware that Dr. Pournelle does not respond to comments due to time considerations, but we welcome your thoughts. – Editor

October 2014 Column, Part 3

CHAOS MANOR REVIEWS

Computing at Chaos Manor

Column 370, October, 2014

Part 3 of 3

Jerry concludes the October 2014 column  with some thoughts on Windows 10, and Winds Down with the Books of the Month and other short thoughts.

Windows 10

I have previously said that I am not greatly impressed with Windows 8. It now resides only on the Surface Pro 3; all our other machines either have Windows 7, or Windows 10 which is now available as a free trial upgrade to Windows 8. (The technology preview version will time out in April 2015.)

Windows 10 installs easily, and it is a great deal more intuitive in use than was Windows 8. I have been using it for a week or so, and it will probably be the OS for my secondary “main machine”. I’m still using Windows 7 on this column, my daybook, and email. At some point I’ll probably change but I am in no hurry. On the other hand I have no urge to restore the Windows-8-upgraded-to-10 system to Windows 7, and I find some parts preferable.

Windows 8 has been called a disaster for Microsoft. Some put it in the same category as New Coke. Coca Cola found some relief in reviving Coke Classic, but Microsoft doesn’t really have that option. Everyone eagerly awaited Windows 9, and over on my day book I asked readers to suggest ways Microsoft could get them to love Windows 9. (Note that these responses were received before the “Windows 10” name was announced.)

Here are a few typical answers.

Jerry,

You asked if anyone likes Windows 8, which it seems the general consensus rates a disaster. For myself, the answer is both yes and no. My touchscreen tablet and mouse-interfaced PC both use Windows 8. I love it on the tablet, but hate it on the PC. The tabular start screen array and the simulated page turning feature are terrific when used with touchscreen. With mouse they add nothing. The page turning function, which has the irritating tendency to flip applications whenever one drags the mouse across the screen, is downright annoying! So I adore Windows 8 in touchscreen mode, but think very dimly of it minus that. My own non-expert, somewhat ‘conspiracy theory’ take on things is Windows 8 was specifically developed for touchscreens, which the tech industry probably considers the immediate future of user interfaces. Disseminating it across the board was done both in anticipation that touchscreens will soon dominate the tech market, and to accelerate the progression by forcing users to rapidly assimilate the touchscreen methodology in all venues.

I speculated touchscreens are the immediate future of user interfaces. Their ultimate future can be glimpsed in Mary Lou Jepsen’s remarkable TED talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNDhu2uqfdo

Your insight on these matters would be most appreciated.

Dr. Ian Nieves

Actually, we have fairly similar views. Microsoft was so concerned about touch screens that they forgot that most users don’t have them yet, and they put too much of that and too little of more traditional mouse/keyboard utility into Windows 8.

I have been experimenting with the tech preview of Windows 10, and I think it has taken much of the sting out of Windows 8. I wouldn’t recommend the present edition of 10 for Surface systems, but it has made my desktop Windows 8 system fairly pleasant.

Dr. Pournelle,

What would make me love Windows 9 would be abandoning reliance on a touch-screen based UI development. In Win8, Microsoft has tried to emulate IOS and OSX, going to a similar interface for telephones and desktop. Apple could do this, but Microsoft cannot. The small-screen + touch concept is really antithetical to the PC usage model for the majority of people. They’ve tried to apply UI concepts for telephones and gaming machines to their base, niche product, and alienated the users of the product.

As it is, I have learned to get along with (not like) Windows 8 minus Metro. I bought a Dell all-in-one 21 desktop, without touch, for my business with Win 8 pre-installed, and as of 8.1, have made the default look-and-feel like Windows 7 standard desktop, only resorting to Metro when I must access some of the built-in management applications. I did not put on MS Office, since I do not care for the pricing model, but use Libre Office, since it meets all of my needs and has features not available in MS Office. I installed and am learning to use Quickbooks, which feels and appears like a Win 7 program from desktop.

I have an older, small ASUS Vivobook, also with Win 8.1, that I also have customized the same way. Mostly, I have do not use the touch interface, and have tried to customize it to prefer the mousepad and physical keyboard.

And with all those, my main computer is a dual-boot, traditional laptop with a 17 inch screen. Win 7 is available, but seldom used, with most of my work and entertainment done through Linux.

Like the screen keyboard, I do not like most of the features that were supposed to make Win 8 into an iPad (some of which Leo Laporte has approved) like the ability to snap an application to the entire desktop, or split the desktop into two applications — on the larger screen they are not useful, and on the Vivobook, these features are unnecessary.

It is possibly unfair (to Coke) to compare it to Windows 8, after all, New Coke was a one-time, deliberate, and successful marketing campaign. Win 8 comes after Vista, Win 98, Win 2K, Win 3, DOS 6, DOS 4, and many others not well received, and even the successful MS releases have needed many modifications: IMO Win XP and 7, DOS 5 either were faulty as introduced or fell much short on needed functionality. In connection with MS OS releases, I keep thinking of the Ian Fleming line from James Bond, something like “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, thrice is enemy action.” MS does learn, if temporarily, from their mistakes, so your suggestion for WinHEC could help. Certainly giving prior notice of their innovations has helped in the past.

MS has always had Mac envy, and has always done well when they forgot that, and really did their own thing. What would make me love Windows 9 would be a concentration on a traditional PC desktop (with touch options for touch-pad only devices), and low-cost applications.

Happy belated Birthday, and many returns.

Anxiously awaiting Mamelukes, -d

 

Thanks for the kind words. I do not believe Microsoft has any malice toward its customers. Napoleon Bonaparte once said “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” They really need someone like Chris Peters back as a VP.

What would make me love it?

  1. A newer better interface that yet at the same time doesn’t force me to learn the new interface but instead conforms to what I know (the Windows 7 interface). I’m gripping onto Win 7 for as long as I can for this very reason.
  2. Microsoft does have something with OneDrive and OneNote and the Windows phone. I have all three, but the fragile ecosphere is broken multiple ways. It was a PITA going from Skydrive to OneDrive since I was trying to link across: 1 windows phone 7.5, 2 desktops running windows 7, and a laptop running windows 7. Even worse, my Windows phone got bricked and I needed a complete reinstall by my cell carrier, resulting in a complete lack of integration. If I’m going to use the cloud I’d like a way to restore the cloud. I’ve heard that Social networking apps in Win 8 are more broken than in Windows phone 7, because Microsoft wants to be big brother.

This caused MS to lose the hearts and minds of customers. If Microsoft encouraged this 3rd party integration they could steal market share from Android and Apple. For all of the outed win phone benefits of a closed ecosystem it lacks:

  1. backup/restore to include settings, as I found out the hardware.
  2. Better privacy/OS isolation from apps. Every app wants all sort of unfettered access to MY data (address book, GPS, etc).
  3. Multiple user/profile support. I actually carry two cellphones. One for work and one for personal use. Having two phone numbers and user profiles linked to the phone would be hugely beneficial….making N profiles (thing anonymous throw away profiles to run 3rd party apps in a Jail) would be incredible.
  4. Plug ins for 3rd party privacy and encryption, such as TOR, SIM ID masking, etc…In other words, do one better than the “Blackphone”
  5. Continue the awesome camera support from Nokia F. Add better microphone/transcription support.

A better less bloated MS Office. Better disk data management/indexing. I doubt if MS would ever do this, but the ability to switch desktops and actually use third party desktops such a KDE.

-G

I remember when Office exceeded 60 megabytes. I called it “bloatware” at the time, despite pleas from friends at Microsoft, but I was mistaken: when it first came out, 300 megabyte hard drives were plummeting in price, and within a year it was hard to find a new machine with fewer than 500 mb. One thing Microsoft always did well was anticipate the effects of Moore’s Law. If it works at all, ship it. The machines will get better, and early quirks due to machine speed and memory limits will soon be forgotten. Moore’s Law essentially assured Microsoft’s victory in the Windows/OS-2 contest.

The comments on Windows 9 can be largely summed in Rod McFadden’s observation,

“If 9 becomes to 8 as 7 was to Vista, I’m not sure I’d love it, but I’d sure welcome it!”

I encourage all of you to send suggestions on what would make you love the new Windows 10.

WINDING DOWN

The book of the month is Does Santa Exist (Dutton, 2014), by my neighbor Eric Kaplan. Eric is a writer and Co-Executive Producer of The Big Bang Theory. He is also a candidate for a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley. Think about that background, and speculate what kind of book the writer of one of the most popular TV comedies might produce. Now fold in his philosophy studies, and the subject matter. The result is about what you might hope for, a serious work on ontology (what does it mean to exist?), and epistemology (how do we know anything at all?) that is very readable. Imagine Sheldon Cooper and Amy Farrah Fowler in a dialog on the matter of existence and understanding. Now understand that it’s a serious work. Recommended.

Another book this month was Amy Chua, World on Fire, (Anchor 2003. The subtitle is How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, and that summarizes the book quite well. Liberal democracy and market capitalism may well be the best goal to work toward, but if you don’t start with a tradition of law and order and property rights, trying to impose it can do more harm than good: particularly in ethnically divided societies which have “market dominant minorities” – think Chinese in Indonesia, and Indians in South Africa. Democracy empowers the poor majority to despoil the already resented minority, while encouraging the wealthy to defend themselves, their families, and their property. The End of History with the triumph of liberal democracy was predicted after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is a more realistic assessment of the future.

I didn’t get any computer books to review last month.

There is no game of the month, mostly because I don’t have time to do games just now. I hope to change that. I’d like to see new games…

Our experiences with the long neglected iMac and Time Machine have made us appreciate the iMac again. It’s rugged, has consumed little of my time, and goes on working without fuss. We haven’t had a backup in six years – and we haven’t needed one.

Alex is using Office 365 and he cautions “If you use Office 365 and you want to run Word on an airplane, you had better start in the terminal where you have Wi-Fi because you must log in to Office 365 before you can use it.” Logging in requires Internet access.

Those using or contemplating getting a Surface Pro 3 should see:

Surface Pro 3 Tip: Customize Surface Pen with the Surface Hub App http://winsupersite.com/surface/surface-pro-3-tip-customize-surface-pen-surface-hub-app This may be the app you’ve been waiting for.

PLEDGE REDUEX

As I write this, KUSC, the Los Angeles Classical Music Station, is holding a pledge drive. KUSC operates on the Public Radio model: it’s free to listen to, but it is listener supported, and without that support it will go away. Chaos Manor Reviews works the same way. We don’t pound you with ads, and I only annoy you with pledge drives when KUSC holds theirs.

If you have not subscribed, this would be a good time to do that. If you have subscribed but can’t remember when you last renewed – or if you remember and it was a good while ago – this would be a splendid time to renew.

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NEXT MONTH

The Time Machine took seven hours to do the six year backup of the iMac. Next month: more on iMac, Time Machine, iPhone, and of course the Surface Pro 3 as we continue to upgrade computing at Chaos Manor. The Airport, with its network renamed, continues to work as always. Tomorrow I intend to upgrade the iMac OS, now that we have a good backup.

We’ve got Chaos Manor into the 21st Century. Now to bring it up to date.

 

October 2014 Column, Part 2

CHAOS MANOR REVIEWS

Computing at Chaos Manor

Column 370, October, 2014

Part 2 of 3

Jerry continues the October column with with a discussion on “Precious” (Jerry’s Microsoft Surface Prod 3), Windows 8, Getting Some Work Done, and his struggles and (mostly) triumph over AutoCorrect in MS Word.

Precious, Windows 8, and Getting Some Work Done

I really like the Microsoft Surface Pro 3. It feels right and it’s the right size. The screen is bright and very readable. When it’s working properly it does so very well indeed. I like it enough that I’m willing to work hard at learning it.

Precious has a very steep a learning curve for me. Part of that is a problem with Windows 8, part with the latest Word. I rented Office 365 ($100 a year—you can’t buy it), and the version of Word that currently comes with that is Word 2013. Some of it is the way the tablet works: it’s quite different from the Compaq TC 1100, which I carried to several COMDEX and Consumer Electronics conventions as my only computer, and never regretted doing that. I filed a number of stories from Las Vegas with that Compaq, and I really miss it.

Of course the TC 1100 didn’t have a true touch screen, but you could do all those things with a Wacom stylus. There was an editing program – I don’t recall which, but it read and wrote .rtf documents – that I could use to hand-edit long documents, using the standard proof readers’ marks to change the text, capitalize words, and even insert new text. I edited many a column on that Compaq TC 1100 while on an airplane in an uncomfortable seat with the passenger in front of me leaning back as far as he could. I really liked that machine and I have been hoping that the Surface Pro 3 would work as well as the Compaq did.

Peter Glaskowsky has been doing some research, and he suggests that Ink Gestures https://web.archive.org/web/20060216015431/http://www.jumpingminds.com/InkGestures/index.htm
demonstrated in this video http://www.tabletpctalk.com/events/microsoft_mobile_platforms_division_partners_briefing_2006/Word_Ink_Gestures.wmv would be the editing program I used with the Compaq. I fear I don’t remember, and it is no longer for sale. I do hope that someone will come up with such a program as an app for the Surface Pro 3.

Can the Surface Be Your Only Laptop?

There are two discussions here, hardware and software.

The major hardware problem with the Surface Pro 3 is the keyboard. It’s a nice keyboard, and I may get used to it, but I probably won’t. Two finger typists won’t have any problem with it at all: the keys are large enough that you won’t miss them, even when typing in a long password, and the key labels are big enough to see.

Sloppy touch typists – that’s me – will have a different problem. The keys, while large enough, are very close together, and it’s extremely easy to hit two keys at once.

The Surface Pro is also small enough that those with poor eyesight – that’s me again along with just about everyone else my age – need to sit fairly close to the screen. The good news is that kickstand screen backrest can be set to nearly any angle, so that the table height is not critical. Given a decent table – the desk in most motel rooms will be fine – you’ll be able to grind out a good bit of text with this machine, assuming you can type with that keyboard.

The software is good. It makes use of the touch screen, and given some practice the stylus is neat. I’m used to the Wacom stylus, which is quite different from this in both buttons and feel, but it’s not that hard to get used to this one. There are two buttons on the stylus barrel. The top one right-clicks, the bottom one erases. It doesn’t take that long to make their use automatic.

The bottom line here is that you’ll want some accessories – a good port expander will be the first one, and that TrendNet USB 3.0- to-Ethernet adapter will be the second – but yes, you could go to a major conference with nothing else. You’ll know you compromised, but you can get the work done.

That’s provided you are guaranteed a table and chair.

Using a Laptop as a Laptop

What is important about the Surface Pro 3 if you’re considering it to be your only laptop is that they’ve made it so small that it’s not really a laptop at all. That is, if you put it on your lap and try to write with it, you must sit upright and keep your knees fairly close together. That gets uncomfortable fast. Moreover, the angle between the screen and the keyboard is not set by the machine: the screen needs that kickstand backrest set, or it will simply fall over. You have to let that kickstand rest on a knee.

If you do sit upright with your feet on the floor – about the only way it’s going to stay steady enough to use for much – the screen is a bit small, but that of course is a function of age and eyesight.

All in all, though, if I were caught in a conference that didn’t provide tables for the press, I’d rather have a pen and paper log book. Of course I haven’t tried Precious with OneNote and simply a stylus; I never quite had the nerve to do that with the Compaq either, but I could actually type with the Compaq on my lap more steadily than I manage with this.

The bottom line is if I ever go on the road with only the Surface, I’ll be sure to have a paper log book – but then I’m never without one, so that won’t change much.

Or will it? Peter Glaskowsky reports:

“I frequently use my Surface Pro, like all my previous Tablet PCs, as a notepad with a stylus. When I’m traveling, I usually leave the keyboard(s) behind in the hotel room and take only the tablet with me to the conference. OneNote works very well on these modern tablets, since they’re fast enough to eliminate the sluggishness that plagued the early Windows tablets.

“I’ve long since reached the point I will only write something on paper when I have no way to access OneNote. With OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud-based storage service, OneNote automatically backs up its notebooks to the cloud and syncs them with all my other OneNote devices– including my Mac, my iPad, and my Samsung Slate. By comparison, a piece of paper seems unacceptably fragile.”

That’s more encouragement for relearning OneNote, and I’ll keep at it. Even with all the quirks and quibbles of the Compaq TC 1100, I found the combination of that tablet and OneNote with fast access to the Internet to be the most powerful and effective research tool I had ever experienced; and in fact I haven’t found anything yet that would top it. Once I get more familiar with Windows 8 and the new OneNote, I may not need that paper log book.

Problems Remain

One of the main irritations with the Surface Pro 3 is that when I am trying to fix a problem with Word, I invariably touch something that activates a Windows 8 feature I didn’t want. Closing that can bring out something else. Precious is fast, so very fast that a few touches can take me far away from what I was doing.

AutoCorrect in MS Word

Another problem with using Precious is more the fault of Word 2013 than of either the Surface or Windows 8. For reasons I don’t understand, Microsoft has made AutoCorrect more difficult to use. Fortunately there’s a way around that, because AutoCorrect is a very powerful tool. It can help a lot with problems caused by fat fingers and strange keyboards.

I became addicted to AutoCorrect because of one of its lesser known features. For nearly every version of Word ever sold, including Word 2013, if you misspell a word and it is marked with that squiggly little red line, you can right click the word and you will be offered one or more words to correct it to. This is how most people use the spelling check program, and it works just fine. If you’re on a writing roll you can simply ignore misspellings until you’re done, then go back and fix them. Everyone knows about this.

But if you are a sloppy typist, as I am, there’s a much more elegant solution to the problem. When you see a mistyped word and you notice it’s one you see a lot with this keyboard – such as “fro0m” for “from” because you hit both keys – you can, in Word 2003 through Word 2010, right click on the word and you will see, in addition to a choice of words, an offer to go to AutoCorrect. If you do that, you get to choose the correct spelling, after which it not only corrects this instance, but all of them in future. You’ll never see “fro0m” again unless you deliberately go back and retype it again as I just did for both instances in this paragraph.

Obviously this can be misused, but used with a spot of care it’s a lifesaver. I try to use Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboards on all my machines, but I generally can’t do that with laptops and portables, and new key layouts encourage me to make mistakes. If I notice that I make the same mistake often I can put that mistake into AutoCorrect and it won’t happen again. Of course you want to be careful and aim AutoCorrect only at mistakes with unambiguous resolutions, but given a bit of common sense in its use AutoCorrect can save you a lot of time in your writing.

AutoCorrect with Word 2013

As we’ve noted, for many people the Surface Pro 3 keyboard is quite usable, not as good as the old Compaq 1100 TC board was, but a lot better than many tablet keyboards. The keys are large and square and have a good feel. The problem for me is that there is no key separation at all. They are real keys, and actually depress with a decent feeling, but they look a lot like the “keys” you see on a touch screen. They are only separated by a thin line, so it is very easy to hit two keys at once if you type fast, which I tend to do.

I am an admittedly sloppy typist – back in the controversy over the first IBM PC keyboard an IBM executive flat out told me to learn to type if I didn’t like the IBM PC key layout – but there’s not a lot I can do about it now, and I suspect I am not alone. I keep wondering if there can’t be software that prevents double key pressing, so that if you hit two keys at once, only one will actually print. That would solve a lot of the problems. The problem is that some good typists haven’t let go of the last key before striking the next, which makes the problem very complex. I can keep hoping. After all, I don’t type that way. But see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rollover_(key)

My solution to the problem of keyboards that encourage me to make frequent errors has always been AutoCorrect. When I type “gfind” the resolution is ambiguous, but “qwuick” has only one likely outcome. When I encounter a new keyboard it may take me a couple of days, but eventually I can use AutoCorrect to tame that keyboard so that I can get some work done.

I always tell new writers that the secret of becoming a successful writer is to have written enough that you no longer pay attention to what you are doing, but simply tell the story; the less you have to think about the mechanics of writing, from typing errors to grammatical complexities, the better your story will come out.

Alex tells me that’s important advice which I should repeat, so you may see it again.

Alas, Word 2013 makes taming the Surface Pro 3 keyboard much more difficult. With the default settings it can be done, but you need to be determined. With default Word 2013, when you encounter a misspelled word, right clicking on it displays a choice of words, but no access to AutoCorrect. To get to AutoCorrect, mark the word either with the pen, or your finger, or double-click it to mark it, but don’t single click it. Go up to File, and click that. You’ll see options as the last on a list of menu items. Click options, and you’ll see proofing on the menu that displays; click proofing and you will see a bunch of options for spell checking. Look them over.

While you are here, this will be as good a time as any to unselect the option not to spell check words that have numbers in them. It is selected by default, but since many of my typing errors with computer keyboards involve hitting a number which is above the letter I am reaching for, I need to deselect it, because otherwise the spelling checker won’t see “r4esources” as misspelled. Whether you do that or not you’ll see AutoCorrect enclosed in an oval, sort of a button. Click that and you’ll be at AutoCorrect and if you correctly marked the word to correct it will be in the left side of the area that lets you add to AutoCorrect options. Carefully type in what you want it changed to. Do OK and get back to your text. Your word will now be corrected, and you’ll never make that typing error again unless you really want to.

If this seems a long way around Red Robin’s barn to do something Microsoft previously made easy with a single right-click, I agree completely. I can’t think why Microsoft took the easy path to AutoCorrect out of Word 2013, but it is one more proof that Microsoft has given up having actual users of their product do pre-distribution testing. In the early days of the computer revolution, many companies used their customers as their quality control department. Most of those that did this have not survived.

Fortunately Microsoft’s revision programmers left in a better way to do AutoCorrect, but you have to discover it.

Discoveries

I’ve been writing thousands of words about high tech stuff for thirty years, and I have an astonishingly low record of flat-out errors. It’s not that I’m all that smart. For more than twenty of those years I had the BYTE editorial staff as backup, and if I got something wrong they told me. After BYTE went away I was in a quandary, but fortunately a number of friends and readers have volunteered to serve the same purpose, and I run this stuff through my advisors before publishing it.

I learn a good bit that way. In this case, I learned that Microsoft hasn’t actually eliminated the easy path to using AutoCorrect. You can make it fairly painless, but it takes determination. Thanks to Peter Glaskowsky for having the patience to teach me.

First, Word has a feature I never even thought about: the Quick Access Bar. This is a series of tiny icons, by default at the top of the Word window. It’s always there, even if you make the rest of the ribbon vanish with control-F1. The Quick Access Bar has been there for a long time, certainly since Word 2007 because I see the little icons now, and in fact I often use one of them, the little curly arrow that undoes whatever you just typed. There’s also the familiar 3.5” floppy icon that now means Save, and which I still use out of habits formed back when you saved early and often or you lost your work.

There are others, but one, which is always on the far right of the Quick Access Bar, is nearly invisible. It’s a tiny hyphen above a tiny down arrow. Mousing it tells you that it’s Customize Quick Access Bar (QAB hereafter). Click it and a confusing – at least confusing to me – menu drops down. At the bottom of that is the menu item More Commands. Clicking this shows you what looks like a large list of commands you can add to the QAB. Some of them may interest you, but in fact you ain’t seen nothing yet. Above that long list of commands is another little window that has above it a label: “Choose Commands From”; this little window lets you select a source for more commands.

Choose “All Commands”, and the list of items you can add to the QAB becomes enormous. The one we’re interested in is AutoCorrect Options, which will have associated with it a little icon that contains a lightning bolt. Click on it, look over to the right for the “Add” button, click that, and Lo! That icon will appear in the list of QAB commands it shows you have enabled.

The Windows 2013 AutoCorrect problem is now 90% solved. (It would be better if you could add it back to the right-click menu.) When you mistype a word, double click it to mark it; go up to the Quick Access Bar above the ribbon, and click the tiny lightning bolt you have just added. The AutoCorrect screen will open, your mistyped word will be in the input area, and you need only (carefully) type what you want it changed to and exit. This also works in Windows 2007, but the right click option is a bit faster.

Now that I have this technique installed, I can begin to tame the Precious keyboard to correct mistakes my fat fingers seem intent on making; and I have done enough of them that she’s already a lot easier to use.

Why Not A New Keyboard?

Many of my complaints about Surface Pro 3 seem to be centered around the keyboard. Peter Glaskowsky suggests I can get any Bluetooth enabled keyboard I like and use that. And so I can, but of course that sort of negates the whole point of a small combination tablet and laptop. Apple makes a pretty decent little Bluetooth keyboard that works quite well with the iPad, and if you packed up a briefcase of iPad, keyboard, port expander, and iPad desk stand you’d have quite a good tablet that you could use to write with, but I think I’d rather just bring a good laptop, and add a tablet to the mix. My hope is that the Surface Pro 3 will turn out to be as useful as the Compaq TC 1100, but faster and more versatile. I still haven’t given up on that.

There are several morals to this story. One is that Microsoft sometimes leaves you important options rather than taking them away, but they aren’t much good at telling you about them. When Chris Peters was VP of Development at Microsoft – his principal product was Word, then later all of Office – he frequently brought in users from Seattle offices to try his new stuff. Executive secretaries, engineering secretaries, writers, journalists – he had a fairly large team of users he could rely on. They even had an internal team of developers/testers who watched through one-way mirrors as users tried to adopt a new feature. During that period Microsoft documentation got better, as did user friendliness. All that seems gone now. I think Microsoft ought to bring Chris back to re-establish that team. Surely he’s bored with running a bowling association?

And if they can’t get Chris Peters back, they should try Peter Glaskowsky.

 Part 3 of the column will conclude with some thoughts on Windows 10, and Winding Down with the Books of the Month and other short thoughts.  It is scheduled for publication on October 30, 2014

 

October 2014 Column, Part 1

CHAOS MANOR REVIEWS

Computing at Chaos Manor

Column 370, October, 2014

Part 1 of 3


PLEDGE DRIVE

As I write this, KUSC, the Los Angeles Classical Music Station, is holding a pledge drive.  KUSC operates on the Public Radio model: it’s free to listen to, but it is listener supported, and without that support it will go away.  Chaos Manor Reviews works the same way.  We don’t pound you with ads, and I only annoy you with pledge drives when KUSC holds theirs.

If you have not subscribed, this would be a good time to do that.  If you have subscribed but can’t remember when you last renewed – or if you remember and it was a good while ago – this would be a splendid time to renew.

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Wi-Fi, Apple Airport Time Capsule, Tablets, and Windows 10

This month continues the story of upgrading Chaos Manor. Some systems haven’t been looked at since early 2008, when I began the hard X-ray treatments for brain cancer.  The cancer was gone by June of 2008, but recovering from radiation sickness took a bit longer.  In early 2008 I acquired a number of Mac items, including an iMac with a Apple Airport Time Capsule. They were installed. As Peter Glaskowsky once observed, with the Mac everything is either very easy or nearly impossible. They were easy and worked well. Then somewhere back then Time Capsule but not Airport got turned off. It’s back on now, as you’ll see.

Much of the column will discuss important things about Word that you probably don’t know; I know they surprised me. Mostly I use Word to create simple manuscripts of fiction and non-fiction; but my son Alex, who uses Word for very complex documents involving NASA purchases and sales, didn’t know them either, so I suspect you don’t.

We’ll also refer to a dialogue on Ontology between Sheldon Cooper and Amy Farrah Fowler.

Making Wi-Fi Work Properly

I have spent a month now trying to get The Precious, our sort-of-new Microsoft Surface Pro 3, set up to work in my breakfast room. In the course of that we learned a lot about Wi-Fi in old houses with lath and plaster walls and ancient electrical wiring.

The original Chaos Manor Wi-Fi network was run by a Belkin Pre-N router: that is, we set it up before the IEEE 802.11n standard was adopted, upgrading from 802.11b or g or whatever we had before that; and it was enormously better than anything we had before.  It was put in an upstairs window in my office suite, and for the first time I could sit out by the pool in the back yard and have good Wi-Fi service.  This was also the first router I owned which supported multiple antennas; we take that feature for granted now, in phones, computers and tablets, but at the time the added reliability was a revelation.

We also sort of had Wi-Fi in the TV room in the back of the house, and Good Enough Wi-Fi in the Monk’s Cell. That is a room in another part of the house, an upstairs that doesn’t connect to my office suite. It was the room of the oldest of the boys still living in the house when any of them were still here. It serves as a guest room now, but I keep a Lenovo ThinkPad with Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboard and big flat screen monitor at a writing desk I use when I want to get away from the telephone, house noises, and other distractions. The room has its own window-mounted air conditioner, and a lamp stand at the writing table – and nothing else other than some high school textbooks. No games, and the Wi-Fi service up there is good enough to use for Google but nowhere speedy enough for on-line games.

Wi-Fi was never good enough in the breakfast room, which is where I really want to use a tablet while I am reading the morning newspapers.

Over the past week we installed new Wi-Fi and Internet routers.  I’m going to let Eric Pobirs, my long-suffering associate, tell you about that adventure.

Report by Eric Pobirs

    I’m going to cut to the chase and put the solution first. The powerline bridge in Roberta’s office, which served as the connection point between the Cat5 and powerline networks in Chaos Manor, decided to go on strike. This was a Trendnet model that had been used to get the TV room at the far end of the house on the network. The one in the TV room had been replaced with a Netgear powerline Wi-Fi Extender, which is the same generation of powerline bridge with an 802.11n AP on board. Another had been installed in the dining nook off the kitchen. Because these are sold in kits with a bridge, there were two unused bridges left from the purchase. Installing one of those in place of the elderly Trendnet restored service. It is unclear as of this writing whether the Trendnet failed or just needed a reset. It should also be noted that this was the same location where a switch recently needed to be reset.

    Now, the problem is solved but the process of how I got there is another problem. Several somewhat expensive items were purchased that ultimately had no bearing on fixing the problem. It can be said that two of these items were desirable upgrades anyway, and the third added a useful bit of versatility to the Surface Pro 3; but in a situation where no upgrades were planned this would have been a costly misadventure due to inadequate troubleshooting. Some aspects would never have come up in a more, shall we say, boring household but such is the life of a tech journalist.

The problem began when Jerry found he couldn’t connect to the wireless network from the Surface Pro 3 aka the Precious. This appeared to be limited to just Precious but it became clear in testing that while other phones running iOS and Android were seeing the Starswarm-Pre-N SSID, they weren’t making a usable connection. This appeared to be a repeat of a problem in Larry Niven’s home where a room that had been connected by powerline successfully for several years would no longer allow it. Powerline networking was still functional in other parts of the house, where it was driving Wi-Fi extender modules. The same thing appeared to be happening at Chaos Manor but in two locations at once. We tested a number of conditions but it wasn’t until much later that I checked to be sure that the bridge between the network types was still working, which should have been one of the first things I examined.

 But upgrades beckoned and that siren call could not be ignored. The existing Wi-Fi had, or at least we thought, consisted of an aging Belkin Pre-N (802.11n before the spec was finalized) router in bridge/AP mode, a D-Link router whose radio may or may not have been turned off, and the two Netgear powerline Wi-Fi Extenders servicing the two downstairs areas. If powerline was no longer an option, we’d see if more up-to-date Wi-Fi equipment could be made to reach those areas. The Belkin Pre-N was positioned by the window of the large storage room upstairs, overlooking much of the downstairs area it hoped to serve. The D-Link router lived next door in the utility room with the cable modem, main switch, D-Link NAS box, and various tools and implements of destruction. The utility room is fairly noisy in the RF sense and cuts a fair amount of the signal from any radio inside, thus the rationale for having a separate AP in the other room.

     All of the radios went by the name Starswarm-Pre-N as their SSID, though their MAC addresses remained distinct, of course. It was hoped that client devices would automatically choose the AP with the strongest signal and switch as needed. This is Netgear’s advice in their manual for the powerline Wi-Fi extender. In real life, some do and some don’t. When moving around the house it could be necessary to disconnect and tell the device to rescan. Still, this meant less clutter to the device’s list of connections than having a distinct name for every AP. But this also made diagnosing the failure more complicated.

In pursuit of upgrading the network infrastructure and finding the point of failure, we picked up three items. First was the APA20 Access Point by Amped Wireless (http://www.ampedwireless.com/products/apa20.html ). This device was pretty much the only option, as everything else I found was much older and lower powered. In any case, retailers no longer bother to stock dedicated Access Points and instead favor routers with a bridge mode in their firmware. That should be adequate and in fact the APA20’s feature set makes it clear that it is a router in all but firmware. But I’ve had hassles in the past with equipment that implemented bridge modes poorly and didn’t want to have an ongoing battle between two devices that both thought they should be performing the same service to the network. The annoying aspect of this is that these days consumer APs sell in lesser numbers and are thus priced higher than the router model that are the exact same hardware and only distinguished by the firmware.

The unit is pretty loaded. Dual-band 802.11AC Phase 1. Five gigabit ports, one for connecting to the main network and four for serving local devices. (These can be given their own range of DHCP addresses and kept separate from the larger network.) USB 2.0 port for making flash or hard drives available on the network. A very good feature set but I’d trade some of it for a lower price in this usage case. One nice aspect of the AP firmware is that it will attempt to configure itself for your network automatically. This would be very handy for novices so long as they don’t mind using the pre-configured SSIDs and encryption keys. On the downside, it appears the USB storage functionality doesn’t include DLNA support, which is used by devices like Blu-ray decks and game consoles to find content like video files on a network. (A search on ‘DLNA’ at the Amped Wireless site produces several hits but none of the documents contain the term. Also, the logo for certified devices isn’t found on any of the product pages I examined.)

  Next up was the Netgear R6200 Wi-Fi Router. (http://netgear.com/home/products/networking/Wi-Fi-routers/R6200.aspx#tab-features) Another good feature set at a bit over $100. If they’d put the power specs on the outer packaging or on the web page, and if the signal power was comparable to the APA20, and if I was confident of it being well behaved in bridge mode, I might have instead have gone with two of these for a significantly lower cost. Among the notable features of the Netgear is USB 3.0 for much better throughput from the attached storage device (assuming USB 3.0 on its part) and a button on the side that switches the Wi-Fi on and off. This is handy when there is already Wi-Fi present that you don’t want to interfere with or need to diagnose a problem with multiple Wi-Fi sources in operation. Also, the USB storage is presented as a DLNA volume for devices that use that to find local content.

 The third item was a Trendnet USB 3.0 to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter.  (http://www.trendnet.com/products/proddetail.asp?prod=315_TU3-ETG) This was for use with the Surface Pro 3 to determine if a wired connection could work when the Wi-Fi offered by the same powerline module did not. It’s also a handy item to have when traveling with a device like the Surface or an ultra-slim notebook that may lack a dedicated network port but does have USB.

I decided early on to do away with the ‘one SSID to rule them all’ approach and give everything a unique name in order to have a better idea which radio was in use at any given moment. This led to a surprise that could only happen in this house. First we put up the new AP in place of the old Belkin. It was broadcasting as Starswarm-1 for 2.4 GHz and Starswarm-1-5 for the 5 GHz band. Then the new router took over in the utility room with SSIDs Starswarm-2 and Starswarm-2-5. (It remains to do a better survey and pick the best channels for each radio.) At this point the two powerline Wifi extenders downstairs should be the only remnant of Starswarm-Pre-N but it was still not only visible upstairs but quite strong. How could this be? If the signal was that good and delivered internet access, why was it unusable in far closer proximity? And was this eating into the valuable shared RF spectrum upstairs?

    I pulled out my old Asus TF201 tablet and ran WiFi Analyzer, a handy free app from the Google Play app store. One of its features is to look at MAC addresses and tell you what company produced each signal it detects. It said Starswarm-Pre-N was coming from an Apple device. What? Why? Where?

    After some looking around I came across a box for an Apple Time Capsule, which includes 802.11b/g/n among its functions. At least now I knew what I was looking for. After some more searching I found it, on top of the old HP Windows Home Server and under an accumulation of papers. I switched it off and sure enough, Starswarm-Pre-N became a faint signal as one would expect at that range from the extenders downstairs. I then turned it back on. It wasn’t harming anything now that I knew it was there and the iMac nearby was possibly expecting to use it for a scheduled backup. It would probably be best to give it a more distinct name at some point but that was low on the agenda. Meanwhile, John Dvorak had come visiting and we were all headed out to dinner. It was while we were eating that it occurred to me that I’d never verified that the powerline bridge in Roberta’s office was working correctly.

    Changing out that module for one of the spare units I happened to have in my car resolved the problem that started all of this. The Netgear recommendation of using the same SSID across multiple APs turned out to be ill-advised in practice. Too many client devices aren’t smart enough to change connections as needed and the lack of distinct names made it more difficult to find the point of failure. Given an enterprise-class WiFi network, where the network intelligently hands off clients from one AP to another, this would have been fine but such are still far too costly for homes and most small businesses. The Ruckus gear we (LocationConnect) use for events has a device called a Zone Director to manage the network and perform load balancing between APs regardless of how smart or stupid the client devices might be. We’ll eventually see this in SOHO gear but not for a few more years.

    Now that service had been restored to the far end of the house, there were a few more things to do. Jerry had a Seagate 4 TB USB 3.0 hard drive just sitting there waiting to be put to use. I connected it to the new Netgear router and let it apply the default settings. A few minutes late a new node was on the network: a shared drive named ReadyShare with 3.6 TB of available space. Further, this volume would be visible to devices that spoke the DLNA protocol, such as the LG BP-220 Blu-ray deck in the TV room. (I favor LG for this purpose because they support a much larger range of codecs and file formats than most. TiVo DVRs can use DLNA storage but are limited to MPEG 1 and 2 video, MP3 audio, and JPEG pictures.)  I threw some video files from the flash drives in my pocket onto the volume and looked to see if they could be played in the TV room.  They weren’t to be found but the video files that had been factory installed on the Seagate drive were visible and playable.

It wasn’t until later that I remembered that DLNA is designed to support very lightweight devices that lack all but the most minimal networking functionality. As such, they depend on the host to do all of the heavy listing, even for such minor tasks as displaying a directory. This means the host device has to regularly survey itself for changes and update the data it provides to clients. In this case there hadn’t been enough time for the update cycle. The automatic update can be turned off in the firmware but the default setting is ON. I’ll check it next time I’m at Chaos Manor to be sure. I have another reason to look in the router anyway, as follows.

    I also noticed that the existing D-Link NAS box wasn’t appearing any longer. I believe this is due to it having a static address and the address range used by the new router not being set correctly. This should be quickly changed on my next visit.

Narrative Continued by Jerry Pournelle

We were working on this story and the deadlines were coming up. We knew we should update the Wi-Fi network, because everything in it was several years old.  When Eric called from the computer store about what he should get, he warned me that we hadn’t investigated all the problems and we might be buying more than we needed. I considered the deadlines and told him to get everything we might need; it was time to update anyway.  Besides, I do lots of things so you don’t have to. Now we have working Wi-Fi all over the house, and it ought to last a while.

One of our problems was that everywhere we went our devices could see the old Starswarm Pre-N network.  This was odd because we had taken every wireless router out of service; how was this ghost operating? Eventually Eric discovered that buried under magazines, forgotten for years, is an Apple Airport Time Capsule (we’ll refer to it as the “Airport” and “Time Machine”) dating from early 2008, installed at the same time that we got our first Mac systems:  the iMac, iPad, and the first of my iPhones. The Airport sits there on a stand inviting use as a temporary seat for magazines and books, and hasn’t had any attention after the day it was set up: and it has been working quite well ever since.

The Time Machine half of that box has been turned off since early 2009. That discovery sparked a general cleanup of the rat’s nest of cables that have accumulated behind the main machines here. One of Pournelle’s Laws of troubleshooting is that “It’s probably a cable.” That’s not as true now as it was when I formulated it, but it’s still a good principle: if you have a problem, before you do anything drastic check the cables. Our discovery of the inactive Time Machine has generated another story, but right now we’re waiting for it to catch up with six years of missed backups. There’s a story in that, and we’ll get to it next month.

Precisely how much work that Airport has done can’t be determined, because it was given the Starswarm Pre-N name just like all the other Wi-Fi routers, so whether one connects to it or some other router with that SSID name – a complication we have now eliminated – depended on where the device seeking Wi-Fi was when it was turned on.  Since the Airport is right here, next to my desk, it’s the first thing many Wi-Fi devices see when they wake up, so it got a lot of business, and it has always handled the load so well that we all forgot it was here.

I went looking for anything I may have written about the Airport Time Machine before, and came across this: http://www.jerrypournelle.com/view/2008/Q1/view508.html . That was the daybook for a week in which I was getting radiation treatment for brain cancer. Further on down on that web page is stuff about getting into Macs and installing the Airport. There are also pictures associated with my brain cancer treatment, from back in the days when I couldn’t really talk.  I’d forgotten that one service my MacBook Air gave was as my “talker”: I could type in what I wanted to say and it would say it, back when I could think, sort of, but couldn’t speak intelligibly. I believe I even talked to the LASFS that way once.

What I can’t find is anything about the Airport itself, but it is the last bastion of Starswarm Pre-N Wi-Fi network.  It still has the most powerful signal here in this room.

The bottom line is that we have real Wi-Fi in all rooms of the house as well as out by the pool.  Devices already connected to something – like Starswarm Pre-N – may hang on to that connection after it’s no longer useful, but the remedy to that is turn off the connection and log in on another.  That may require me to learn more about how the ThinkPad software works, but that’s for another time.


 

Part 2 of the October column will continue with a discussion on “Precious” (Jerry’s Microsoft Surface Prod 3), Windows 8, Getting Some Work Done, and Jerry’s struggles and a partial triumph over AutoCorrect in MS Word.

Part 3 of the column will conclude with some thoughts on Windows 10, and Winding Down with the Books of the Month and other short thoughts.

Look for Part 2 starting on Oct 23, 2014. Part 3 is scheduled for October 30, 2014


September 2014 Column – Part 4

CHAOS MANOR REVIEWS
Computing at Chaos Manor
Column 369 – Part 4 of 4
September, 2014

The final installment of the September Chaos Manor Reviews column discusses SD cards, and winds down with the Books and Movies of the Month.

 SD Cards

Years ago I bought a Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ-30 camera. It works just fine, but it came out just as the SD card standard was being published. The original SD standard was 2 Gigabytes, but when my camera came out a 100 MB card was pretty big. Over time various companies developed ever larger SD cards, and then came out with micro-SD, tiny little cards a couple of centimeters square containing 2 and later up to 64 GB. They came with SD card sized adapters that would allow them to be used in SD devices. The Kingston 2 GB micro SD card in the Kingston SD card adapter works just fine in the camera, but trying to read that SD card on a PC is a bit more difficult: older multi-card readers don’t always adapt micro cards properly. I found this out when my PC offered to reformat the card on which I had about a thousand pictures.

There are two solutions to the problem. The simplest for me is an even smaller Kingston micro SD card adapter, which converts the micro SD into a standard USB thumb drive. When that is inserted into a USB port on a desktop the system recognizes it and can read and write to it with no problems. The second solution is a proprietary cable for the FX30 available for a few bucks online. Panasonic developed what I call a “mini-micro” USB plug before micro USB became standard.

Alas, the FZ-30 model came out with firmware that believes 2 GB is as large as SD memory cards get. After the camera came out the SD standard was redefined to allow for much larger capacity, and later models of the Panasonic camera line have no problems with big cards. In my case, Good Enough is really Good Enough. One day I’ll update my camera, but the Lumix optics work great, and a 2 GB SD card holds over a thousand pictures. I don’t take hundreds of pictures and choose the best, although that seems to be the habit of younger photographers.

Winding Down

The Book of the Month is the California Sixth Grade Reader, compiled and edited by Leroy Armstrong in 1914. The 2014 edition is edited with comments by Jerry Pournelle. This is the sixth grade reader in use when California public schools were considered among the very best public schools in the world. It contains stories once considered an important part of the heritage of Western Civilization; they’re also cracking good stories, once you get used to reading with what was considered a normal vocabulary for sixth graders in 1914; today’s public schools would consider many of those words “too hard.” There are also a number of poems that were once considered a vital part of our heritage.

I also recommend Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II by Arthur Herman. This tells the story of how America, which had no defense industry in the 1930’s, converted the economy into the greatest arsenal the world had ever seen. It is also the story of Knudsen, and Henry Kaiser, and some of the heroes of that story. I found it fascinating.

Safe Is Not An Option, by Rand Simberg is a reliability expert’s look at the space program. The book is discussed at length on its own web site. Those interested in the space program should read it: the book is quite critical of current space policies. It has endorsements from both astronauts and space policy analysts.

His general thesis is that NASA’s obsession, born of the days when “ours always blow up” and brought back with a vengeance by the Challenger disaster, is eliminating all human risk from spaceflight. That doesn’t work and the obsession is a huge obstacle to progress. There will always be risks, and we will always have heroes.

Simberg is an aerospace engineer with considerable experience and his analyses of various space incidents such as the Challenger Disaster are spot on, which is to say, I agree with them. Recommended.

We haven’t got out to many movies in the past few months, and some we did get to, like the Saturday morning live simulcasts of the Metropolitan Opera productions, aren’t on any longer. We have found those well worth going to, and the Met usually chooses accessible operas for those simulcasts. My wife’s sister also enjoys them, and unlike Roberta, her sister doesn’t have a musical education. We particularly enjoyed Dvorak’s Russalka, which I had never seen before. It’s not likely to come back to a theater near you, but if it does, don’t miss it.

The Movie of the Month is quite old and already on television, so you won’t find it in theaters. That’s a pity because it’s very good there. I mean Frozen, the Oscar winning Disney film sort of loosely based on a Hans Christian Anderson story; actually the movie is better than Anderson’s tale. It’s still available on cable TV, or of course as a recording.

There is no game of the month because I haven’t had time to collect any new games. That comes later.

Those interested in comparing views of the Computer Revolution might find the March 2010 column interesting. http://chaosmanorreviews.net/oa/2010/20100311_col.php

Next Time

Next time the new Surface Pro 3 with OneNote. Back around the turn of the century I said that a good tablet with OneNote was about the best research tool I knew of. That may be true again, with the Surface Pro 3 as the tablet.

I also have Office 365 subscription service. At present that is Office 2013 (for Windows; Office 2011 for Mac) and includes a more complete OneNote than the one that comes with the Surface Pro 3. Actually it’s more complicated than that; we’ll have a lot on OneNote with the Surface Pro 3 next time.

And we’ll start looking at new computer books once I let publishers know I’m back in business here.

– 30 –

 The Chaos Manor Reviews columns will continue next month. Sign up for the newsletter to be notified of publication.

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September 2014 Column – Part 3

CHAOS MANOR REVIEWS
Computing at Chaos Manor
Column 369 – Part 3 of 4
September, 2014

The September 2014 Chaos Manor Reviews column continues with this third installment, which discusses Docking Stations, Living with Firefox, and the Bulging MacBook Air.

 Docking Stations

I bought the Microsoft Docking Station for my Surface 3 Pro, and I don’t really regret that, but I suspect that will be the last of the traditional docking stations I will buy. At least I can hope that WiGig will catch on, so that I can get a Rezence inductive charging station I can just lay my Surface Pro 3 on for charging, while WiGig takes care of all the communications within the room. Intel intends to eliminate the rats’ nest of cables behind every desktop PC. And Alex foresees a not too distant time when business conference rooms will have Rezence built in to the conference table.

The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 docking station.

The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 docking station.

Precious, the Surface Pro 3 tablet/laptop in the docking station. Note that the angle of Precious, the Surface Pro 3 tablet/laptop in the docking station. Note that the angle of the screen is fixed when the Pro is docked.

Precious, the Surface Pro 3 tablet/laptop in the docking station. Note that the angle of Precious, the Surface Pro 3 tablet/laptop in the docking station. Note that the angle of the screen is fixed when the Pro is docked.

Peter Glaskowsky says “I shudder to think how much it will cost to provide Rezence at every possible seating position around a big conference table.” That’s certainly true now, but plunging technology costs have astonished us before. I do agree that no law says that Rezence will be the actual technology that wins out in the market, but I think it safe to assume that after half a dozen iterations of Moore’s Law we won’t be charging computers, phones, tablets, and whatever we are carrying as personal electronic devices the way we do now.

The Microsoft docking station has some decent features, but it’s priced too high, and once your Surface is locked into it, the screen angle is fixed: be sure you have a table of the right height if you expect to use the Surface docked.

Living With Firefox

I still prefer Firefox to Internet Explorer, although I do generally use Explorer when I’m after Windows specific updates or applications, but Firefox has some annoying habits. One is a tendency to slow down when you’ve used it a lot, particularly if you have kept a bunch of windows open as markers. Over time it takes longer and longer to scroll down a screen, and eventually Firefox becomes annoyingly unpleasant to use.

I keep hoping they’ll fix this, and they certainly send you enough updates. So far they haven’t though, but I have found a way to live with the problem. When it slows down a lot I used to try closing needless windows, bookmarking them into a special section of bookmarks. That didn’t help enough, and my suspicion is that Firefox’s main problem is inefficient garbage collection, possibly associated with accumulation of cookies. Possibly not. In any event, I find that closing Firefox, letting Better Privacy close all LSO cookies on shutdown, then opening the program again, will nearly always correct the slowdowns for a day or so. Whether that’s because shutting it down forces better garbage collection, or because the LSO cookies have been eliminated I can’t say.

LSO cookies are associated with Adobe Flash, and eliminating them may affect some games; the Better Privacy add-on to Firefox allows you to ‘protect’ selected LSO cookies if you want to do that. I’ve never bothered, but then I don’t play games on this machine.

Ian Devlin in response to a pre-pub copy of this says:

“Regarding your Firefox issue, you can actually initiate the garbage collection manually. Navigate to to about:memory and then under “Free memory” there are three buttons: GC (global garbage collection), CC (cycle collection), and Minimize memory usage.

I use these a fair bit, so hopefully it will help you too.

That turns out to work, once you understand the rather arcane Firefox navigation system. The way you “navigate” to “about:memory” is to clear the Internet address bar and type in

about:memory

I find this counter-intuitive since you’d think that would want an Internet address, but it doesn’t. Doing that does force garbage collection, and speeds up Firefox something wonderful; and if you forget the about arcana, shutting it down and restarting also does the job while erasing all the LSO’s. I’m told that this “about:” scheme for accessing special functions in web browsers dates back to Netscape.

The Bulging Mac Book Air

I haven’t used my Mac Book Air in some time, but it has been well cared for, kept over on its own desk and every now and then carried with me when I expect to have to wait a long time and I want to do some writing. Khaos – she is named for the Greek primeval goddess of Air, a beautiful redhead – is the best production laptop for use in strange environments I have ever had. If I know I can set up at a proper desk or table with a good chair, I prefer the ThinkPad, and I always try to carry him on road trips when I will have a decent hotel room with a writing desk; but even there I often carry Khaos as well because I may have to go to meetings where I must type with the computer in my lap, or on some rickety stand. And besides, Khaos is just way cool.

So imagine my surprise when I went to fetch her to take with me to an appointment at Kaiser, and found she looked like this:

MacBook Air Bulging

MacBook Air Bulging

It looks as if the battery has swollen. Naturally she doesn’t turn on. I’ve lost no data, since I always copy everything important to several places, but there may be some applications I don’t have. Khaos was getting old – some of you will remember my using her at Kaiser when I was getting radiation treatments in 2008 – but she worked perfectly. Until this. Obviously she’s long out of any warranty, but I’ll still take her by the Apple Store when I go to look at the new iPhones and iPads. Maybe someone will have pity on me.

Eric has found several previous accounts of the swelling batteries:

 Video of MAcBook Air bulging battery exposed. Warning: really annoying soundtrack.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xohhFg4ixA8

http://www.extremetech.com/computing/164129-macbook-air-battery-woes-show-the-downside-of-the-quest-for-denser-batteries

Next time I should know better what Apple will do about this, if anything.

 The final installment of the September Chaos Manor Reviews column discusses SD cards, and winds down with the Books and Movies of the Month. Sign up for the newsletter to be notified when it is published.

You may add your comments below; comments are moderated. Note that Dr. Pournelle may not respond to comments due to constraints of his time. You may use the Contact page to send email to Dr. Pournelle.

 

September 2014 Column – Part 2

CHAOS MANOR REVIEWS
Computing at Chaos Manor
Column 369 – Part 2 of 4
September, 2014

The September 2014 column continues with this installment which discusses Updating Systems, Hard Drive Lifecycles, and Faster and Faster. The previous installment is here; use the Newsletter signup to receive email notification of publication.

Updating the Systems

Back in early 2012 Eric and I built a Sandy Bridge (the Intel code name for 2nd Generation Core Processors; this one is Core i7) 64-bit system with 200 GB SSD C: drive and a terabyte of Seagate spinning metal as drive D:. It – we’re not sure of the sex of this system – was built in a Thermaltake case that runs fast and cool and is astonishingly easy to use with accessible ports. It’s rugged. And reliable. We called it Alien Artifact; I expect you can see why from the photo. It was intended to replace Bette, an Intel Core 2 Quad CPU Q6600 2.4 GHz system. The components were chosen to maximize performance for minimum cost, which is to say they were on the “sweet spot” on the performance/cost curve. Bette has served us well since she was built in 2008, back when I was recovering from 50,000 rads of hard x-ray to the head.

Bette, an Intel Core 2 Quad built in 2008, which has served as the “main machine” here for years. Other systems are used for games and large downloads. Bette does email and the daybook, and has been highly reliable.

Bette, an Intel Core 2 Quad built in 2008, which has served as the “main machine” here for years. Other systems are used for games and large downloads. Bette does email and the daybook, and has been highly reliable.

Eric did most of the construction of the new system, and we did some experiments with SSD drives. Meanwhile Bette went right on working as my “main machine” on which I get my Outlook mail, write my daybook log, and do just about everything but games. She’s woefully slow compared to Alien Artifact, but she’s reliable. (So is Alien Artifact, mind you. And that Thermaltake case is elegant inside and out.)

Alien Artifact, a Sandy Bridge computer built in a Thermaltake case is cool, fast and very quiet. This will shortly be moved into my office as a main system, taking over from Bette who will be partly retired.

Alien Artifact, a Sandy Bridge computer built in a Thermaltake case is cool, fast and very quiet. This will shortly be moved into my office as a main system, taking over from Bette who will be partly retired.

The upshot is that I never did bring Alien Artifact in here, and it sits out in the Great Hall at a work station there, connected to the net, and used for a lot of tests. It got finished just as I stopped meeting my deadlines, and I never did a full review of the system. One of the ways we will bring Chaos Manor up to date is to put Bette out to pasture and bring in Alien Artifact. I confess a certain sadness at doing this, but there’s a powerful reason.

Hard Drive Life Cycles

Hard drives have a life cycle (see article here). After the first few hours of infant mortality failure, there’s a period of about three years of fairly high reliability, then a sudden plunge to about 11% a year failure rate.

Bette has been with us since 2008, so she is well over 3 years old, and she’s been used hard every day. It is now time and past time to either replace her or replace her drives.

Hard drives rarely fail catastrophically and without warning. Disk software has improved every year. More likely is they slow down as there are more read and write errors, retries, and closing off of bad sectors, until eventually you notice something is wrong. By the time you notice, though, the chances of actual catastrophic failure have increased, and it really is time to do something. We haven’t reached that stage yet, but at her age it’s only a matter of time.

Disk software gets better every year. Meanwhile Solid State Drives (SSD) get cheaper per gigabyte, but SSD hasn’t caught up with spinning metal in price/performance. On the other hand, SSD is so much faster than spinning metal – even new spinning metal – that you really want your operating system (about 30-35 GB for Windows) and your most important disk operations to be done on silicon if you can.

Bob Thompson notes that one operation you may not want on SSD is the swap/paging file. “The cells in even an SLC SSD wear out after a large number of writes, and those in consumer-grade MLC SSDs wear out an order of magnitude faster.” A simple solution is a small – 64 GB – SSD devoted to be the swap file. They’re cheap enough, and the speed improvements are worth it.

Our solution has been to use a good “sweet spot” SSD as the C: drive, and a new terabyte or greater spinning disk hard drive as D:. In particular, if you use Outlook you want all of Outlook’s pst files on an SSD; that speeds up mail operations quite noticeably. Of course if you have to accept press releases and your address is generally known, meaning that you have an elaborate system of spam filters in place, you’ll also want a powerful (and power using, which means hot) CPU to apply all those rules to each mail as it comes in.

A long time ago I postulated one of Pournelle’s Laws as “Silicon is cheaper than iron” and thus solid state drives as opposed to spinning metal would be the wave of the future; and so they are. Of course I did not believe it would take three decades for that to happen. But for the moment an SSD 200 Gb C: and a spinning metal terabyte D: will be Good Enough for almost anyone but a fanatic gamer.

Incidentally, from available data, it seems that modern SSD drives have a low failure rate for more than 5 years.

Faster and Faster

802.11a/b/g/n/ac run on two radio bands: 2.4 GHz and 5.1 to 5.8 GHz. With the wind behind it, 802.11ac Phase 2 may get 2 Gbps communications, but it’s not the fastest commercial short-distance wireless network: That would be WiGig.

WiGig started out as a separate standard, using the 60 GHz communications band (V-band, for you microwave engineers). It promises 4 to 7 Gbps speeds now, and more in the future. 60 GHz is an interesting animal: It works very well over short distances, but it’s highly attenuated by oxygen absorption, so it hasn’t been used much for ground-based communications. It’s also stopped by nearly any wall or structure: Minimal risks of interference or eavesdropping. Those characteristics make it nearly perfect for in-room communications: Stream a program from your laptop to the TV (Miracast, cousin to Apple’s AirPlay), transfer files wirelessly faster than Gbps Ethernet, talk to your big box of disks, etc.

The WiGig team finally wised up and combined their efforts with the Wi-Fi Alliance, in a little-noticed announcement at CES 2013. That was iportant, because it brought the Wi-Fi interoperability standards, marketing and testing imprimatur onboard. Astute readers will remember that the last non-Wi-Fi wireless proposal, Ultra Wide Band, didn’t go anywhere, due to technical and marketing reasons.

Peter Glaskowsky, former editor of MicroProcessor Report, says

 “As for WiGig, I think this ends up being Intel’s second effort to leverage the popularity of Wi-Fi to promote something that is nothing like Wi-Fi, the first one being WiMAX. WiGig isn’t going to be used for “networking” at all, at least not at first, but rather as a replacement for point-to-point wires such as the ones that connect a computer to a display. Many WiGig devices won’t interoperate with Wi-Fi at all.

“I was at IDF last week, and while Intel did a lot to whet the public appetite for truly wireless computers, they’re a long way from delivering the necessary technologies in forms suitable for mass adoption. Rezence doesn’t fully solve the problem of cordless charging of laptops, and WiGig isn’t nearly as fast as Intel’s own Lightning wired interface, as used by Apple and various Windows OEMs for a few years now.”

 

At IDF this year, Intel proposed a standard for 60 GHz docking stations: Two monitors, wireless connection, It Just Works, also supporting your disk farm and all your other peripherals. This is all slated as part of their Maple Peak wireless system, and it’s promised mid-2015 for ultrabooks and the like. (For the record, Intel has been pushing this idea since at least 2011, but the silicon had to catch up; Moore’s Law again.)

It doesn’t end there: Drop your computer onto a charging pad, and it will use the Rezence standard for inductive wireless charging, up to 50 Watts. Communications and charging, without wires. I can’t wait.

But it’s not really wireless: The dirty little secret of wireless is that it takes lots of wires, to connect outside the room. For communicating outside the room, say, to your video server, backup drive, or to play TV from the living room to the bedroom, you’ll want speeds greater than Gigabit, which will probably mean 10 Gbit wired Ethernet will come into its own. We don’t need 10 Gbit wired Ethernet just now, but think about that next time you have hardware update decisions. You’ll want 10 GBit sooner than you think. In other words, this is an area where Good Enough won’t stand still for long.

Good Enough and Ethernet

Gigabit Ethernet as a standard goes back to 1998—a millennium in computer time. In the last sixteen years, it’s gotten so cheap that any wired device supports it, and you can buy $40 8-port Gigabit Ethernet switches that work quite well; they’re a commodity now for all but the most critical installations. And Gigabit Ethernet has been Good Enough everywhere for a decade, outside the data center.

10 Gigabit Ethernet over copper cabling (IEEE 802.3an), and a gaggle of related standards, are routine in the data center, enabling Software Defined Networking (SDN) and leaving FDDI to languish. 40 and 100 Gigabit Ethernet are in the pipeline, with Terabit (!) Ethernet on the horizon.

Even higher-end prosumer switches might have a “GBIC+” port into which you can plug a 10 Gbit transceiver, either copper or fiber. You won’t like the price, but that’s today, and Moore’s Law is inexorable on pricing too.

As “I want my video and peripherals everywhere” becomes more in demand, particularly if WiGig takes off, I predict that advanced users will start flooding existing networks, using up the formerly Good Enough Gigabit building backbone as they stream HD video from one conference room to another, move very large files from room to room, and generally slow everyone else down. Then, 10 Gbit wired Ethernet will come into its own—even at home—as a way to link your laptop to the big disk in the back room, the screen in the conference room, or even capture full-resolution HD video from your camera to the network.

Currently, 10 Gbit Ethernet over copper requires Cat6 (or better) cable, which has better crosstalk rejection and stricter standards for pair twisting. (Twisted pairs cut down on crosstalk: Look at a phone cable—no twists—versus an Ethernet cable sometime.) 1 Gbit Ethernet will run over Cat5 with few or no problems; no new wires were required when I moved from 10/100 Mbps Ethernet to 1 Gbit, but time will catch up with me—and probably you, if you haven’t re-cabled in the last five years.

I’ve probably got all the specifics wrong, but I will bet that well inside five years I’ll be writing about pulling out all the Good Enough Cat5 cable and replacing it with Cat6a. And all our new cables will be Cat6a or better, just in case.

The moral of this story is that when prices fall far enough, you’re probably better off replacing some perfectly good hardware with better: it will take advantage of all kinds of small improvements – think of the improved speeds we get with the new cable modem even though Time Warner hasn’t done any deliberate improvements here: it’s just as they replace older equipment with new, everything gets a little better, and the new modem takes advantage of that. Once TW gets around to DOCSIS3 in Studio City, I’ll one day get a dramatic Internet Speed improvement without having to do anything about it at all.

 The third installment of the September 2014 column will discuss Docking Stations, Living with Firefox, and the Bulging MacBook Air. Sign up for the newsletter to be notified when the next installment is published.

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September 2014 Column – Part 1

CHAOS MANOR REVIEWS
Computing at Chaos Manor
Column 369 – Part 1
September, 2014

The reboot of Chaos Manor Reviews starts with this installment discussing Moore’s Law and Good Enough, and continues with discussion on a new Cable Modem and Wireless and Internet. We recommend that you sign up for the Chaos Manor Reviews newsletter (on the right side of this page) to be notified of additional installments of the Chaos Manor Reviews September column.

Moore’s Law and Good Enough

It has been more than 36 months since I wrote the last Chaos Manor Reviews column. I had many reasons for ending with column number 368 after over twenty years of writing Computing at Chaos Manor. I hadn’t really intended to end it, but early in 2011 I came down with something, had other projects I should have been working on, and missed a column deadline for the first time in the history of the column.

Of course the deadline was self-imposed: BYTE was no longer my publisher. It was hard work trying to keep up with all computer technology, and although there were many changes and advances, the stuff computer users could already get was good enough – given what we started with in this computer revolution – and while I had built new systems, and had new hardware and software, writing it up on deadline wasn’t something I just had to do. And having missed one deadline, I recovered from whatever had laid me out, restarted the column for a while, and found my heart still wasn’t in it.

I had fiction projects to pursue, and my day book The View From Chaos Manor took up time, and having missed the deadline there wasn’t so much incentive to continue, I was recovering from radiation sickness from the successful cancer treatment, time went by, and that’s about all the excuses I’m going to make.

But Moore’s Law is inexorable, and the advances in computer technology continued, and what was Good Enough at the time of my last Chaos Manor Review no longer is. Everything is faster and better, and in many cases easier to use and Good Enough changes very rapidly now.

One principle of Karl Marx’s theory of everything was “The principle of the transformation of quantity into quality.” What he meant was that myriads of tiny little changes, none of them very noticeable, could transform a society, or a theory of economic, or of physics, and this could happen before you noticed. Small computers and Moore’s Law operate this way: look at what’s happening with 3D printers. Two years ago it was a stunt. Yesterday I saw a chap driving a car he had printed.

You can get along with older stuff to do the things you used to do, but these little beasts can already accomplish far more than we ever expected them to. The advances are mostly incremental, not revolutionary, but they come about quicker, and now you can get a terabyte of disk storage for what you used to be happy to pay for a gigabyte. That sort of thing happens a lot now. Exponential curves are like that.

We’ll start with how we have brought Chaos Manor up to date since the last column – and what still needs to be done. As usual we’ll continue to experiment with new stuff, and as always, the emphasis is on using this technology to accomplish things that need doing.

That covers a lot of modern life. As of Summer 2014, a large percentage of jobs – I now believe more than 45% within ten years – can be done by a robot costing no more than a year’s salary to the current human worker. With the government keeping interest rates low this raises the temptation to borrow capital and – instead of paying it to a worker – using it to buy a robot that will pay for itself after a year, and thereafter require only maintenance and power, and when that robot is no longer useful it can be scrapped rather than being paid to retire. This will have an inevitable effect on the economy. It may have a direct effect on you.

I got into the computer revolution when my mad friend Dan MacLean talked me into investing $12,000 dollars in 1978 money – a considerable sum in those days – in an S-100 bus 2 megahertz 64 Kilobyte computer, a large green screen monitor that displayed 16 lines of 64 characters, and a Diablo printer that looked like a huge typewriter and which would print several pages a minute on fan-folded “computer paper”.
My wife thought I was mad, but my productivity increased enormously. No longer did I have to use Correcttape and various liquid paints and carbon paper. What I wrote improved, because I could rewrite sentences when needed as well as fix the torrent of typographical errors I made without having to retype the entire page after an edit.
The system paid for itself in a few months. I had already published a number of science fiction stories by the time I met Carl Helmers and we agreed that BYTE needed a User’s Column written not by a computer scientist but by a writer doing useful work on these little beasts. I still continue that tradition.

The point of that story is that in their forty or so years of existence, affordable small computers have completely changed the writing profession, and the changes continue now. It’s the same with the music profession: before small computers, performers were at the mercy of producers and publishers who had the enormously expensive equipment needed to make professional quality recordings, as well as the means for publishing musical works.
That’s all changed. For the past decade any competent performing group can either buy professional quality recording and editing equipment, or hire that work done for reasonable fees. They no longer have to sign egregious contracts giving nearly everything – sometimes including their own names – to the publisher, resulting in the ridiculous situation of one major performer changing his name to “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” so that he could publish his own works once he could afford to.

Similar advances in technology are changing the movie industry and the health profession. They have caused the invention of podcasting, and improved many other human activities – and of course technology is changing computer programming.

Other professions have been transformed. Think of the effect on what lawyers do.

There was a time when “public stenographer” was an important white collar job/profession: getting thoughts into a form that could become the printed word took considerable skill. My first decade as a fiction writer was made possible because I could hire a good typist to take my marked-up edited manuscripts and turn them into clean text, inch and a quarter margins all around, 25 lines of about ten words per line on each page, page numbers and manuscript identification in the right places.

Ezekial, my friend who happened to be a Z-80 computer, would do that for me time and time again, never complaining and never introducing new errors. (I now know that the prophet’s name is Ezekiel, meaning ‘May God strengthen him,’ but I didn’t have a spelling program when I named him and I actually thought it was spelled that way.) There are very few public stenographers today. And of course at one time the very ability to read and write was a profession: scribes were an important part of the mechanism of government. (Bob Thompson observes that given the state of the public schools those days may return.)

So it is with computers; for a long time a key skill was to teach the little beasts to do what you wanted them to, and learning that teaching skill was itself a job qualification. That is still the case at the highest levels of programming, but more and more of the tools for producing programs are available to the person who wants the job done. A dentist doesn’t have to learn how to do computer programming; he can just buy a program. Many programming tasks have been replaced by scripting or ‘simplified programming’—anyone building a 10,000 cell Excel sheet with VBA is a programmer, even if they don’t recognize it. And if, when I was in Operations Research (OR) in the aerospace industry, I had available even an early version of Microsoft Excel I’d have been the best OR man in the country. We could all come up with complicated models for complicated operations, but no computer available could solve them. Now that power is available to anyone.

A New Cable Modem

Moore’s Law doesn’t just apply to CPUs. The performance increase for mixed-signal (combined analog and digital) silicon is at least as remarkable, improving communications speeds nearly everywhere: Cellular communications, Wi-Fi, Powerline, DSL and cable modems, just to name a few.

Bringing Chaos Manor communications up to date started when Eric Pobirs, Chaos Manor Advisor and Associate, called to say Time Warner has upgraded the high speed Internet service in his neighborhood to the DOCSIS 3 standard. DOCSIS 3 supports a much wider frequency range (108 MHz to 1.002 GHz), channel bonding (up to four simultaneous channels), and more complicated signaling (up to QAM128).

It also turns out that DOCSIS 3 modems benefit from the newest chips, which incorporate all the lessons learned since DOCSIS 2 became standard. This makes everything just a bit better, even if that wasn’t a design intention, and the cumulative effect is important.

Getting in on that required a new cable modem, and when Eric saw a sale on those modems he called to ask if I wanted one also. I have no notice of Time Warner planning to upgrade service in Studio City, but I see reports that they’re upgrading the Valley, so they’ll probably get around to us.

Meanwhile, I’ve been using the modem they supplied years ago and paying them ten bucks a month for it: for six months of what I’m paying I can own the new modem, and take advantage of any improvements Time Warner may have made without telling us. This is exactly the kind of thing we do at Chaos Manor and I asked him to go ahead.

He brought over a Netgear High Speed Cable Modem Model CMD31T supporting DOCSIS 3.0. It proclaims on the box that it is compatible with “Cablevision, Charter, Cox, Time-Warner Cable, Xfinity & more,” and below that in large red letters repeats XFINITY Time Warner Cable. When Eric installed his out at his house, he got a performance boost of about a factor of five, from a download speed of 20 Mb/s to about 100 Mb/s, upload speed from about 2 to 10. That sounds as if Castaic has been upgraded to DOCSIS 3, but T/W says they have not done that yet. I didn’t expect that kind of result here, but we could always hope.

The installation took about twenty minutes and was straightforward.

Of course there was no high-speed service here after we disconnected the Time Warner cable modem. It took about half an hour for Time Warner to notice the new modem, but then everything kicked in, and when we did a speed test we found we had about a 10% improvement in download speed, and a smaller but appreciable improvement in upload speed. Even without the upgraded head-end for Studio City, we were benefiting. Altogether worth doing, and in six months it won’t even have cost anything: and of course I am now ready to take advantage of any new Time Warner improvements. Of course I haven’t got around to actually taking the old cable modem out to Time Warner to turn it in and start getting those savings. Real Soon Now.

This is a perfect example of the theme here: our old cable modem was Good Enough when we got it, and still would do all it ever did; but the world around it has moved on, and now it is worth replacing it to take advantage of the improved environment.

Improving Wireless and Ethernet with One Package

Once we had additional WAN speed courtesy of the modem replacement, it was time to revisit communications within Chaos Manor.

Chaos Manor was built in 1932, in two phases. The first was the house itself, one story, with a medium sized living room, a dining room, kitchen, master bedroom with bath, and (separated by a hallway) a large airy room with bay window and doors both to the hall in the house and directly to outside. This served as a physician’s consulting room and office. It had a full wall of bookcases, and an east facing bay window shaded by an apricot tree: the perfect writer’s work room.

In those days Studio City was largely rural, and this was about the third house in an apricot orchard. The studio part of Studio City was – and still is – about a third of a mile away, near Ventura Boulevard (then known as Highway 101 to Ventura, Santa Barbara, and eventually to San Francisco).

Immediately after the front part of the house was finished, it was expanded, and what amounted to a whole new two-story house with garage and bathroom was added in back. The result was a very livable house, but a bit bewildering in layout – and a very complicated electrical system with several 1933 era junction boxes and fuse boxes, which now coexist with various updates.

In the 1980’s we built a new second story, my office suite, with stairway down into the old consulting room which had been my office (and the reason we bought the house). The new second story doesn’t connect to the old one; there’s a reason it’s called Chaos Manor. It all worked well, but the electrical system is a nightmare, with much of the wiring more than sixty years old.

We built the new addition just before Ethernet became affordable. We had installed ARCnet, which ran on coaxial cable. The reason we didn’t install Ethernet is that the bare chip set for Ethernet cost about $900 per station at that time; now they’re darned near free, a perfect example of the effects of Moore’s Law in action. And indeed, within four years of installing ARCnet, Ethernet cards for PCs were well under a hundred dollars, and of course made for much faster and more reliable internal computer networks. Long time readers will understand just how marvelous that all seemed when it happened: at one time it was faster to move big programs from one machine to another by burning them onto a CD-R and carrying that across. We called it sneakernet.

Interestingly, we were using sneakernet long after Ethernet chip sets were cheap, because the hardware and software to set up networks hadn’t been developed. They hadn’t been developed because the drop in Ethernet chip set prices took many developers by surprise. Meanwhile there were computer to computer file transfer hardware and software products, many like LapLink very good, but also nearly all incompatible with each other. All of those are gone now, replaced by Ethernet, and Ethernet drivers are built into the operating system.

When usable Ethernet became cheap, we strung Ethernet cables in the front part of Chaos Manor – it was pretty well designed for it. Getting Ethernet into the back part of the house was far more difficult, and doing it by direct cable without stringing cables outside proved to be impossible. This led us to the next triumph of Moore’s Law.

Some years ago Eric wanted to try using the electrical system to extend our Ethernet network to the back of the house; that’s called powerline networking, and despite the complexity of the Chaos Manor electrical system, it sort of worked. Sort of: it wasn’t very fast at best, and the speed varied sometimes for no reason we could discern, but it was good enough to allow us to network the back room and in theory to connect the TV back there to one of the computers.

Background: This is Ethernet over your power wires, alias powerline networking. An example is HomePlug. They use existing electrical wires (110V here in the States) to network without new wires. The concept has been around since the BSR X10 days, but it became the hot new concept with the HomePlug 1.0 standard in 2001. Compaq and others were going to build it right into their computers, and it would be a boon to anyone who couldn’t or didn’t want to add new wires to their house.

In practice, the HomePlug rollout became something of a punchline. The technology didn’t work and got returned by the truckload. But the designers never gave up, and the silicon kept getting better.

In theory, the existing HomePlug were 85 Mbps units. In practice they were clunky enough that I never much used it—actual speeds were far lower. But the incentive to have Ethernet in our TV room has been growing, and while Eric was shopping for the new high speed cable modems he noticed some new Netgear Powerline 500 AV500 Ethernet and Wi-Fi gadgets. About the size of a thick pack of playing cards, they plug into the electrical system.

You connect one to your own Ethernet network (there’s an Ethernet jack on the bottom of the gadget); then you go about the house looking for places to plug in another. Theoretical maximum speeds were 500 Mbps. The lights on the little box indicate whether you have a good Ethernet connection (red is no, orange is sort of, and green is ‘good enough’). In my case, Good Enough is more than 100 Mbits/s: Astonishing given the complex electrical system here.

The same box also rebroadcasts Wi-Fi, and it’s a bit like magic. In general, it Just Works. Sometimes my iPhone will lock on to the primary wireless router up here, and when I go downstairs it tries to stay on that, resulting in no real Wi-Fi connection; but all I have to do is open the Wi-Fi control panel and search again, connecting to the nearer Powerline signal.

Peter Glaskowsky reminds me that the current version of the IOS allows a shortcut: a swipe upward from the bottom of the iPhone screen will open the Control Center, and I can use that to turn off the Wi-Fi for a second by tapping the Wi-Fi icon; then tap it again and it will turn on in a mood to hunt up the best known network.

The result is that I have good Wi-Fi all over the house now, due to the improved silicon of the Ethernet over power chipsets.

Now that we’ve got better internal communications, it’s time to look at the newest Wi-Fi standards. We have been using 802.11n (Both ‘pre-N’, before the standard, and ‘real’ N) for several years, but the newest standard is 802.11ac Phase 1, supported by the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and MacBooks. With a recent software fix, even the Surface Pro 3 supports this faster communications standard, so I’m ready to try it. Stay tuned. We’re up to Good Enough now, but it’s frightfully easy to get used to better Wi-Fi speeds, then think what you have is too slow and want to upgrade; and the way prices keep falling, that makes good sense.

The bottom line is that right now Chaos Manor networking Just Works. I have wired Ethernet and strong Wi-Fi all over the house now, and I can casually connect with the iPhone, iPad, and the new Surface Pro 3, as well as my old but very serviceable ThinkPad. I struggled along with what we had for years, but it wasn’t really Good Enough. With time, and Moore’s Law, it has become so.

The next installment of the column will discuss Updating Systems, Hard Drive Lifecycles, and Faster and Faster. Sign up for the newsletter to be notified of publication.

You may add your comments below; comments are moderated. Note that Dr. Pournelle may not respond to comments due to constraints of his time. You may use the Contact page to send email to Dr. Pournelle.