Detecting Vulnerable “Internet of Things”

magnifier-492539So the big news last week was the giant attack by the Mirai malware/botson Dyn that effectively killed (well, seriously wounded) the Internet for a lot of people. And that the “Internet of Things” (IoT) was the source of the attack, because of bad security practices (devices with ‘backdoors’ and default passwords) on those devices.

I’m not going to explain what happened. If you are interested in this subject, you probably already know that the attack was done by the Mirai malware. The rest of you can ask the googles if you need an explanation of what happened.

And I am not going to explain how Mirai works, or that you can get a copy of the Mirai malware source code.

The thing that is not clear to many people:how can you check to see if your devices on your network, whether home or work, are susceptible to the attack by the Mirai attack.

The basic attack is through specific ports on your network, visible to the outside (external to your network) to devices ‘inside’ your network. So to test if your network is vulnerable, you need to check from the ‘outside’ of your network.

To do this check from the ‘outside’, I recommend the venerable (fancy term for old) “ShieldsUp” check from Gibson Research. This is a free tool that will scan for open ports on your network (this should work on any OS or network).

But, before you do that, make sure you have the permission of the owners of your network. Attacking – or even scanning – a network you do not own can be a felony in the US, and probably other countries. So, before you proceed, make sure that you have the networks’ owners’ permission.

You can check your own home network, though, since you are the owner. But, again, only do this scan on networks you own, even though the scan is very benign.

You can find the Gibson Research “ShieldsUp” tool at Carefully read the information on that page. (For instance, that page will show you your unique identification that every web site can find out. Even the ‘private’ function of your browser will disclose that information. Again, read the page carefully to understand the implications.)

Once you have read the info on that page, click on the “Proceed” button (either one). On the next page, read the information, then click the orange button to check your exposure to UPnP (Universal Plug and Play).


The test will take under a minute, then the result will be displayed. If your network is OK for that test, you’ll get a nice green message. That’s good. If your network has problems, there will be some explanation of what you should do. We’re not going to go into any of that “What You Should Do” stuff, it’s pretty deep and complicated.

The next step is to check for any open ‘ports’ on your network. Go back to the testing page (the page you saw when you clicked on the “Proceed” button). On that screen, these series of buttons are the next step.


Run the “Common Ports” test first. Then run the “All Service Ports”. As with the first test, you are looking for all ‘green’ results. Any bad results will be listed, along with explanations. Again, we aren’t going to explain things here; if you need more info, look at the site’s explanations, and ask the googles if needed.

On my computer on my home network (which I own, so I have permission to scan my network), I got ‘all green’, as shown in this screen shot:


Hopefully, you will too. If you don’t, then proceed from there.

Fixing Broken Windows 10 Apps

Reader Sean Long submitted this tip for fixing broken Windows 10 applications. If you have a tip that will help CMR readers, let us know. And add your comments after the article.

I have another Windows 10 tip that seems to be a hot topic in help forums but doesn’t have a consistent fix.

The problem I had was I tried to bring up the default Windows calculator, and it wouldn’t run. Since I had fiddled with the default Windows 10 apps before, I figured I just needed to re-install the calculator app. When that failed, I tried to brute-force reinstall all Windows 10 default apps, and that resulted in ALL of the windows 10 apps becoming unusable.

The issue is that some of the Windows 10 apps are super annoying, so many people have been trying to uninstall one or more of the default apps. Unfortunately under the current build of Windows 10, the installer appears to be badly broken so both uninstalling and attempting to reinstall the apps can make all of the Windows 10 default apps unusable. They can’t be uninstalled, they can’t be reinstalled, they don’t work, Windows store breaks, and Microsoft considers them core components so they don’t even show up in the programs and features control panel or settings applets so you simply can’t fix them yourself.

For an example of a badly behaved windows default app, the new Windows 10 photos app will continuously attempt to scan, index, and enhance all images in all libraries. That’s great if the library is only on your local drive but if the library is located on a networked computer, it will saturate your network and thrash the remote library’s hard drive endlessly.

One unsatisfactory workaround is to go to your libraries and remove all libraries on networked drives, but you shouldn’t have to do that if the Windows default apps didn’t have these horrible and destructive behaviors set by default. So instead of removing networked libraries, you can fix the problem by removing whatever Windows app (photos was the worst for me) that is causing the problem.

Of course, many people realize after the fact that they really did want that app back. So the “magic” re-installation command that you could enter into the PowerShell program (run as administrator), as found on a dozen websites and help forums, is:

Get-AppXPackage | Foreach {Add-AppxPackage -DisableDevelopmentMode -Register “$($_.InstallLocation)\AppXManifest.xml”}

Detailed instructions can be found on many windows help forums so I won’t go into more detail than that.

Unfortunately under the current mainstream Windows 10 build (as of 16 Jan 2016), that will wreck all Windows default apps and make them unusable. Oops. There are a handful of other approaches to get around this including some registry tweaks and resetting permissions, but the bottom line is that for almost all users, attempting to uninstall or reinstall the default Windows 10 apps will likely break all of them without any way to repair or restore any of them, including the windows store. Thankfully, there is one solution, although it reminds me of buying a new car every time you need an oil change.

The solution for now is to go to the Microsoft Windows 10 installer site here: and re-run the Microsoft Windows 10 installer. It will do just what the original upgrade did, leaving your current apps and files alone and restoring any lost functionality. It can take an hour or more depending on computer and network speed, but I’ve had to do it on 2 separate computers now without any failures, using the online installer.

Did this help you? Any other ideas? Let us know in the comments. – Editor

Chaos Manor Network Attached Storage Upgrade And Retirements – Part 3

Now that Eric has finished the NAS project installation and configuration, it was time to consolidate data from various systems, upgrade others, and consider system retirements. Part 3 of the project continues with Eric’s narrative:

typewriter-297383_1280With the NAS/RAID project completed, the next step was to track down the various elder PCs that were serving as network backup locations, back them up to the NAS, then shut them down in hopes of making a dent in the frightening power bill that had been shrugged off in the days when Chaos Manor was like Frankenstein’s Castle for PCs, with a gruesome experiment running in every corner.

Some of these machines were quite long in the tooth and were due to go off to the farm where they could run and play with the other PCs. They weren’t in operation and adding to the power bill but it was time to clear some space.

First up were the Satine and Roxanne systems. Satine was a Socket 939 (indicating a long ago AMD CPU generation) system with an Nvidia 6000 series video card and a pair of 500 GB drives that may have been mirrored.

The googles note an early mention of the Roxanne system in February 2008: : “Roxanne, the Vista system that was the main writing machine before Isobel”.

An early mention of Satine – nee’ Sativa – is around July 2006: , also here . Earlier mentions could be in the Chaos Manor columns printed in Byte magazine, but web versions of those sites are not available, at least with a quick search.

Beyond that it was hard to say because Satine was inoperable. It would spin up the fans and do everything preparatory to booting but never would. Not so much as a POST beep of any kind. The properties of some system files indicated it was running Windows XP SP2, so there was probably little value there for anyone beyond salvaging the drives.

So the hard drives were backed up and formatted, placed back in the case, and Satine remained as a project for someone with a strange combination of motive and nothing better to do.

Roxanne was more promising. She had last seen life as Mrs. Pournelle’s workstation but had been replaced by a new build when the case vents had become clogged, causing poor Roxanne to overheat before System Restore could run long enough to repair the damage from the first overheating.

Even with the vents cleared the Pentium 4 HT system was rather loud and hot. It isn’t clear to me whether this was always the case and not a bother to Jerry’s artillery-blasted hearing or if it had become compromised at some point.

Certainly it wasn’t worth any significant investment to replace any of the cooling bits. But it was running Windows 7, raising the question of whether it could become a Windows 10 system with a potentially long life ahead. Therein the saga lies.

Updates and Upgrades

On both Vista and Windows 7 there was just the one Service Pack. (Windows 7 may still get a second due to its business footprint but I’m not holding my breath.) Going back to NT 4, Service Packs were once produced far more frequently. Internet access was far less widespread and the need to store updates locally for installing on numerous machines was far higher. It was especially helpful if a Service Pack replaced its predecessor. Install SP4, and SP2 and SP3 were included in that update.

As the internet and live Windows Update downloads became more the standard, it became more of a hassle to update a new install or a machine that had been offline for a long period. By the time of Windows 7 in the days after Windows 8 had launched, this had gotten a bit painful.

Businesses of the scale to have their own WSUS setup [Windows Software Update Server, a ‘personal’ Windows Update system to centralize and manage updates across the business environment] or enough identical machines to use an updated image weren’t bad off but supporting the SOHO market got annoying. I had one experience where several refurb PCs that came with Windows 7 SP1 needed almost 1.5 GB of downloads to be fully updated. This was a very slow process regardless of how good your broadband speed might be.

Well, Roxanne hadn’t been to Windows Update in over two years. On the first attempt it spent nearly two hours figuring out which updates it needed before I noticed the gas gauge animation had stopped. The Update app was frozen. Start again.

This time it was a bit better. It installed about 150 updates before stopping and announcing it had an error it could not work past.

Along the way, the Windows Defender anti-virus scan announced finding some malware. It was deleted but found several other copies as it worked through the drives. Roxanne had received copies of older machine’s content in the process of originally entering service and consequently the malware implanted itself in each copy it found of certain system files. This was one of those packages that would break Windows Update as part of its activities. Why I was able to get as many updates installed as I did before it kicked in is a mystery.

This meant going off and searching out the ‘fixit’ app to correct the damage. Still more downloads. Then Windows Update failed with a different error.

At this point Roxanne had been updating, more or less, for about 20 hours. (This could have been reduced some if I’d been there to respond every time it needed human input but I have this congenital condition that requires me to spend a certain portion of each day unconscious. It’s very inconvenient. The doctors call it ‘sleep’ and can only offer short-term mitigation.)

A Different Fix Needed

This time a different fix was needed but it was soon found and applied. Finally, almost a day after starting this quest, it was done. Roxanne was as up to date as a Windows 7 machine could be at that moment in early September of 2015.

But where was the Windows 10 upgrade offer in the notification area? It should have been in the last batch of updates. Apparently this issue comes up often enough that there is an app from Microsoft that looks at your machine and determines if it is eligible, and installs the upgrade app if so.

Roxanne wasn’t eligible for the Windows 10 upgrade for two reasons. One was correctable, the other was not. At least, not at reasonable cost, which in this case is not anything over $0.

The Nvidia FX5700 video card had long since fallen out of the range supported by the company after Windows 7. This could be fixed by replacing it with a newer card that would still be old enough to be free or of negligible cost. The other problem was the Pentium 4 HT CPU. It was too old to have NX Bit support.

headstone-312540_1280Considering how much past malware misery could have been prevented if this NX Bit feature had become common much earlier in microprocessors, it represents a perfectly reasonable place for Microsoft to say “here and no farther” when it comes to antique hardware. The last generation of Pentium 4 did have the NX Bit (Intel calls it XD bit) added but this was after Roxanne’s CPU came out of the foundry.

So there it ends for Roxanne. She may find a home yet and brighten some life but we are done with her and bid her farewell.

Wrapping Up

The project met the need of providing a centralized and more efficient data storage for the Chaos Manor network. By consolidating data into that central location with high capacity drives, Chaos Manor gains efficiencies in data storage (data is not in several different places, with the attendant work of synchronizing data amongst several systems). It also makes backing up that data more centralized – which will be the focus of an upcoming project.

Using a RAID 6 configuration allows for data reliability, although you shouldn’t rely on just a RAID 6 for backup or data recovery, it is more of a reliable centralized storage system. You really need to have a process in place for off-network storage of your important data.

As for older computer systems: there’s “old” and then there is “really old”. Determining the moving target that divides those is necessary to decide whether a system should be donated or simply sent to e-waste.

And so ends this project. We hope that it has provided you with useful information, and perhaps some thought for a similar project of your own. We’re always looking for guest authors, see here. Let us know what you think in the comments below, and share this article with others.

An Evolving Backup System

[Chaos Manor Reviews reader Drake Christensen was reading about the Network Attached Storage (NAS) system your editor set up with the Raspberry Pi, and decided to share his experiences over the years with his NAS and backup system configuration and practices. – Editor]

nas-backup-cloudI’m very happy with my backup system, which has evolved over many years, and I thought I’d share my experiences as I have enhanced and improved it over the years to its current configuration.  It may have been on one of the Chaos Manor Mail pages, where someone declared:  “If it’s not in at least three places then it’s not backed up”.

I use Windows at home. I’ve had a Network Attached Storage (NAS) on my home network since 2009. Even though they’re a little more expensive, I’m a big fan of NAS over external USB drives.  I worry that if Windows gets confused and trashes a drive, it may also trash any backup media that’s plugged into it.

Since a NAS is a separate computer, that provides a bit of a buffer to protect against the disk structure getting destroyed.  Also, just as a simple practical matter, the NAS can be accessed by multiple computers on my home network.  And, I don’t have external drives cluttering my work area.  The NAS is off in the corner, out of the way.

I started my home NAS with a two-drive D-Link DNS-321, which is still attached to my network.  This older NAS is limited to 2 TB drives. The D-Link is very hack-able, and I think I could have downloaded a custom build of the OS that would let me use larger drives. But I just don’t have time to add another hobby.

In early 2014, I added a new hot Windows box that I had built by a boutique builder, iBuyPower. My previous, circa 2009 iBuyPower box was relegated to be a secondary chat/email machine that I use on the same desk.

I needed more backup space, so I added a Synology DS213j (see information here; link to site?) This two-drive system currently has only one 4 TB drive in it.  The admin page of the Synology is quite a bit slicker than the D-Link, and it has a lot more optional features available through their interface.  And it is being actively updated.

With my first NAS, I used a conventional backup program, which did daily backups to the NAS.  But, for some reason, even though the data was growing only slowly over time, the backup was taking much, much longer.  Eventually, it was taking most of a day, even for an incremental backup.  I never did figure out what was causing the performance issues.

Updating over the Years

Somewhere around 2012 I started looking for a program to give me Apple Time Machine-like capabilities on Windows.  I wanted to have a file backed up within a few minutes of when it was modified, with multiple versions stored.  I tried one commercial product, Genie Timeline; it wasn’t horrible. But, I found its interface to be a bit too “cute,” for my taste, and I felt that it got in the way.

Eventually, I found AutoVer mentioned in several places.  It’s certainly not a pretty program, but I find it fairly straightforward.  I’ve been running that on a few machines ever since.  I set it to backup up my entire \Users\(me)\Roaming directory, plus my data drive.

During the first few weeks, it does require some attention.  Some programs, like Firefox and Evernote, for example, will touch some large files fairly often, which can quickly eat up space on the backup drive.  I was able to break up the backup task into three or four smaller pieces, with custom rules for each task, and greatly reduce the number of versions it keeps of those larger files.

Unfortunately, “Real Life” has encroached on the author of AutoVer, and it is teetering on the verge of abandonware.  He rarely logs in to his own forum, anymore. It is still reliable for me, and I’m still using it on two machines.

More Enhancements to My Backup System

When I purchased my latest machine I decided to find an alternative that appears to have more recent work done on it.  I ended up with Yadis! Backup.  Its interface is a bit more familiar and friendly.  I’ve been running it for about 18 months now.  The only issue I’ve had with Yadis! Backup is that over time the log file will grow huge and crash the program on start.  Every couple of months I’ve had to rename/delete the file, which clears up the problem.  I have contacted their tech support a couple of times and received reasonably prompt responses.

One wrinkle that I’ve recently solved is automatically logging into my network drives.  Apparently, when checking the “Automatically connect” box in Explorer, the order in which Windows attempts to log into the network shares vs loading its network drivers during boot results in an error, leaving me unconnected.  I had hacked together a quick Powershell script to do that, but I wasn’t happy with it. A few months ago, I started looking around, and found the open source NetDrives, a free utility that I can run on startup to connect the network shares when the OS is ready to take them.

So, that’s one extra backup copy.

Going to the Cloud

A couple of years ago I saw an ad for a cloud backup service, called Backblaze.  That got me started researching.  I found lots of good reports about Backblaze, but it was a little expensive for my use.  (I record some amateur sports videos, which greatly bulk up my data.)

Carbonite is well-known, but at the time I was looking at it, it was also very expensive for large backups. It has been long enough that I don’t remember the specific prices, at the time. I recall that one of my machines had over 600 GB on the data drive, and that Carbonite was in the several hundred dollar range for that much data.

I ended up with Crashplan, which gives me unlimited data on 10 machines for $149/year.  I added my mother’s machine to my account (and I set up a NAS for her, too.)  Crashplan is also Time-Machine-like, in that it backs up continuously, and keeps multiple versions.  I’ve actually made use of Crashplan to restore a couple of files.

I don’t want to sound like a commercial for Crashplan, but there are a couple of other features that are worth mentioning which have been useful to me in my configuration and usage. (As they say, Your Mileage May Vary.)

First, since all my machines are under the same account, if I were on the road, I could conceivably use my laptop to pull a file from the cloud that was saved from one of my desktops. They also have Android and iOS mobile apps to access files backed up in the cloud.

Crashplan can also back up from one Crashplan machine to another, whether local or remote. And, it can back up to physically attached drives. It does not appear capable of replacing AutoVer and Yadis! Backup to back up to a NAS, though, even when the shares are mapped to drive letters.

Cloud Backup Advantages

The prices and packages of all of these cloud systems have changed a lot since I looked at them a couple of years ago. Backblaze is now $50/yr/computer, unlimited. And, they offer a stolen computer locator service. Carbonite is $59/yr for the first computer, unlimited data with the exception of video. Video files and more computers are available for an added cost. All of them provide seeded backups (the option for you to send them a drive with an initial copy of your data.) And, there is an option for them to send you a recovery drive. In any case, do your homework before choosing your cloud backup service to see which best fits your needs.

Cloud systems like this also protect against ransomware.  Since it backs up only through the software service, ransomware has no way to get at that set of backup files to encrypt them. For a while, you might be backing up encrypted files. But, with this kind of versioning, you can get back to a good copy from prior to the infection. The NAS, on the other hand, is still vulnerable, if the virus looks to see what shares the machine is connected to. From a Windows point-of-view, the share is “Just Another Drive”.

An aside:  One thing I found when researching cloud backups is that there is one company that is poisoning Internet searches.  They have released four or five different programs which are nearly identical, but under different names and different pricing schemes.  And then they have paid for a large number of reviews, and commissioned a bunch of Top 5 and Top 10 lists with their programs listed near the top, to make them look a lot better than they are.  Digging a little deeper, there are a lot of complaints about that company – either bait and switch pricing, poor customer service or technical problems.

Wrapping Up

My current backup system is comprised of Network Attached Storage, Time Machine-like versioning for local backup (is there a more generic term for this sort of thing?) and a commercial Cloud versioning backup. With this system in place, I can set up multiple computers on my network for continuous backup.

There are a few things I really like about my backup system.

The first is, after the initial teething period, it is completely automatic.  I don’t have to remember to do anything.  It Just Works.

Also, the multiple versions have come in handy. I’m a bit of a packrat, and I like having multiple versions of stuff I’m actively working on. It’s only a few times a year that I have that breath-sucking, “Oh, no.” feeling when I saved instead of canceled. The versioning has saved me a few times. One example would be, when my mother made a change to her book collection database file, and didn’t tell me about it for over a week.  I was able to pull a version out of Crashplan from before the change. I chose to pull from Crashplan because it happened to be the first time I needed to get an old version of a file since installing it, and I wanted to try the interface. It worked about as I had expected.

Next, I like the speed of on-site storage, as my first place to restore from.

And, finally, it adds a lot of peace of mind to know that I have off-site storage, in case of fire or theft, or similar disasters at the house. Plus, there is the slim chance of ransomware wiping out everything locally.  And, again, I don’t have to think about it.  I don’t have to discipline myself to rotate storage to have off-site safety.  For practical purposes, it’s built into my computers, now.

My solution is maybe a little pricey. I spent about $300 initially, for the D-Link DNS-321 and a 1 TB drive. The more recent Synology DS213j with a 4 TB drive can be had for about $300, at today’s prices. And the yearly cost for cloud backup is $149.

The NAS is a one-time expense, lasting me for years.  Crashplan is an ongoing expense.  As always seems to be the case, it was all a little more than I’d prefer to spend.  But, given the bulk, I think it’s reasonable.

[What do you do for a backup system? It is extensive, or do you even have a backup system? Let us know in the comments. Or you can submit your own experiences with backup processes on your home computers; see our Submissions page for details. – Editor]

Windows Live Writer – Almost Good Enough

Our intrepid editor maintains Chaos Manor and this site. Dr. Jerry Pournelle mainly writes for Chaos Manor. And he uses Microsoft Live Writer to do that. A new install of that resulted in a problem with entering the title of a post. And that resulted in a call to the Chaos Manor Advisors for help. Which, in turn, resulted in an interesting (well, to the editor, since he did it) troubleshooting process to figure out why.

Windows Live Writer main function is an easy way to write blog entries, and easily publish them to your blog site. It is a stripped-down version of Word, with basic HTML page editing functions. Once you set it up for your blog, you can write something, insert pictures, format text, add links, spell check, and the other usual things. Then there is a one-button ‘publish’ to your blogging site. The advantage to using it is that it is easy for anyone to easily write and publish blog entries.

Microsoft Word has some blog publishing capabilities also. So you could write a blog post in Word, then use the File, Save and Send to publish. One advantage to Live Writer over using Word is that you can see what your post will look like on your blogging site. The Live Writer editor screen will show your post with all of your blogs styling/look.

Sort of.

Windows Live Writer

Windows Live Writer (LW) is like a  step-child of Microsoft. It’s not very well maintained. It doesn’t work well as a full  WYSIWYG editor. Not to mention that if you want to install it, the proper download location (from Microsoft – you don’t want to get it from  non-Microsoft site) is not easy to find.

We use LW to initially create draft posts on this site, and other WordPress sites we have. We paste potential articles from Word (or email) into LW. Then we do the final editing within the WordPress editing screen.

Dr. Pournelle uses it for his posts to the Chaos Manor site. The process works fairly well for us and him. The LW editing screen is clean, with a ribbon bar to do basic formatting. Pictures pasted into LW will get uploaded to the site. The editing screen looks close enough to the final posted page on the web site.

Over in Chaos Manor, Dr. Pournelle has several computers that he uses to write his posts. He’s been rearranging his work areas lately, so he needed to get LW installed on a new system. That was the first problem.

Eric Pobirs, one of the Chaos Manor Advisors, helped get LW installed on the system at Chaos Manor. Dr. Pournelle was having difficulties getting the install process to complete. Eric said:

Essentially, it came down to downloading the correct file to start the install. For reasons that defy my understanding, Microsoft has never done a good job on how they manage the Live suite of apps. My impression is they regarded it more as something for OEMs to bundle with new PCs, like the MS Works suite of yore, and didn’t put the proper effort into presenting it to individuals downloading the product.

There were three major generations, 2009, 2011, and 2012. The earliest does not like post-XP versions of Windows. The middle version was intended for Vista, and the last version for 7 and 8.x. It was odd for a Microsoft program to display such compatibility issues but there it is. The 2011 version never gave me problems on Windows 7 but the only portion I used extensively is the Mail app, which has a long history as Outlook Express.

Microsoft pulled the earlier versions from download availability but they are still offered on numerous sites that are likely to show up in search. They’re hard to distinguish because they always have the same wlsetup.exe file name, rather than carrying some clue to their version up front. Some people are still obsessively attached to the 8.3 file naming convention.

So, I made sure I was downloading the 2012 version and it simply worked. Notably, it showed a different icon than the one downloaded to Swan previously. The .NET 3.5 runtime must have been installed on Swan at some point because it didn’t ask for it as it did on my Windows 10 test machine a few days earlier.

So Eric was successful in getting LW installed on the “Swan” system, making it available to Dr. Pournelle on that system, after he set up the Blog Account in LW for the Chaos Manor site.

The LW Editing Screen

A bit about that. You can have multiple Blog Accounts set up in LW. Each account will ‘connect’ to the appropriate site. You enter the user credentials and the site URL, and LW does some trundling to get things set up. Part of that ‘trundling’ is to download the sites theme (‘look’), which results in templates that are used by the LW editing screen. That template includes the various HTML and CSS for the site’s theme, and is used to present the theme’s look in the LW editing screen. So the HTML/CSS of the site’s theme is an important part of the template used by LW to display content on the LW editing screen.

WordPress themes get updated all of the time with additional features, and probably new and changed CSS styles. LW has a button to update the theme, so it’s editing screen will ‘look’ like a published post on the live site.

The LW editing screen looks like this (a partial screenshot of the LW editing area.

imageYou can see the ribbon bar (similar to the one in Word) across the top for basic formatting (there is more that is not shown on this screen shot). There is an area to enter the post’s title, and the area underneath that is the content area. You click on the Post Title area, type in the title, then move to the content area and type in the content. When all is done, you hit the Publish button, and the post is published on your web site.

This first screenshot shows the LW editing screen when we are using the Chaos Manor Reviews blog account. The CMR site uses a theme called “Voyage”. We’ve done some modifications of it, adding some CSS and other changes that we wanted to have.

The Chaos Manor site uses a different theme called ‘Mantra’. I’ve modified it with additional CSS and code. If you look at the two sites, you can see the difference in how they ‘look’. That is because they use different themes, each having it’s own ‘look and feel’.

Now, let’s take a look at the LW editing screen for the Chaos Manor site:

imageSee the difference? No title area. Just the entry area for the post’s content, and the gray area of the site’s background. (LW doesn’t show the sidebar area, nor the heading/menu area.)

Both screenshots are in the LW “WYSIWYG” mode. On the Chaos Manor site, because it uses a different theme, you can’t enter the title of the post on this LW editing screen. You can get the title area if you toggle off the WYSIWYG mode (with Ctrl + F11). Here’s what the Chaos Manor site looks like in LW with the WYSIWYG mode turned off:

imageThe Post Title area is back, but the WYSIWYG (the look of the post with the site’s theme) is gone.

The missing post title area caused a problem for Dr. Pournelle on the new install of LW. The title area was OK on the other systems he uses, since they were working off of the older version of the Mantra theme.

So it appeared that additional CSS with the latest version of the Mantra theme was causing the Post Title area to disappear in WYSIWYG mode in LW.

Digging into the Problem

imageThat took a bit of digging around to figure out. This next part is a bit more technical, with HTML and CSS code references. But it is interesting, even to the non-web page designer.

LW stores the site’s theme templates in the AppData folder on the computer. Each site is stored in a folder with a GUID-type name. Inside that folder area is the template file for the site. Here’s the file list for the Chaos Manor site; other sites that I have installed on my system have a similar file structure, shown on the right.

The LW editing page uses the index.htm template. The older versions of the index.html file are prior template ‘syncs’, as are, I think, the other GUID-named folders.

If we look at the code inside the index.htm file, we see standard HTML code with CSS styles, etc. Here’s the BODY area of the template code in that file


Note the highlighted code at line 172:

<DIV class=”comments-link”><SPAN><SPAN class=”screen-reader-text”>{post-title}</SPAN></SPAN></DIV>

Again, this code is ‘built’ by LW from the theme’s generated code for a page. The {post-title} is used by LW for the input area for the post’s title. Note that it is surrounded by the CSS Class called ‘screen-reader-text’. That’s an indication of where our problem of not seeing the title area on the LW screen. Compare that to the code in the index.htm file for the Chaos Manor Reviews site, which uses a different theme:

<H2 class=”entry-title”><A href=””>{post-title}</A></H2>

That gives us a clue as to the problem with the disappearing Post Title area on the Chaos Manor LW screen. The {post-title} is surrounded by the ‘screen-reader-text’ class. In the CMR code, there is a different class. So looking at the ‘screen-reader-text’ class is our next step. Here’s the CSS code for that CSS class.

.screen-reader-text {

position: absolute;

left: -9000px;


Digging into our knowledge of CSS stuff, we see that any HTML code using that class will have the text positioned 9000 px (pixels) to the left of the current position. That will position the visual text off of the LW screen (and off of the browser screen when the page is viewed). Screen reader applications (for the visually impaired) will be able to read the text, but a ‘normal’ view of the page in a browser will not show any content surrounded by that CSS class ‘div’.

Since LW editing screen uses a browser-representation (based on the LW template created from the site’s theme) of the post, that CSS class was the cause of the disappearing post title area on the new (with the current updated theme) installation of LW on Dr. Pournelle’s ‘Swan’ system. That particular bit of code is not in the LW installs for the old version of the Mantra theme, which is why Dr. Pournelle was able to see the Post Title when using LW on those systems.

The Fix is In – Sort Of

So, how to fix that? The quick way is to use the Ctrl+F11 toggle to get out of WYSIWYG mode on the LW editing screen. The disadvantage of that is that you can’t see what the post will look like when published. For instance, the ‘block quotes’ we used above to show the code contents will look similar to the web site version, with indentation, a lighter gray background, and a white border around the box. If you toggle off the WYSIWYG mode in LW, that area is just shown as indented text. But that is a Good Enough solution for Dr. Pournelle.

You could modify the Mantra Theme to not put in that CSS code. That takes away some of the ‘accessability’ of the site to visually impaired visitors.

And there is a risk in modifying theme code, unless you use a ‘child theme’ (as we do on both sites, and on all WordPress sites we make). If you don’t use a child theme, any changes you make to the theme’s code or CSS will get destroyed with a theme update. And if you do use a child theme, you may have to duplicate a lot of the theme code – depending on how the theme is ‘built’. Either way, some PHP skills are needed (among other skills). We’ve done child themes, and recommend them, but there is some effort involved.

You could change themes, of course (and we may do that at some point on the Chaos Manor site), but that requires a lot of testing and tweaking the new theme; things that you don’t want to do on a live site. And finding just the right theme with all of the features you want to have can be quite a ‘time sink’. You can spend hours finding the right theme (I’ve done it). And still things aren’t quite what you want.

Or you could build your own theme. There are theme building templates to help out, but that is still a bunch of effort requiring PHP, HTML, and CSS skills. (Again, I’ve done it – or at least, started on the process. Many hours/days/weeks of coding and testing are required to build a theme that works well.)

Now, it may be, as the executive editor and web guy of the Chaos Manor and Chaos Manor Review sites, that I’ll change the theme of Chaos Manor to be closer to Chaos Manor Reviews. Again, time is involved in that.

But in the meantime using the Ctrl+F11 key to toggle in and out of WYSIWYG mode just so Dr. Pournelle can type in the post title is the best short-term solution.

Whither Live Writer?

There aren’t many good alternatives to LW. You could use the native editor in WordPress, but that requires learning a bit about the WP Admin area. LW is great, since it doesn’t require any access to the WP Admin area.

You could use Word and publish there. That would work with simple blogs, but once you get into more than the basic formatting, Word is not the best solution either; it creates a lot of HTML ‘gunk’ in the page code.

Will Live Writer ever be more than ‘good enough’? Microsoft has announced that they are planning on taking it open-source, which might fix all of the little problems it has (including, hopefully, this one). No announcement of when that will happen, though. One can hope that it will be Real Soon Now.

So, we’re stuck with Live Writer. It is, overall, a great way to easily ‘blog’.  You do have to work around some issues. But it is almost ‘good enough’.

What do you think? What is your favorite blog editor? Let us know in the comments. And if you have a story you’d like to share on Chaos Manor Reviews, let us know here.

Browser Compatibility, ‘Software’ vs. Software, and Video Playback

Alex returns with Part 2, wherein he covers improving browser compatibility and why video streaming is harder than it should be.

Part One was about browsers vs. operating systems, a mysterious Firefox upgrade, and changing default browsers. Browser compatibility is next: All of them are improving, and that’s great for both users and developers.

I Do Believe It’s Getting Better

256px-Globe1.svgRemember when browser compatibility was a big headache? does, and provides a point score to boot. Firefox 39 scores 467 of 555 points; Chrome 44 scores 526; Safari 9.0, 400 (See results here). A closer look at the compatibility issues for Firefox shows many are with form input types—not a dealbreaker for many—but in general, browsers have improved hugely in the last few years.

Better browsers were supposed to replace operating systems. Instead, they’re slowly replacing local applications, especially for mobile. Today, companies write applications, apps, for iOS and Android, which you download through the App Store or Google Play. Over time, many apps will become HTML5 wrappers, using CSS3 or JavaScript for many functions, then most, then all. When they become “all” HTML5 or 5.1 (Due next year), then more complex programs can become a URL, instead of an app? Maybe.

That plan relies on stable, known, well-understood browsers on each target platform, browsers which execute code quickly and reliably, without too many versionitis headaches. It will be most prevalent for free (as in free beer) apps, ones that don’t require local hardware access, store their data in the cloud, and never have in-game purchases.

And then? Will the browser-as-app revolution bypass the app stores entirely, even for non-free games and productivity tools? Probably not. Both Apple and Google make quite a bit of money via their app stores, so they aren’t going to look kindly at any bypass movement. Developers, too, know exactly what royalty rates they’ll earn. Users are familiar with the current purchase methods and won’t be persuaded to change easily.

Users also look at app store certification as a mark of quality (Rightly or wrongly). Apple, especially, will look unkindly at any browser-based not-an-app that requests local hardware access, and clamp down on non-App Store plays. There are already self-load and side-load apps for Android (straight apps, not browser based); Apple makes this very difficult without rooting your iOS device.

Summary? Download-and-install-yourself will continue as the dominant model for PCs and Macs—even outliers like Salesforce have downloads for Chatter and local file replication. On mobile, expect the app stores to be the standard purchase method, even if they’re HTML5 in a local-code wrapper, for at least two more years.

Replacing Flash and H.264: A Look Into the Crystal Ball

Under the covers, my remaining computer slowdowns and mysterious stoppages may be an interaction between Flash and Chrome. So far, using Firefox instead, they’re minimal. What caused them?

For nearly everyone, Flash means video playback, particularly for Youtube and Facebook. (Yes, there are Flash games, but ever fewer.) Can you live without the Adobe Flash plugin?

In the future, yes: You’ll click on a link to an HTML5 video, played by the browser itself. No plug-in, and it’ll Just Work. The HTML5 web specification is specifically designed for video playback, natively, within a browser; no plugins to separately update. First introduced by Opera Software in 2007, it’s been The Next Thing to replace Flash video for nearly a decade, but progress has been slow.

Background: HTML5 video (Using the <video> tag) is a container, a video element for the web, not a playback format or encoder standard; the most popular HTML5 encode formats are MPEG-DASH and H.264. That difference, between container/file format and encoding, confuses many. For instance, if you save a Flash video on your computer, it’s probably a .FLV extension, but inside it might be a Sorenson Spark, VP6 or H.264 encoded file. Flash itself opens the file, reads a header, and loads the correct decoder to play back the video. All that works automatically, except when it doesn’t.

clip_image001The HTML5test of Firefox gives some hints on the complexity under the covers; here’s all the checkboxes for video playback compatibility:


(Results are from Firefox 44 on MacOS 10.10.4; I suspect yours will be similar.)

Notice the Codec list: Each is a separate option. Notice also that WebM, an open-source media file format appears fully supported.

YouTube has been promising universal HTML5 video playback Real Soon Now for several years; time to check on progress. Compare the above to the YouTube HTML5 Video Player detection page for the same system:


(Note that HTML5test believes WebM VP9 playback is supported, while Youtube doesn’t.)

Your browser probably supports basic HTML5 video playback; try this link.

Do videos play in Flash or HTML5 format? Open YouTube, select a video, let it auto-start, check the format by right-clicking, see whether it’s the HTML5 or Flash player. Some videos (Especially from Vevo) attempt to play as HTML5, they fail, then, upon reload, play automatically as Flash.

Can I force HTML5 playback? Disable Flash on Firefox on the Mac, restarting, go to YouTube and attempt to play a video. It shows… black. Right-clicking shows the embedded video is indeed shown as HTML5, but it’s both silent and dark. As for Facebook, with Flash disabled, clicking on an embedded video shows a banner suggesting you download the latest version of Flash—no HTML5 playback yet.

These are playbacks from the Mac browser, not mobile clients. Facebook has their own apps for iOS and Android, handling video playback directly. Unsurprisingly, YouTube (Owned by Google) is a native Android app; it’s also a very popular app for iOS.

Back on the Mac, all is not perfect. If a link opens a webpage which is neither Facebook nor Youtube, embedded Youtube links therein do not play. You must copy the Youtube URL, copy that to the browser, load Youtube itself, then play. This took some persistence to learn.

Still, for Youtube and Facebook, I finally have reliable Flash video playback within Firefox 39. Google Chrome plus MacOS is still a problematic combination, so I don’t use it. Still, it’s progress—I have one browser I don’t have to close, should I wish to actually be productive—and I’ll take it. Arguably, I would have gotten more work done by not updating Firefox to work with Flash in the first place, but that’s a personal problem.

Video Formats and the Future

Many smart people have continuously improved digital video quality—more quality at any given bitrate—for several decades. Anyone who watched Video CDs (VCDs), with their ghastly, blocky, low quality look in MPEG-1 format, remembers how far we’ve come. Yes, we’ve got far more bits-per-second to watch, but encode efficiency has increased, too.

The latest CODEC is HEVC, High Efficiency Video Coding, alias H.265, 20% to 50% more efficient than the current H.264 standard, and over three times as efficient as MPEG2. Mostly, HEVC will be used to push 4K and higher resolution video via pipes as small as 8Mbps, mostly for online delivery. On the pro side, I don’t see HEVC used as a production format—as in, for moving realtime, low-latency video from camera to switcher via Ethernet—for at least a year.

One of the two formats within HTML5 video, MPEG-DASH (often just “DASH”), dynamically adapts to available bandwidth and to changes in video complexity: If you move from a crummy 3G connection to your home Wi-Fi, picture quality should automatically improve, once this solution works. Hulu’s moving to DASH, though few others have, yet. Expect DASH to appear in mobile playback products, where adaptive-rate playback will be the most valuable.

HEVC will also be delayed a bit, before it hits volume use; there’s no single patent pool yet agreed upon for the rights, and there’s tussling (Not yet lawsuits) about royalty rights. As for containers, HTML5 will, presumably, be the delivery method, replacing Flash. Certainly, that’s the fervent wish of the streaming community, if Streaming Media Magazine is any indicator.

But that’s all at least 12, more likely 24, months in the future. Until then, you will see a patchwork of formats: More Flash updates (Currently on version 18), more Flash security vulnerabilities, slow adoption of the HTML5 video standard, MPEG-DASH and WebM appearing, then a slow delaying action by Adobe as Flash fades away.

Coming Up

Next time, it’s on to Apple Mail and Spotlight, then installation of a Solid-State Disk (SSD) in the Mac. Your thoughts for future installments are also welcome.

What do you think? Your comments are welcomed, along with ideas for new subjects for Alex and the other Advisors. And if you have a story to tell, start here.

October 2014 Column, Part 3


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.


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:

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.


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.


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 This may be the app you’ve been waiting for.


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.

Here’s how to subscribe:   PAYING FOR THIS PLACE


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


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
demonstrated in this video 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

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.


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


September 2014 Column – Part 4

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.

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

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


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.

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.