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Computing At Chaos Manor:
April 11, 2010

The User's Column, April 2010
Column 357
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2010 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


The biggest April news was Apple's iPad, which finally appeared at month's beginning. Within hours Leo Laporte was ecstatic with both online opening pictures and his radio broadcast, and the whole net was abuzz with enthusiastic reviews. "Absolutely mind blowing" was typical. Reviewer enthusiasm was surprisingly uniform and remarkably high. Nearly everyone who tried it loved it.

On the sales front the immediate reaction was subject to spin. The Los Angeles Times enthusiastically trumpeted "First-day iPad sales surpass 300,000". Reuters projected over 4 million by the end of the year. The Times article by David Sarno pointed out that the "one-day total topped the 2007 debut for the original iPhone." The Times also quoted Steve Jobs as saying that the iPad would be a game changer. On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal's Yukari Iwatani Kane article was headlined "First-Day Sales of Apple's iPad Fall Short of Sky-High Hopes," and reported a wide spectrum of predictions about the year's iPad sales. The first day sales were great or so-so, depending on the spin.

Apple hadn't made any sales projections, and spokespeople said the company was satisfied. My internal Apple sources say they'd hoped for more, but this will do. What really thrilled them was that new iPad users downloaded over a million apps and a quarter of a million eBooks on the first day. That was what prompted Jobs to say iPad would be a game changer.

My own view is that given the economy the sales were certainly good enough and iPad will definitely be a game changer. Its arrival will both contribute to the computer revolution and divert some of that revolutionary energy into new directions. One key is in those book sales. The iPad may not be one's final choice as an eBook reader, but it will get a lot of people used to reading eBooks. It will also have a high impact on other information and entertainment consumption as people get used to reading magazines and seeing movies on their hand held device.

It will also have an impact on the computer world, but that will take longer. Note that iPad doesn't do a lot that LisaBetta, my Compaq HP tc1100 TabletPC, can do. The iPad is lighter, and the battery life is a lot better, but it doesn't multi-task and it won't run OneNote. There are educational apps for iPhone and thus iPad, and there are certainly going to be more, but there are a number of educational applications such as physics simulations for the TabletPC that the iPad can't touch.

Moreover, when COMDEX was still operating I could and did take LisaBetta to Las Vegas as the only computer I had with me. I also took her to WinHEC and other conferences. Those were the days when I filed daily reports from those shows, and I even filed reports during Bill Gates' keynote speeches. I was sometimes frustrated by LisaBetta's less than perfect keyboard and over-all slowness, but I was able to function, at least in the press room. One of the main problems with LisaBetta was taking notes in conferences: she's not really a laptop. While I can and sometimes do take notes on a tablet by writing on the screen with the stylus, I'd rather type. LisaBetta's "convertible" keyboard is far from ideal, but in the Press Room and in keynote presentations where there were generally tables reserved for Press, I had no problems keeping up by using LisaBetta as a tabletop laptop. Alas, she just isn't built for holding in your lap as you type.

Neither is iPad for that matter, at least not for a touch typist. However, if you want to set up iPad as a desktop there are various accessories to attach either a docked or Bluetooth keyboard, and iPad would then do very well for taking notes in a conference with a Press table. I can also imagine hanging the iPad on the back of the chair in front of you while typing on a Bluetooth connected keyboard in your lap. That wouldn't be my idea of something to do, but I've never been big on keyboards in my lap. I can manage that with the MacBook Air, but I really prefer tables.

Then there's the software. Apple sells the three major parts of iWork - Pages for word processing, the Numbers spread sheet, and Keynote for presentations - for the iPad, a bargain at $10 for each (although I'd have thought they'd include them in the package, and I wouldn't be astonished if they did that after the initial rush for iPad ends). While iWorks software isn't what you would call high end, and it can be a pain getting files into and out of the iPad, those applications are plenty good enough for a lot of work, and I make no doubt that it won't be long before there are apps to fix most of the problems. The iPad won't replace the TabletPC as one's all-purpose road warrior system, but then it wasn't intended to do that; it's just gravy that it does as much of that task as it does.

What the iPad is intended to do is change the way you consume information; to get you used to the notion that everything you need to know is on line, and the iPad allows you access to it: it's better to have an iPad than a dozen newspapers, and you can carry the iPad. Same with books: you're going on a trip. How many books can you take with you? Thousands, if they're eBooks. Now of course that's been true for years now, what with Kindle and the Sony Reader, and now that Kindle reader software is available for iPhone and Netbooks and Windows systems in general you don't even need the Kindle. I can read eBooks including my Kindle books on LisaBetta even if she's not as handy as my Kindle. It's even easier on the iPad. So long as you're reading indoors or in the shade, book reading on the iPad is a pleasant experience. Some find it far better than the Kindle. It's a good way to read books.

Some writers have speculated that the iPad is a Kindle-killer. It probably is: if I didn't have a Kindle but needed a reader, I'd buy an iPad. I suspect Kindle sales will fade from here on out, but I don't think that's important: what's important is that the iPad will add millions to the number of people reading eBooks. That will inspire applications developers. We can expect a flood of apps to improve the reading experience. More importantly there will be apps to make it easier to enjoy enhancements, and software to make it easier to add enhancements - maps, elaborate illustrations, cut scenes, things I haven't thought of - to online books and magazines and newspapers.

iPad is a media consumption device, and will never be a media production system, but that's equally true of iPhone. What iPhone did was stimulate applications developments. The iPad will do that in spades with big casino. And as the system improves, the apps will keep on coming. It's an exponential spiral.

There will also be new packages - think what animated graphic novels may do to the comics industry. All this was inevitable, but just as the iPod led the way to huge changes in the music industry, the iPad is a giant step toward a new future in information and entertainment publishing. That's the game changer.

Why get an iPad?

Having said all that, I don't yet have an iPad. I had a session with one in the Apple store, and I've read dozens of reviews by people I respect, and I concluded that the current release iPad doesn't do much that I have time to do. Most books I read are black and white and the Kindle is quite good enough for those. I am not in the habit of reading magazines on line. I don't spend much time out of my house now, so I don't really need anything like the iPad with me at all times, and if I'm going to carry a shoulder bag, LisaBetta or Khaos the MacBook Air will be more than good enough for anything I'm going to do away from the office or breakfast table.

For instance: writing anything of importance on the iPad is a chore. You can use the on screen keyboard, but in my case at least only with glorified two-finger typing. I was reminded of Poul Anderson's attempt to use my first computer: he tended to rest his fingers on the keys, and he was used to his heavy stroke Remington manual typewriter. The result was hilarious, but he sure wasn't writing much. Largely because of that experience it took him years to change over to writing on a computer. I won't say my attempts to use the iPad on screen keyboard were that big a failure, but it takes effort to overcome old habits. Even so, for anything but actual production work - essays, or scenes for stories - the iPad on screen keyboard is plenty good enough, the best on-screen keyboard I know of, and for anything beyond notes you can use an external keyboard. A less pressing problem is the lack of a mouse. With LisaBetta I can use a stylus and I got used to that, so I presume I could learn to use finger motions, but I'm not keen to.

Of course the iPad wasn't designed for people who write essays while sitting in waiting rooms. If all you want to do is check email and make short answers, iPad is great. It ought to be a terrific tool for generating Tweets and chatting by Texting. Moreover, I suspect that Apple will continue to add to iPad's note taking and research features, since the high school and undergraduate student market is an obvious sales target. If it can be sold as the obvious student machine yet do all the cool iPod and iPhone things, it will fly off the shelves.

Note that all my reservations about iPad are on the production side. There are far fewer concerns about iPad as a media consumer device. Just about everyone I know who tried it immediately fell in love. It's great for reading books, looking at pictures, watching movies, playing games, reading magazines, browsing the web, and generally receiving entertainment and information, and the reviews range from wow to wild ecstasy.

All that assumes you can get the information into the iPad, and that's not all that easy. You pretty well have to have high speed Internet connection, and it doesn't hurt to have a Wi-Fi connection to a real computer. Watching a DVD movie on the iPad is between difficult and impossible, requiring connection to a computer that can play the DVD. If you download or create files on your iPad, getting them off is complex: you can't just plug in a CD/DVD burner or a thumb drive. Some you can email, others can be uploaded onto a Mobile.me or iWork.com cloud account if you have a web connection, or to your local computer network if you've got a Wi-Fi connection to that. Printing isn't easy either. We can assume that many of these I/O problems will be ironed out either by Apple or by app developers.

The bottom line is that using the iPad for information and entertainment consumption is a highly pleasant experience.

iPad wasn't designed as a Kindle killer, but it's certainly going to cut drastically into Kindle sales. Of course Kindle sales were already down after Amazon announced support for Kindle books on Windows and Blackberry phones as well as Apple - Mac, iPhone, and iPad. You don't need a Kindle to read Kindle books, and the iPad experience is certainly comparable to the Kindle experience when it comes to reading ordinary black and white books.

iPad isn't precisely a DVD-player killer, but at the moment it's bad news for the DVD industry. As I said earlier, it's between difficult and impossible to watch a DVD on the iPad, and if you do it's likely to require a device you could be using to watch the DVD. To the extent that the iPad increases electronic movie sales, it will be at the expense of DVD's. The entertainment industry is digesting that news.

In fact I don't think of the iPad as an anything killer. It may do that, but the more important effect is that it's a recruiting device, and by adding more members to the Tablet Computer user club, the effects will be positive. If you get an iPad you'll like it.

So what are you waiting for?

It's an obvious question: why not just buy one? It's not cheap, but it's not that expensive. After all, I've been a TabletPC advocate ever since I saw Bill Gates display one in a COMDEX keynote. And that's the problem: while the iPad is very good at what it does, even that original TabletPC was able to do a lot more, and TabletPC's have improved a lot since then - and there's more to come.

Peter Glaskowsky recently said

Finally, a new tablet I can get excited about.

Engadget has a leaked HP internal presentation comparing the Slate with the iPad, and HP released another demo video:

Frankly, the iPad is going to slaughter the Slate in the market. With its superior user interface, Apple's guiding hand on the shoulder of its developers (or boot on the throat, if you prefer :-), and ten hours of battery life, the iPad is the better choice for almost everyone.

But not me.

HP's presentation shows the Slate has an active digitizer for pen support, and the new video appears to show a pen built into the unit (at 0:21, the circle on the lower right edge).

That means the Slate should be able to run OneNote, and THAT means I can move up from this wonderful-but-old Motion LS800 to a Machine with HD video support and the newer, much better handwriting recognition engine that was added in Windows Vista.

Plus, HP's pricing is much more attractive-- apparently just $599 for a Machine with a 64GB SSD.

It was my hope that HP would get these things right that convinced me not to get an iPad, and I now I'm even more sure that was the correct decision.

A few things could stand to get tweaked; I wish it were a bit smaller and lighter and had more RAM (the specs say 1GB) but even as is, the Slate should be the first new productivity-oriented tablet of its kind-- a market it may have all to itself for quite a while.

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I agree with all that. I've often said that a TabletPC with OneNote is about the best portable research tool I've ever had, and that continues to be so. As I've said, my very elderly TabletPC does many things the iPad won't do and just about everything it will do. Not perfectly, not as fast as I'd like, but it will do them; and the next generation of Tablets looks a lot better. The costs are comparative, the Tablets have fewer I/O problems. I can wait - but I am more concerned with production than consumption. For those who really want to read graphic novels and magazines on line the iPad is available today.

iPhone Multitasking

As I was writing this, Apple held an invitation press event to announce a new multi-tasking operating system for the iPhone (which means iPad as well). It's not quite multitasking as we usually think of that, which is probably just as well. Opening up true multi-tasking to app designers has its dangers, at least for iPhone. After all, the purpose of a telephone is to be a telephone; it's nice to have it be a pocket computer, but the present hardware isn't up to that.

Example: I have awful AT&T coverage - it doesn't reach the rooms in the back of the house at all, and only sporadically works in the breakfast room. Now my obvious remedy is to set up a Wi-Fi network that does cover all the rooms, but that turns out to be harder to do than you might think. This is a big old house with thick walls. But leave that. The point is that I have Wi-Fi and AT&T coverage here, but in many parts of the house it's dicey and the connection is slow. Now one of the joys of the iPhone is having an instant reference library at your fingertips. This morning I was reading the papers and came across the news that one of the Munchkins, Meinhardt Raabe, the Munchkin coroner who pronounced that the Wicked Witch of the West was not only dead but "really, most sincerely, dead," had died. I saw that movie when it first came out, and I couldn't remember just how old I was when I saw it. For some odd reason the newspaper article didn't give the date of the movie.

Perfect job for an iPhone. Turn it on, open Safari, go to Google, look up Wizard of Oz to get the International Movie Data Base URL, and go to that. The problem was that with the bad connection I had this took time, but eventually I got there and clicked to go to IMDB. The iPhone trundled. It trundled some more. It kept trundling to the point at which I wasn't all that interested any more - then up popped an advertisement page on an entirely different web page. In tiny letters at the top was an invitation to proceed to the IMDB. It was a well illustrated ad with lots of pictures and links, meaning that it took a long time to load. By this time I really didn't care much. Yes, the movie was released in 1939 so I must have seen it at the Malco Theater at the corner of Main and Beale streets in Memphis, which really was in the last Millennium, but had I known how long it was going to take me to find out, I'd have put off looking it up until I had a better connection.

Opening up the iPhone app developers to multi-tasking and allowing advertisements isn't going to make using the iPhone a better experience if it brings in more experiences like that.

On the other hand, multi-tasking will make it more likely that you can use Skype and other VoIP applications on the iPad with good results. All told it's a Good Thing to have the new iPhone operating system, but it's pretty clear that Apple developed this in response to market demand, not because Apple really likes the idea of multi-tasking on iPhone and iPad; the hardware is a bit slow and the memory is limited. We can hope that those who bought the earlier iPads with really limited memory will be able to turn the feature off.

In the long run it hardly matters. The significant part of the story is that every year we really do get closer to the pocket computer Niven and I made use of in our 1972 novel The Mote in God's Eye. The pocket computer hardware gets better every year - and there's a rumor that AT&T is going to improve its coverage. I can hardly wait.

Media Processor or TabletPC

Most readers won't remember this, but when the micro computer was first born, there was real competition between the somewhat slow and clunky general purpose small computers, and the slick and specialized word processors. IBM offered a magnetic card controlled Selectric typewriter which many writers including David Gerrold adopted. Barry Longyear and I had a public debate about our machines. I had Ezekial, an S-100 CP/M system running Electric Pencil, while he had chosen a Wang word processor. I admitted that the specialized word processors were better for the one application, but held that general purpose small computers were a better investment, because they had greater potential.

The advent of the iPad reminds me of this, but the analogy isn't very good. The difference is instructive. In the early days, companies like Wang and IBM were very proprietary about their word processors, and there was almost no third party software. General purpose systems profited from independent applications developments, and soon spawned better text editors for S-100 machines than either IBM or Wang ever came up with. Write, WordStar, Word Perfect, and the like soon drove the specialized word processor systems out of the market. Apple learned from that and has enthusiastically encouraged third party developers. They still retain control over the system and impose some limits on what they'll permit on iPhone and iPad, but it seems that one lesson from the early days of the computer revolution has, at least partially, sunk in.

Net Neutrality

The Federal Courts have stepped in to tell the FCC that its rules on net neutrality will have to go: Congress didn't give them that regulatory authority. If net neutrality is needed, it's up to Congress now; it can't be done by regulation.

The question is whether any regulation is needed at all. The only alleged abuses seem to be over. One came about when Comcast slowed BitTorrent download speeds without announcing that it had done so. There was also a case of an ISP - a rather small one - blocking Voice Over IP for its customers. Since neither of those is a monopoly, the obvious remedy would be publicity: let the customers know what their ISP is doing. It's doubtful that it takes government action to do that. Word gets around. Indeed it already did.

I can see some logic in federal saber rattling with a threat to enforce truth in advertising - something either FCC or FTC already has at least some legal power to do - but beyond that it's hard to believe that the remedy, more bureaucrats, is not worse than the disease. Assuming there is any disease. I haven't heard any credible threats of non-neutrality, and given the vigor of many pundits' dislike of anything close to compromising net neutrality I think we'd know.

Even the Los Angeles Times seems to believe that it's a problem for Congress if it's a problem at all, and to have some doubt about just how urgent a problem this might be.

I note that my colleague John Dvorak seems to be concerned about the latest Court ruling on the FCC power, but he has no examples of actual horrors, merely fears of possible scenarios. My own view is that inviting the government in will cause more problems than it will solve, and is certainly a bad idea absent something specific to complain about. Competition will take care of whatever problem in "net neutrality" still exists. Leave this one to the market.

Winding Down

Fred Pohl in his autobiography The Way the Future Was describes an evening in New York in 1940. Paris had fallen to the Wehrmacht, and German soldiers tramped down the Champs-Élysées in triumph. One of Fred's intellectual friends, an agent and editor, proposed a toast "To the victory of the workers over the bourgeoisie". This was during the time of the Hitler-Stalin alliance.

The first book of the month, Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell, tries to explain how this could be, how "Distinguished professors, gifted poets, and influential journalists summoned their talents to convince all who would listen that modern tyrants were liberators and that their unconscionable crimes were noble when seen in the proper perspective."

I have always held that Thomas Sowell is a national treasure. Sowell says that "Although this book is about intellectuals, it is not written for intellectuals. Its purpose is to achieve an understanding of an important social phenomenon and to share that understanding with those who wish to share in it." Of course when reading Sowell it doesn't hurt to be an intellectual, but it's not a requirement. He writes clearly, and the subject is fascinating. How have so many smart people embraced ideas and movements that were so awful? Nor is this mere history. There are plenty of recent examples of intellectual folly. As with any important book on an important subject, this isn't light reading, but Sowell is good enough that it isn't onerous either. Recommended.

The second book of the month is How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It by James Wesley Rawles. The subtitle Tactics, Techniques, and Technologies for Uncertain Times is a reasonable summary of the book. The point of the book is that civilization is more fragile than many know. Jane Jacobs is only one of many writers who have pointed that out. Dark Age Coming (Kindle edition ) gives several such scenarios.

Works on the possible collapse of civilization are not so common now as they used to be, but there seem to be more lately. Even so, during the Cold War there was a lot more speculation about surviving the collapse of a fragile civilization. Long time readers will recall that I was an editor of SURVIVE Magazine and did a regular column on the subject. In those days the most probable scenario for collapse of civilization was a nuclear war, and the best means for surviving that was not to be in a target area. Several of my friends and colleagues were sufficiently concerned that they moved to a retreat area in Oregon, and urged me to join them. I was concerned too, but my theory was that the best way to survive a nuclear war was not to have one, and I could do a lot more in that regard from Los Angeles than from rural Oregon. In any event, that scenario played out without disaster.

Rawles has several other scenarios. One would be an Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) attack on the United States: explosion of a suitably designed nuclear weapon in the stratosphere could take out much of the US power grid. Our modern society is far more dependent on electric power and the Internet than ever it was during the 1970-1990 period, and we are even more vulnerable to an EMP attack than we were. As to fragility, even in the 1970's the Japanese developed kanban system of "just in time" inventory management was gaining ground, and by now it's pretty well universal: whereas grocery stores used to keep large inventories of supplies in the back rooms, they don't do that much any more. As Rawles points out, what you see in those stores is what you can get; and if there's a glitch in the transportation and communications system, there won't be replacements. Given that and panic and you may see scenes of "foraging" ("gathering", we called it in The Burning City) as those who have nothing to eat go looking for ways to feed their families. When I was an editor of Survive Magazine we had a saying: no country is more than ten meals away from a revolution. That's still true. And of course we have just seen a worldwide flu pandemic. It was fortunately mild; but had it been something as deadly as the World War I flu the results might have been different. Given modern air transport, diseases spread fast. Think of a mutation to MRSA that makes it more contagious; it's already spreading in environments outside prisons and hospitals. If enough people collapse, the electric grid can go, or fire departments fail.

Threats to civilization can be deliberate or natural. Collapse isn't very likely, but the probabilities of many of these scenarios are well above zero. Some would say that the growing deficits and the failing economy raise those probabilities even higher.

Rawles' book is a pretty good introduction to the subject of survival. There are specifics, but more importantly there is considerable advice on how to think about the problem. I don't endorse everything he says, but none of it is a waste of time to think about. One way to survive a Dark Age is not to have one, and thinking about what a Dark Age means is important. Recommended.

Making it Big in Software by Sam Lightstone is a series of lectures and tips interlaced with interviews with a number of people who have either made it big or at least got famous: examples are Steve Wozniak, Grady Booch, Robert Kahn, Linus Torvalds, and Richard Stallman. The tips and advice include things like "Never surprise your boss" and "Dress for Success: Wear Running Shoes." That latter includes a page or so on the unofficial dress code of Silicon Valley. The section on Negotiating 101 includes "Seek First to Understand", "Estimate Your Outcome", and "Plan to Meet in the Middle." If any of those notions are new to you, you ought to read this book. Note that I haven't said that if they're all pretty well old hat the book won't do you any good. There are a lot of sections in the 400 plus pages of the book, and it covers a lot of ground. If you're working in a Silicon Valley (or Sagebrush Valley or any other software corporate environment) it can never hurt to know something of the rules of the game, and even if you know them all, most of us often need reminding.

In other words, this is one of those self-help books from Prentice Hall that covers a lot of ground. It looks into the Agile software management technique and other stuff of that ilk. Reading it will probably tell you a lot you didn't know, and remind you of much that you've forgotten. I don't think you'll much enjoy the experience, but it may do you a bit of good.

On that score, Agile Coaching by Rachael Davies and Liz Sedley won't introduce you to the technique, but it may make it a bit clearer what Agile teams and coaches do. I am clearly not the right person to review this or any other Agile book, because despite having put some effort into trying to understand it, I don't find it a "technique" or "technology" in any formal sense. I am reminded of a time long ago when my North American team was sent to another aerospace company to assist in solving a critical problem. When we got to the other company we pushed the desks together and sat down to discuss the situation - and were informed that at this particular company, engineers were expected to sit at their desks with pencil at a 45 degree angle and engineer. Conferences were to be held in conference rooms. The Agile "method" was apparently developed in contrast to the "Waterfall" technique, and seems to be similar to what I called "the North American" way of doing aerospace engineering. Agile Coaching may make that a bit clearer. On the other hand, I'm not sure what the book will tell you that you wouldn't already know long before you were asked to be a coach. That may be due to my unfamiliarity with modern software development techniques given current education. This book has not a line of code: it's intended for people who code but don't know a lot about social interactions.

Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun has a number of blurbs like "Your next talk will be ten times better if you read this book first," and "Read this book... it will make speaking in public a fun experience." As they used to say on the old Fibber McGee show, "Well, now, I wouldn't say that..." On the other hand, it ain't a bad book, particularly for those just beginning to do public speaking. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the radio business - my father was Sales Manager of WHBQ in Memphis and did frequent broadcasting, and except for the period when we lived in Capleville I could and did hang around the station, often getting on the air. Thus I have never had stage fright. Moreover, at St. Anne's in second grade Sister Elizabeth used to make each of us in turn go up to the front of the class and recite, or just talk, while the class loudly counted the "Umm" and "Aww" and "You know" filler remarks. Now teachers can't do that, I gather, since it's stressful, but I'm glad of the training. In any event I've never had problems with public speaking, and I used to get far more speaking engagements than I could possibly accept. I say this not to brag but to indicate that the subject isn't unknown to me - which is why I don't really agree with those blurbs. On the other hand, if you're just getting into the speaking racket, or if you've been invited to give your first big speech, this would be a good book to read. The stories are interesting and the tips are good. And of course even if you know all this stuff it doesn't hurt to be reminded. Recommended for those who haven't much speaking experience and either want to try or who have been drafted...

The computer book of the month is David Pogue's Windows 7 The Missing Manual. Windows 7 has a far better help and suggestion system than previous versions of Windows, but it's still Microsoft Help. Microsoft apparently learned Help file construction from IBM, which maintained a school to teach people how to explain something in a way that allowed you to prove that you had explained it, but it would only be comprehensible to people who already knew how to do it. When that happens, you really need a good guide to the programs you're running, and the Missing Manual series is pretty good. Of course so is Windows 7 The Definitive Guide by William Stanek which we've mentioned before. Both of these are handbooks, both are intended for people with a very wide range - beginner to power user - and both are well written. They are somewhat different in approach, but I would not really say one was better than the other. You need one of these two books.

Linux continues to get better and better: easier to use, with more and more applications. If you're interested in trying it, The Official Ubuntu Book Fourth Edition by Benjamin Mako Hill, Mathew Helmke, and Corey Burger is one of the best ways to go. It begins with a mercifully short history of the free software movement and GNU, and how multi-millionaire and dilettante astronaut Mark Shuttleworth created the Warthogs and the Ubuntu project; after which it quickly moves to how you can get Ubuntu running on your system. Chapter 3 has the title "Using Ubuntu on the Desktop" with the first section being "Taking your Desktop for a Ride." It goes on from there, getting technical when it has to, but mostly being a user guide rather than a book for developers. Of course most people who use Linux are techies, rather than users, but they don't have to be; once a Linux system is set up it's remarkably stable and most users including Aunt Minnie generally won't need help from a guru to keep it running and do everything it was set up to do. Linux problems mostly come when you get new hardware, but it generally doesn't take very long for the Linux community to develop and publish new drivers. All told, it has become a lot easier to live in the Linux world, and at the same time it has got a lot simpler to transfer work from Linux to the Apple and Windows worlds.

If you're at all adventurous and want to find out more about the Linux world, get this book and take it for a drive. It's easy enough to do, and you'll soon find out about the Free Software community. Recommended.

When the "Head First" series of books came out, I wasn't much of a fan, but over time I've been converted. The "Head First" concept isn't for everyone. It's very informal, breezy even, and my concern with that approach is that it isn't systematic and that makes it easy to leave out important details. I'm still concerned, but I haven't any important examples after going through several Head First books, so I have to conclude that O'Reilly has done a pretty good job of setting up an editorial staff.

Head First Excel by Michael Milton is, unsurprisingly, an introduction to using spread sheets in general and Excel in particular. It begins simply enough with using Excel for lists, as a graphing tool, and sort of a data base, looks into formatting, and goes on from there. It starts with the assumption that you barely know what a spread sheet is, and ends with some fairly sophisticated problems. Like all Head First books it works with varying success at keeping your interest by varying the problems it addresses.

Now fair warning: this is definitely a Head First book, and the Head First approach may not be your cup of tea. I certainly didn't care for it at first. It grows on you. In my case, I found Head First Excel useful in that I discovered a couple of uses I hadn't thought of despite having dug through more formal Excel introductions without noticing the capability. There's even a chapter on mining Excel to find specialized features that few ever use, but if you need them you'll love them. All told, recommended.

I don't really have a game of the month because I've been snowed under with work, but I did learn something about World of Warcraft. I had no problems downloading the WOW updates on my Apple machines, but when I tried to open WOW on a Windows 7 system, it would start to update, there would be no apparent problems, then up would pop a message. Downloading Failed! And WOW would shut down. No advice on what to do, but Google came through: I found a message from someone with the same problem, and the solution: go find the WOW downloader program in the files, right click, and run as administrator. Everything went splendidly from there. Not that it's likely to do me a lot of good; I'm far too deep in work to spend any time in WOW, or anything else...