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.

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 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.

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 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.