Pournelle’s Law

Chaos Manor View Saturday, April 18, 2015


In the early days of my old BYTE column, when the important systems were Apple ][ and CPM on an S-100 Bus system, and everything was experimental and flakey, my column was called The User’s Column. In those days, if you wanted to get computers to do anything useful you spent part of your time poking around, trying this and that until it worked. I developed some rules, one of which became known as Pournelle’s Law. It said 90% of the time the problem was a cable. Actually the first formulation was “you’ll find by and large that it’s a cable.” I just had another confirming instance.

I’ve been feeling a bit down all week, probably the a milder form of the same cold that caused Larry Niven to miss his weekly story conference with me and Steve Barnes – which reminds me that I have to go over Steve’s new text, but that’s not today’s story. So I’m down, and not very productive, and the back room TV, a 50” LGT that’s just fine for us, started blinking and stuttering. We called Time Warner.

First thing: if you are going to call the cable company, try to do it at a time other than Prime Time. That’s when everyone calls. Second, if there’s any way you can do it, do it with a phone that works in the same room as you keep the television. Alas, in Chaos Manor that doesn’t work so well. The back room where we watch TV doesn’t get telephone reception on the new cordless system, and the old wired system connects, not to a landline, but to an ancient TIE system that has pretty well stopped working. It’s a real pain to get physical wiring back there, and we just haven’t got around to it. My cell phone gets a boost from an AT&T MicroCell, so I have communications on that, but Time Warner knows of us on the old land line number, which was on the TIE system and when that died away was replaced by a net of Panasonic cordless phones which work splendidly – except of course in the back room.

I was planning to do something about all this, but came The Stroke, and I haven’t got a round tuit, and neither have my son Alex or my associate Eric Pobirs. And of course this happened when they were at NBA which I wanted to go to and will, I hope, make next year, when with luck I’ll only need a cane, not a walker and wheel chair. At least that’s how I project the progress I have mad with physical therapy.

Eventually we got through to Time Warner. They tried remote reset of our set top box, and for a few moments I thought it helped, but then things got worse. Another call, and they tried again, and so did I – the Big Red Button reset. Turn off the power switch on the surge protector/extension box that powers both the TV and the set top box.

That did no good. Worse, although we didn’t know it at the time since neither of us was using computer, one of the Time Warner attempts at remote resetting scrambled the cable modem. Next morning Roberta’s computer wasn’t connected to the Internet, and on looking at my system I had no email since the night before. Call Time Warner again, this time at mid day. They were surprisingly easy to get, but I had used my cell phone, and it took a while for them to figure out who I was. They informed me that a technician was coming Saturday morning, did I want to change that? No! Please no! This was not TV related at all. I gave the phone to Roberta because long phone calls are tiring, and they decided that they need to reset the cable modem. And that, of course, is a big deal because the cable modem is upstairs where they don’t let me go without more physical assistance than Roberta can provide.

So Roberta had to go upstairs with my cell phone, find the cable modem in the little room were I keep servers and tools and spare parts and monsters, know what it was she was looking at, find the right power switch – anyway, the Time Warner lady talked her through it, and as I watched my system the lights began blinking, and all the stacked up mail poured in and all was well. Didn’t help the TV of course.

So Saturday morning the technician, a nice young man named Vincent, came within the hour they’d said he’d be there. By that time I was convinced that it was the set top box. The small TV in the front bedroom works fine, the Internet works fine, it’s clearly the set top box…

Vincent did what I would have done, except the TV is too close to the unused fireplace to get behind it with the wheelchair, and I am too unsteady to work standing in the walker without holding on: he fiddled with the cables connecting the set top box to the LG TV. And of course that did it. A lot of the splutter went away. Next move was to unplug all the cables, clean the contacts, plug them in: Voila!

You’ll find by and large, the trouble is a cable.


new laser weapon

What are the chances of Lockheed Martin’s new 30kw laser (or similar) being used to recharge batteries or capacitors on airborne drones?

jon spencer

Interesting to speculate on. I don’t know. And then there’s this:

Tactical Laser Weapon Module Can Laserify Almost Anything

The thing in this picture isn’t a photon torpedo. But, it’s close. It’s a photon cannon, currently under development by General Atomics. Small, versatile, and completely self-contained, it turns anything onto which you stick it into a powerful laser weapon. And at just two cubic meters in volume, you should have no trouble mounting it on the roof rack of your Volvo.

General Atomics’ Tactical Laser Weapon Module is one of those pieces of futuristic technology that can show up out of nowhere at a military expo (in this case, the Navy’s Sea-Air-Space Exposition) and just sit there, attracting plenty of attention while also being almost entirely classified.

What we were able to find out about this thing is that it’s a laser weapon with output energies (that’s output, not total power in the system) ranging from 75 kilowatts all the way up to 300 kilowatts. To put that in perspective, about a year ago we wrote about how Lockheed was using a portable fiber laser to shoot down rockets at a range of 1.5 kilometers using just 10 kilowatts of power. Suffice it to say, 300 kilowatts is rather a lot. The weight of the system is dependent on its output power and the number of shots you want, but General Atomics engineers say that they’ve gotten it down to just 4 kilograms per kilowatt.

The module in the picture above represents almost the entirety of an operational laser weapons system. You’ll have to wire it up to your own controller, but otherwise, all it needs to finish it off is a beam director—basically, a glorified steerable telescope that can intercept the laser beam as it comes out of that hole on the front of the module and then point it at what you want it to torch. You don’t even need to connect the module to an outside power source; it’s packed with enough lithium-ion batteries to give you some number of shots (although, as with almost every question we asked, General Atomics won’t give us specific numbers, because it’s, well, classified).

General Atomics did go so far as to suggest that this laser would be great as an add-on to the AC-130 gunship or V-22 Osprey. Since it’s so small, though, it would also fit onto UAVs like the Predator C. It could even be carried by ground vehicles like the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, which means that I bet my Volvo could handle it as well. Take that, traffic jams.


Too true

Mutually Assured Destruction in 21st century – the Ramirez take:


Herman Kahn pointed that out a long time ago. The rationality of being irrational.


Long lost nuclear warhead found…

Wonder what that might have been “worth” on the black market? Not counting the lives of the finders/sellers, which would have probably been forfeit after the bomb was located by the buyer.

Charles Brumbelow

In the old days, the Company would buy fissionables no questions asked, no ID wanted; but again a long time ago. And of course fissionables deteriorate.


Red’s latest ‘Weapon’ is an 8K full-frame camera

Red launched the first mainstream 4K camera when 1080p seemed like overkill, and now that this whole 4K thing might work out, it’s got an 8K RAW model. The Weapon ‘Vista Vision’ features a mind-boggling 8,192 x 4,320, 35-megapixel sensor that can do up to 75 fps, widescreen 8K. The chip is also 40.96 x 21.6mm or Vista Vision-sized, considerably larger than the full-frame sensor on a camera like the Nikon D810. Video can be recorded in RAW and scaled-down ProRes formats simultaneously, just as with the company’s 6K Weapon models.

So, how much does it cost to be on par with Peter Jackson and James Cameron? A helluva lot. If we’re reading the (rather confusing) pricing correctly, you’ll need to order the company’s 6K Weapon Woven CF “brain,” or bare camera for a cool $49,500, then add another $10,000 for the 8K sensor upgrade. That makes $59,500 by our counting, plus whatever your accessories, storage and lenses cost. The upgrade price is only good until the end of NAB on April 16th, after which time it’ll be $20,000. If you already own a Red Scarlet or Epic camera, you can get credits in various amounts towards the Weapon models.

Other specs are still unknown, as is the exact shipping date. Red actually launched its 6K Weapon camera just a few months ago, and it’s still not shipping. We’re not sure who exactly needs 8K, since there aren’t a lot of TVs out there in that format — but it might look great blown up to IMAX size. Red said the sensor would arrive by the end of the year.


clarifying Iran’s intentions

Iran’s intentions could be clarified if the Supreme Leader and/or other prominent government officials had to take lie detector tests which would ask if the government had any intention to create nuclear weapons. Lie detection methods will inevitably improve as technology advances, and the results of the lie detection tests could help determine subsequent policy toward Iran.

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride – which is to say a false premise implies the universe class. Of course we have voice stress analyzers – you don’t hear much about them anymore – but I doubt they have been normalized for Farsi, and diplomats and agents can be trained. You won’t get the Mullahs to agree to a polygraph.


Length of copyright,


I note that Boss Flynn’s autobiography [You’re The Boss] was published in 1947. He died August 18, 1953. Under the old copyright limit, the book would long have been in the public domain. Under Victor Hugo’s copyright scheme, it would have been PD from August 18, 2003. Now we have to wait until August 18, 2023 for it to go PD. I hope I’m alive to see it. Maybe I’ll get to read it then.

Which brings another question: is the length of copyright a form of censorship of old books, not yet in PD?


An interesting question. Of course it’s unlikely that anyone would enforce copyright on that book, but also unlikely there’s enough in publishing it to cover the work involved. Pity. It’s worth reading.

Copyright is egregiously too long. When I get to be Emperor I’ll make it life plus fifty at most.


1600 Slowdown and Net Neutrality

Your 1600 slowdown has nothing to do with net neutrality and everything to do with how internet service is provided over cable systems. Years ago, my network manager used to complain about an evening slowdown, as did my operations manager, both of whom got their internet service over the Comcast cable network.
The issue is fairly simple. Internet service over cable is a shared bandwidth service. Depending upon network topology, the cable company may only have a few hundred megabits per second of bandwidth to spread around to dozens of users. As more users access the internet at the same time, the smaller the share of bandwidth each user can have. Because of this, the cable company will only promise you an average data rate, not an absolute data rate like you would get on a dedicated copper or fiber connection.
1600 sounds like a typical time of day for your neighbors to start coming home from school and work. The first thing that they will do is jump onto the web and download lots of media. You, who work from home all day, have the benefit of a largely idle cable network until the evening hours, giving you most of the bandwidth available on your edge of the system for most of the day. You get to see that bandwidth eroded away by you neighbors every evening.
Cable companies are touting a new breakthrough in technology that should expand the available bandwidth of their existing copper coax network and allow them to offer 1GBS service to their customers, which should help, but this will still just be average bandwidth, not absolute bandwidth.




Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




X marks the spot.

Chaos Manor View Thursday, April 16, 2015


I have a great many projects so this will be short.


Dr. Pournelle,
While my preference is for caffeine, here is more on electrical brain stimulation:
While I’ve just completed a successful round of physical therapy that included Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation to my shoulder, I will probably avoid applying any current above my shoulders. Sticking with espresso, for now.
Also, I wouldn’t take your fat man/little boy confusion too seriously, I once attended a speech by a Manhattan project physicist at Sandia who verbally made the same mix-up, twice within 20 minutes. You are in good company.



‘Bout time

(also, Some of the comments are asinine).

David Couvillon
Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired.; 
Former Governor of Wasit Province, Iraq; 
Righter of Wrongs; Wrong most of the time; 
Distinguished Expert, TV remote control; 
Chef de Hot Dog Excellance;  Avoider of Yard Work

Time indeed.


SDI and X Projects

This was sent some time ago and lost in the swim:

Subj: The Pentagon’s $10-billion bet gone bad – Los Angeles Times

You may blame the costs on me. With General Graham. We persuaded Reagan’s people to start working on Strategic Defense. As it developed we had different plans on the course of the research, and DC/X was one result. But after its success they left x-projects and went to the so-called X-33 which was not an X project at all; it was – well I won’t say it. But X projects fly at the limit of known technology, resulting in expanding the envelope of what we know how to do. X-33 had experimental projects and Lockheed spent $Billions and never few anything. I don’t see why their design could ever have worked.

Airborne Laser actually flew and we learned things; there can be operational uses, but airborne boost phase intercept was never any concept accepted by me, nor, so far as I know, by General Graham. Space based is another story. The airborne laser research would have relevant to that.

Much of the urgency was lost as the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War; and Bush had fired all the Reagan people in the White House; we had no real influence except through Quayle. It was enough to get DC/X, and that should have led to SSX, but we were not sufficiently skilled at lobbying; DC/X was followed by the non X project called X-33.

For what was spent we could have had several X-projects, but there is not much profit in real X-projects. There is prestige and we learn new technologies, but not many spend millions on lobbying for them.


“[6] This combination of increasing power and shrinking size has improved the performance of nearly every sphere of human endeavor: Unable to execute Javascript.”
Undoubtedly just a problem with the copy/paste, but it exhibits perfectly what is the real question for me. All of this computing “power” – will it be any better, though, than the “weak” human brains that program it?
My own experience is that I am vastly more productive with modern hardware – I achieve far more compiler errors and wrong results in a single day than when I started in this profession…


An interesting observation.


Q&A: Carver Mead

Photo: Caltech

Caltech professor Carver Mead performed some of the earliest work aimed at determining just how small transistors could ultimately get. A colleague of Gordon Moore, he’s widely credited with popularizing the phrase “Moore’s Law.” The two met around 1960. In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law, he spoke with IEEE Spectrum Associate Editor Rachel Courtland about the anniversary, his work with Moore, and what the future holds.

Rachel Courtland: Do you remember the first time you met Gordon Moore?

Carver Mead: Yes I do, and it’s a great story. I was a brand new assistant professor at Caltech, just in my first year, and I was in my office working away on the results of some experiment I had done. This guy waltzed into my office and said, “Hi, I’m Gordon Moore from Fairchild.” [Laughs] Well, I had never heard of Gordon Moore, but I knew about Fairchild.

We shook hands, and he said he was on campus to recruit some engineers, and would I like some transistors to teach my lab course? And I said, “Oh, that would be absolutely great.” So he reached into the top of his briefcase, [and] the first thing he did was pull out a sock or a dirty shirt or something…. I was looking at him a little surprised. He turned around with this little grin on his face and said, “I travel light.”

Then he reached in [his briefcase] and pulled out one of those big manila envelopes that you put 8½-by-11 sheets in, and it was bulging. And he said, “Here. These are 2N697s.” Well, a 2N697. I knew what it was. It was not a particularly great thing, but it was nice. Then he reached in and pulled out another manila envelope that was bulging just as much, and he said, “And these are 2N706s.” And the 2N706 was a neat little transistor. It was used for logic and so forth, and [it was] really great.

I had never seen so many transistors. I was completely blown away. In those days, none of us had much budget for things like that for teaching. We were working with really cheap transistors that were about a dollar apiece in the stockroom. For a student to shell out that for [a device] that might burn out on the first experiment was not easy. Having some transistors that the students could work with without having to break their budget was a great thing.

We chatted for a while, and I told him what I was doing, and he said, “Why don’t you come up to Fairchild and give a seminar on that?” At the end of the [seminar], Gordon asked me if I’d like to consult with them. So I started my weekly consulting trip.

I would see Gordon every week. He’s an early riser and so am I, so I would get up early and go in around 7. Gordon would be there, so we would have our chat before anyone else showed up.

R.C.: I’d imagine that Moore’s 1965 paper, the one that kicked off the idea that became Moore’s Law, didn’t come out of a vacuum.

C.M.: Oh no, not at all. He gave me copies of his plot [showing the number of components increasing with time] long before it appeared in print. I was puzzling over them, and I was working on the physics of what was inside the transistor. I was also working on a thing called electron tunneling. It’s a quantum mechanical effect that allows electrons to go through thin insulating regions even though they’re not supposed to be able to do that.

I had been working on that, and one day Gordon, who had been thinking about how many transistors can go on a chip, said to me, “Oh, this electron tunneling you’re working on…doesn’t that limit how small a transistor you can make?” And I said, “It certainly will.” And he said, “Well, how small is that?”

We [Mead and then graduate student Bruce Hoeneisen] concluded that you could make—without doing anything but making the transistors smaller and lowering the voltages—transistors as small as 150 nanometers, which was about two orders of magnitude [smaller] than anybody had ever thought. [Work on the possibility of scaling transistors to much smaller sizes was first presented in 1968, Mead says, and a paper pinning down the numbers followed in 1972.] That was the beginning of people taking seriously the fact that the limit of how far you could go was a very long ways away.

R.C.: Moore’s Law isn’t really a law, at least not in the way we describe physical laws. How do you describe it to people?

C.M.: I always had to—especially in the early days—explain that this is not a law of physics. This is a law [of] the way that humans are. In order for anything to evolve like our semiconductor technology has evolved, it takes an enormous amount of creative effort by a large number of smart people. They have to believe that effort is going to result in a successful thing or they won’t put the effort in. That belief that it’s possible to do this thing is what causes the thing to happen.

The Moore’s Law thing is really about people’s belief in the future and their willingness to put energy into causing that thing to come about. It’s a marvelous statement about humanity.

R.C.: It seems like Moore’s Law is a mix of things. It wasn’t just about belief—physics also had to comply.

C.M.: That was, of course, [why it] was important to figure out in the physics where it was going to give out and why it was going to give out. What was really surprising, I think to all of us, was that we had so much running room with just silicon—that it didn’t take any materials or techniques that we weren’t using already. All we had to do was get better at making them smaller.

R.C.: Was there something special about silicon?

C.M.: Silicon has a particularly stable crystal structure. Actually more important for the early days, silicon has as its native oxide one of the most ideal insulators known. Silicon isn’t a particularly good semiconductor. There are better ones, like gallium arsenide. But it has this property of having its native oxide being a very, very stable insulator, which likewise doesn’t come apart when you put electric fields on it. That combination was really what made silicon the magic material. By now, we’re making electron devices out of all kinds of semiconducting materials. But in terms of the really complex ones that have to be really small and hang together, silicon’s still a really important, central part of our war chest.

R.C.: What happens when Moore’s Law comes to an end?

C.M.: The thing we don’t want to do is to have the 50th anniversary [of Moore’s Law] surrounded with some sort of pessimism that it’s coming to an end. The fact that the blind scaling of transistors to smaller sizes is not going to last forever doesn’t mean that the phenomenon of building more complex and more functional electronic systems is coming to an end.

There are a huge number of very smart people who are pushing the limits all the time. There’s a movement [for example] to integrate optical and electronic components on the same chip. It’s called silicon photonics. And it’s just taking off.

My experience has been whenever you think you’re out of gas on a learning curve, there’s a breakthrough, but the breakthrough never comes from where you’re thinking. It’s never clear until it’s already happened what’s going to be the next really exciting thing. But there always is one.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.


I agree with the cyclicity, but scoff at the ‘dark matter’ bit.



Roland Dobbins


Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.